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The Identity Tropes

The Identity Tropes


Identity is the very essence of who we are. It encompasses so much; from our ideologies, to the place we were born or even the music we love to listen to. A crucial part of identity are our stories and experiences. These get told down to future generations. Humanity was able to preserve various cultures this way. This is a beautiful thing but we have to be aware of who is telling the story and sharing these identities.

Sadly, a lot of people’s identities have been made into tropes in the media. So many human identities are summarized in a few tropes. Whether they are harmful to race, gender, sexuality or even body type these tropes can sometimes showcase people’s experience of life as a joke or tragedy. It is important to have people from all walks of life share their experiences and stories to give a more authentic identity. Having different voices in the media gives a more vivid idea of someone’s identity.

The first time I heard about stories of Indigenous Peoples of Canada it was from a colonial perspective. The only story that was given in my grade six history class was that the Indigenous Peoples welcomed the Europeans. There were some wars but it worked out in the end. Canada is peaceful now and everyone lived happily ever after. It was not until years later I visited the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) where there was an Indigenous exhibit. I remember seeing paintings done by Indigenous artists and seeing bits and pieces of their identity and culture. It was important to see part of the Indigenous identity expressed by sources other than a colonial history book. The exhibit showed the pain of residential schools, the reliance on keeping a culture alive after its attempted erasure and the beauty of Canada’s first cultures. After seeing this, I realized how important it is to have people’s identities and stories told by themselves. 


The Identity Tropes


You can see this in literature and various forms of media all the time. Having stories told by the people who represent communities that have been silenced for so long. For a long time, it was viewed as a tragedy to be different from the norm, especially in Western literature. Having an identity that does not fit the social quota was viewed as something to have a cry about. When someone who is part of that community tells their story we see how that “tragedy” shaped them. Whether you were reading about a character that was a person of colour, disabled, poor or did not fit the “norm.” It is not until more modern times that characters are more nuanced and relatable to other people’s identities.

For example, if we compare the stories of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and the film I Passed for White we can see the portrayal of mixed-race people in the Jim Crow era. The novel tells the story of mixed-race twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes, who are white-passing. The twins separate, with one embracing her black identity and the other, Stella, embracing her white identity and trying to live as a white woman hiding pieces of herself. The film I Passed for White also has a character of mixed race named Beatrice Lee who tries to pass for white and hides part of herself but her character is fulfilling the narrative that her character is a tragedy and her life supposedly miserable. In The Vanishing Half, we see twin sisters grow up in a world where their whole identity is based on how they look. Since the novel is told from the twin’s perspective you can see their thinking and how their individuality grows over time. You can see how they view parenting, their own identity and even their relationship with their mother over time. The Vignes are painted with a very human brush showing how human identity encompasses more than just one aspect of our lives.  

In The Vanishing Half, we grow up with Stella and Desiree Vignes. We read their ideas, thoughts and ideologies, things that make them interesting and human. It was the Vignes’s story, not a retelling from a third party. If you compare the film I Passed as White, the character Beatrice Lee is more concerned about the colour of her baby than her baby’s health. The plot of I Passed for White is based on a woman of colour’s identity being shaped by a man that fits into society. She changes her whole self image for a man that clearly does not love all of her. He only loves her because she passes for white and she’s an attractive woman. Quite frankly her character is insulting to people of colour and women. Her character does not represent the mixed-race person identity. The “tragic mulatto” trope of a person stuck in between two worlds is not the case for most mixed-race people. Her character is what people stereotyped at that time period, not an authentic person. The human identity is all the experiences and memories we have whether they are good, bad, depressing, exciting, amusing or even downright silly. Having other voices and stories in the media adds more pieces to the human identity.


The Identity Tropes


The reason these two forms of media are so different is the time difference (as you would expect) but also the author. Even though modern stories are more nuanced we still have pieces of media that are very one sided when it comes to telling someone else’s identity. The film I Passed as White is directed by a white man. He would not be able to tell the story of a mixed-race woman. Whereas The Vanishing Half is written by a woman of colour. Her experiences would align more with her characters. There is nothing wrong with telling other people’s stories but it is important to share multiple stories and have multiple points of view. Having people’s identities told as multi-dimensional gives the reader or viewer a more realistic story of someone’s identity or experience.

If we even look at our own lives, imagine if our whole life was told by someone who was only in one class in high school with you. That person would not have the best story to tell. Your story and identity would be missing so much. Would you want someone to focus on only the negatives and shortcomings in your life? Or would you want someone to tell your story that included your dreams, hopes, developments, first loves and successes? Human identity is a collection of all our stories and experiences, not just a few tropes thrown in. Who else is better to tell your story than you?


*all photos from pexels


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