Ethical Representation of … Burning Man?

I am thinking about representation these days. Last year I took a very powerful course on the Ethics of Representation in Anthropology. It used a historical approach to outline how the white, male anthropologist was slowly revealed and integrated into their research arriving at a more modern anthropology where researchers must question and admit to their bias and background and we favor situations in which the line between the ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’ becomes blurred and everyone learns and everyone has a voice. (Favor, although rarely achieve). Because I am not currently working in the field of anthropology I find myself idly trying to apply these reflections to the areas of the world that I do interact with on a daily basis: media.

The ‘ethics’ of representation vary greatly from scientific research to the media. Whether or not they should, they do. Within media you have several different fields: television, film, news, and the huge world of the internet. Each of these has a different standard for representation and plenty of people are upset with where these fall short in representing various ‘minority’ groups. (I use quotes here because I think, personally, that what we see on television and in film IS the minority, only accepted as what is the majority.)

Hollywood films and shows often fail to represent either reality or what reality could be. Women don’t have strong rolls (the default to a male in every minor business related roll as an example), people who are not white and thin become token characters used as a type of symbolism etc. I think that people have a right to complain about this. I think people should gripe and demand to see more variety in films and television. I also think people should get very upset when news concentrates on young, white superstars and only represents minority races for the stereotypical problems they have. Yes. Complain. Boycott. Do it.

But lately I have seen this complaining of unfair representation starting to creep into areas as simple as videos posted on youtube or minor art projects. (Notice the key word of MINOR here… these are not art projects that are influencing the entire world. They are not art projects that the average person cannot afford to rebut with their own piece of art. They are not billion dollar industries. They are minor.) As an example, among the women I know who go to Burning Man about half of them consistently complain about the representation (or lack thereof) of older burners, burners of minority races, and heavier burners.

I did a quick video search for, “Burning Man,” and these are two of the top 5 results:

Burning Man Filmed and edited by Vincent Rommelaere

We Are Only Human A Film by Aaron Freeder

I am guessing that the people who are upset by the under-representation of the “real” burning man would also criticize these films, saying that they only focus on sexy, thin, white, youngsters. While I agree that there are plenty of thin, white, young females in these videos I don’t see it as a problem. I don’t see it as an unauthentic representation of Burning Man selling out to mainstream ideals of beauty. In both videos I also saw older, non-white, and heavier burners. More males are shown with the ‘not-ideal’ body shape than females. In fact, I see the film of rather representative of an average night on the esplanade. Yes, there are older, heavier, non-white burners at Burning Man, but the ones who tend to show off tend to get attention, and these are not the older or heavier burners. (Why I think the films show more heavier and older men is because they tend to be more confident with their bodies than older and heavier women who might not dress up or go dancing, or slide down a slide. I am not saying EVERY older burner woman stays in camp, but I AM saying they don’t tend to bask in attention like younger burners, so to film them you have to actually seek them out.) So basically, yes, these films are a (one) representation of reality at Burning Man. However, everyone experiences Burning Man differently and many people will cry- “THAT’s not Burning Man! That is not what I see and do! That does not include ME or anyone like ME!”

To which I say… “So what?”

The thing about Burning Man and Burning Man films is that pretty much everyone who goes there is on equal footing. Everyone who shoots a film and releases it on youtube or a similar internet site has an equal chance of exposure. If you want to see yourself, or your subculture, represented in a film then make a film. If you don’t have the skills then network and enlist the help of someone who has experience… because SOMEONE will be interested. It is not a multi-billion dollar industry that you have to follow the rules of standardized, unachievable beauty in order to be heard. The platform is free. You don’t have to quit your day job. You just have to be passionate and work to make your own representation of your experience. I bet a lot of people would appreciate it. But, unlike platforms where entry is barred by money or industry standards I do not agree that any Burning Man artist or film maker owes it to a minority group to seek them out and give them equal representation in their piece. The minority groups are perfectly capable of self-representation, and if they choose not to, then the fact that they have no beautiful videos of people like them, doing the things they find interesting at Burning Man is their own fault. The people making these videos are not scientists backed by “expertise.” They are not getting played on stations only available to a select few. They are on equal footing as any other Burner.

The other thing that gets me is the way that articles about this “issue” tend to refer to any female who is scantily clad and happy with her body at Burning Man as something along the lines of, “A Pretty Young Thing,” and then goes on to say that these films are not accurate portrayals of the real Burning Man. They are. These people are not things. They are people, going on an emotional and physical journey just like any other Burner. Their experience of Burning Man is no less “real” than any other person’s. Perhaps you make the assumption that all this person did was dance… they didn’t help build or cook or clean… well, maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t. But they get captured in a moment of ecstasy and then people deny the reality of that moment? It is real. It happened. It happens OFTEN at Burning Man. Moments of release, of showing off, of being comfortable with yourself, of making yourself beautiful… it happens, nd it is perfectly legitimate to represent it.

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