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Cultural Appropriation and Mindful Screenwriting

By August 3, 2020No Comments

So, your script takes place in a community, or a country, that’s not your own. You might be asking yourself, If I write this script, is that cultural appropriation? 

Cultural appropriation “is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture by members of another culture.” (thanks, Wikipedia) In and of itself, appropriation isn’t negative. In a country like the U.S., containing so many cultures, it’s inevitable that we’ve all, at some point, adopted elements of cultures other than our own in our food, our words, or our clothes.

Cultural appropriation becomes a problem, however, when a dominant culture adopts elements of a marginalized culture in an inorganic way that doesn’t stem from genuine cultural exchange or interest. 

Appropriating something in a harmful way generally means taking elements of a culture: 

  1. Without knowing – or trying to learn – the cultural context of the thing you’re using, so you don’t even know enough to know if the way you’re using it is offensive.
  2. Profiting from the element being appropriated at the expense of members of the community you’re taking it from. (More on this below)

When a dominant culture appropriates elements of a marginalized culture, it can be harmful. This can look like: 

  • Exoticizing or fetishizing the marginalized culture, reinforcing the idea that it’s only as good as how entertaining/attractive it is to the dominant culture.
  • Erasure. Sometimes appropriation goes unchecked for so long, people completely forget about the culture of origin. Like, have you ever used the phrase “spirit animal?” Here’s why you shouldn’t. Erasure disrespects a culture.
  • Financially or socially profiting at a culture’s expense.
    • SOCIAL: a White person getting cornrows and being thought of as stylish, while a Black person wearing them is thought to look “unprofessional.” The White person gains social currency while Black people get socially penalized for doing the same thing. 
    • FINANCIAL: buying “Native American” art from a chain store, allowing a non-Native corporation to make money off the purchase, rather than going to Native artists and purchasing from the source to ensure that you’re getting authentic art that will financially benefit their community. 

How does this apply to your script? As you write, ask yourself: 

  1. Why do I need this in my script? Is it important to my story? Do I want to create representation? Do I have a personal connection to this community? Or do I simply think X,Y,or Z “is cool?” If it’s the latter, consider that you may be contributing to exoticizing/fetishizing a culture. Is there a way to say/do the same thing using your own culture?
  2. Would I benefit from a writing partner from within this community to bring perspective that I lack? (Which would employ a member of that community)
  3. How am I doing my research? Am I going to members and organizations within this particular community? Am I going to a variety of sources, since no community is a monolith, so that my perspective is as nuanced as possible?
  4. What does this community get out of me doing this? Employment opportunities? Representation? Am I advocating for this community whenever I talk about my script to anyone with the power to produce it? 

As a writer, part of your task is capturing the world around you. When writing about the bits that are less familiar to you, come to your work with love, respect, and genuine curiosity. The more purposeful and respectful you are in your work, the less you have to worry about “getting it wrong.” And if you do, apologize and learn. 

Have a script from an underrepresented perspective? 

Our latest Diverse Voices Screenwriting Lab is now open for submissions!

Photo credit: Bonnie Johnson

Teresa Jusino is a native New Yorker and a proud bisexual, Puerto Rican, Jewish woman on her way to winning Intersectionality Bingo. Most recently, Jusino has done development work on several feature film projects at Jill Soloway’s Topple Productions after building a nearly decade-long career in pop culture journalism, including a three-year stint as an editor at the feminist pop culture site, The Mary Sue. In 2018, Jusino launched Pomonok Entertainment, a production banner that incorporates a mission of alleviating homelessness in L.A. into the larger mission of telling engaging, thought-provoking, inclusive stories.

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