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.
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.
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.
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