A Personal Experience of Representation - The Intersection of Armenian Culture & Epilepsy

I am an Armenian who has a mild form of epilepsy. I rarely see Armenian culture and epilepsy properly portrayed in film or TV. I delve into the how and why.

Alex Arabian
Alex Arabian
February 4, 2022
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Armenian Culture, Epilepsy, & American Sociopolitical Constraints

I am an Armenian person who happens to have epilepsy. I rarely see Armenian or Armenian culture properly portrayed in film or television. And I’ve only seen seizures reduced to either a joke or a jump scare aside from two films. When people say representation matters, they usually don’t truly mean everyone, they often subconsciously mean the more common American racial minorities, the typical liberal and conservative talking points - the categories as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau that have been hammered into our collective psyche - Black or African American, Asian American, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (the Census deems those who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish as potentially of any race). They mean LGBTQIA+ characters, but settle with straight actors inhabiting predominantly problematic archetypes. They mean the more common and visible disabilities. It isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing, it is simply Hollywood trying to keep up with an increasingly progressive America, but an America that often simplifies complex things like race, ethnicity, gender, sex, and disability - an America that blurs the line between virtue signaling and fundamental, meaningful change.

A History Of Armenian Race Mislabeling

In reality, there is a plethora of races beyond the five aforementioned racial categories that the Census lists. The world is more vast, its peoples far more varied. And this is tied to Hollywood’s representation tunnel vision. For instance, before the term “Caucasian” was hijacked by Johann Christoph Meiners' and Friedrich Blumenbach – the creator of the "five race" theory, color terminology, and craniometry in the 18th century, all of which are deemed as scientific racism today– grouped approximately half of the white world into the Caucasian “race.” "Caucasian" was always an ancient race, to which 50 ethnicities belonged. Caucasians aren't white. Conversely, people who aren’t from the small Caucasus region in Western Asia aren’t Caucasian - that’s a false identity created by these two men whose ideas paved the way for phrenological discrimination and racism. These Göttingen School of “History” alumni also coined “Mongolian“ (Meiners) as the term for all Asians, referring to it as the “yellow race” (Blumenbach). Hitler used their terminology, and, troublingly, the U.S. still follows much of their terminology today in order to classify its racially diverse population.

On the U.S. Census, Armenians would technically be Asian - Caucasian. And, technically, we are. But many consider us white because the Naturalization Act of 1870, enacted by Congress, pressured immigrants to register as “white” in order to become citizens, and the 1906 revision required them to learn English. Essentially, the Naturalization Act of 1870 pitted minorities against the cultural hegemony by making them compete for the status of “white,” because as an immigrant, you needed to be white to gain status as an American citizen. This forced many Armenians to naturalize, to shed their culture, emboldened by the pain of escaping the genocide - they also wanted to forget that chapter and start anew in the New World. Two Armenian immigrants in the early 1900s sued for citizenship after it was denied them, and they were ultimately deemed “white” because of the archaic law - an extension of the pre-Jim Crow Naturalization Act of 1790 originally enacted in order to oppress Black people. Through another lawsuit, Iranians were deemed “white.” Through another lawsuit, Native Americans were deemed “white.” Other non-white cultures were also, at one point, legally “white” in the U.S. Armenians weren’t always allowed to buy property or get loans when we began immigrating. This type of discrimination went on for decades. Eighty percent of Armenians felt as though they’d been discriminated against while looking for a job. When immigrating to the U.S., Armenians have to arguably work twice as hard as our white counterparts in the workforce - yet our culture has become synonymous with the extravagant Kardashian image in the eyes of non-Armenians.

Kardashians

Source: E! Entertainment

Some Armenians are white-passing, but most of us look “other,” which may provide an explanation for why, growing up, so many strangers - children and adults alike - asked me, “Where are you from?” Or “What are you?” Or made fun of my big nose and excessive body hair. Or sang “Arabian Nights” to me. Or how many times I’ve been stopped at the airport for a “random security check” by TSA post-9/11, sometimes even missing my flight. Perhaps this is the root of the problem of representation in Hollywood. We're neither white nor minority in the U.S. We're in the purgatory of Western "other" categorization. Stubborn conservative labels that refuse to dissolve, attempted updates through faux-liberal lenses, and the generalization of the peoples who occupy its soil. And perhaps, above all, in a world in which reality stars reign supreme, most Americans simply conflate all Armenian culture with the Kardashians. And, don’t get me wrong, the Kardashians have done a lot to fight for Armenian rights, but we are so much more diverse than one family.

Armenian Representation - Or A Lack Thereof

I grew up without seeing an Armenian main character - protagonist or antagonist - on screen. The closest thing to Armenia I related to as a child on film or TV was Aladdin. Our voices are suppressed in visual mediums, but our language predates that of Christ by millennia - Mushki, an Armenian language before Armenian was established in 5th Century A.D., is as old as ancient Sumerian. We are the first branch of Christianity off of Roman Catholicism just after the death of Christ. The first map ever recorded in the history of the world contains Armenia on it. Yet, we’re almost nowhere to be seen on modern visual mediums like film and TV. We’re reduced to either background gangsters or misanthropes with mental illness as characters. For instance, the opening Kick Ass scene in which Matthew Vaughn tricks the audience into thinking “some Armenian guy with a history of mental health problems” is the main character, as the white protagonist introduces himself and disparages the Armenian character, or the Armenian criminal subplot in Weeds, which portrays us as one-dimensional, psychotic mobsters.

Political intervention is partially to blame for this cultural erasure, which was recently ruled as racial discrimination by the International Court of Justice as a result of the Azerbaijan’s current genocidal crusade against Armenia.

Aside from Eric Esrailian and Kirk Kerkorian’s privately-funded The Promise, which positively influenced public policy in such a monumental way that it led to the President of the U.S. formally recognizing the Armenian Genocide, our collective tragedy has been blocked for more than 100 years on film and TV because Turkish and Turkish-supported industry gatekeepers like continue to deny the Genocide (again, even the U.S. did until last year). And so have our stories - our culture - has been rejected in Hollywood. Stopped at the gates.

The Promise

Source: Eric Esrailian. Director Terry George (left), producer Esrailian, and actors Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale on the set of the 2016 Armenian film "The Promise."

Mehmet Ertegun, former Turkish ambassador to the U.S., blocked MGM from adapting Franz Werfel’s novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” into a film during the 1930s. It was also vetoed in 1968 and 2006, when Sylvester Stallone attempted to adapt it. Ertegun said, “If the movie is made, Turkey will launch a worldwide campaign against it. It rekindles the Armenian Question. The Armenian Question is settled.” The Armenian Question was the debate at the 1978 Congress of Berlin of what to do with the Armenians - ultimately, the Turks settled on genocide. And the blocking of our stories on screen is a continuation of this mentality in the form of cultural genocide. Erasure. Atom Egoyan explored this very topic in Ararat’s plot through the lens of making a film, and Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian did the same with 1915 through the guise of a stage play. I have experienced this firsthand as an Armenian screenwriter. I'll share one example of an unwarranted email I received from the white founder of a screenplay contest to whom I sent a script about generational trauma and the Armenian-American experience:

"I’m going to be very blunt because you need to hear this. I’ve read easily half a dozen scripts in the last decade that use the Armenian massacre as the basis for their stories. None of them have been made. Why? No one cares. I realize that’s hard to hear but it’s true. No. One. Cares. We’ve got the Chinese genocide of the Uyghurs, the slaughter of the Tigray in Ethiopia, the massacre of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Genocide is the way of the world. No one cares about the Uyghurs or the Rohingya or the Tigray and no one cares about the Armenians – except the families and descendants. And for a film to get financed and find an audience, it must be about something a lot of people care about.

"You are in luck, however, because lots of people have lost hope and then found it again in service to someone else. So that core story works – focus on that. If you want to reference the Armenian backstory, do so sparingly. Less is more. Climb down off your soapbox and use that material to flesh out character and create obstacles. Stop preaching or trying to persuade us that the Armenians are better than the Turks and got a bad deal etc. etc. – no one cares."

Fortunately, after the U.S.'s recognition of the Genocide last year, racist rants from aggressive gatekeepers like this will hopefully occur less frequently. If representations matters, then I would like to see more Armenian actors, characters, directors, and stories in the U.S. Because there is room for everyone on screen. The noble idea of representation isn't meant to alienate or pit peoples against each other like the Naturalization Act did. It's an all-encompassing term.

The Elusiveness Of Epilepsy On Screen

I have only seen epilepsy portrayed respectfully on screen twice. That was Control, about Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis, who suffered from epilepsy and subsequent depression from his medications and fears of dying, and Electricity, the adaptation of Ray Robinson’s eponymous novel about a young woman with epilepsy who embarks upon an odyssey across London to find her missing brother. That isn’t to say there aren’t more works of fiction in film or TV out there that show us, the audience, what it’s like to suffer from this disability. Simply that I haven’t seen them yet. But, like Armenian representation, I’d deeply like to. There is nothing funny about a seizure. And people who have them are not possessed by a demonic entity. Epilepsy is an invisible disability, until it isn’t - for those one to three minutes. Perhaps that’s why it is misunderstood, and therefore so often ignored on screen. There’s an expository explanation of brain trauma and seizures in Phantom, Natalie Portman plays a person with epilepsy in Garden State, but it is a character quirk and minor plot point, in Thelma, seizures are seen as a minor side effect of a supernatural gift, in M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, Patrica dies of epilepsy, but the pharmaceutical company monitoring various diseases and disabilities on the beach cures it using an experimental drug, there are several awful "Family Guy" jokes about seizures and epilepsy:

And then there are the multitude of demonic possession films. The list goes on. Sure, occasionally a character might have a seizure during a horror film or sci-fi thriller, but it’s often a plot device. According to the WHO, “Epilepsy is the most common serious brain disorder worldwide with no age, racial, social class, national nor geographic boundaries. There are 40-50 million sufferers in the world today, 85% of whom live in developing countries. An estimated two million new cases occur each year globally.” There are more than twice as many people with epilepsy in the U.S. as there are with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and cystic fibrosis combined. However, its prevalence isn’t the point. And numbers can be misleading, which is part of the problem. For instance, even though cerebral palsy isn’t as common as epilepsy, it is the most common motor disability in children. Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot, based on Christy Brown’s eponymous autobiography, is a landmark for treating disability with empathy in film and TV. Further, even lesser common disabilities must be portrayed on screen. Obscurity doesn’t negate viewership or curb potential audiences. Beyond epilepsy, the industry has a long way to go before the issue of positive disability portrayal and representation is solved. Unfortunately, this creates a trickle-down effect in Hollywood, and epilepsy's prominence doesn't prevent a lack of reasonable accommodation in the journalism industry. Many movies have a strobe effect during certain scenes, so I always bring my seizure alert dog with me to the theater. I can't attend red carpets because of the flashing camera lights. Recently, I asked a publicist if I could reschedule an interview because I was unable to attend a red carpet. They responded by saying:

"I always forget to give the disabled community love on the red carpet. I wish I could just round all of you people up in a pen so we could take care of you all at once."

We're all in the same boat, and each of our personal experiences are unique. More importantly, it isn’t a competition -  representation shouldn’t be a term meant to signify only certain races, ethnicities, genders, sexes, and disabilities. It should mean everyone. Every struggle, story, triumph, failure, culture, community, identity, and history deserves a place on the screen. And one would hope to see less picking and choosing and more acceptance in the future, both socially and in art, which often imitate each other. Here’s to more positive representation in regards to a wider range of diversity.