Why Writing American Culture Is Writing American (Sub-)Culture

Previous Post

The most common question audiences ask at screenings of web series, the Miami-based comedy “Miami XL“, centers around where the inspiration for the series comes from. It’s a standard question, but I think my answer often comes as a surprise because, despite it’s semi-autobiographical format (yeah, I’m in it), the primary inspiration is not our personal lives. Rather, the idea sparked from what I lovingly like to refer to as “The Miami Lexicon“.

THE CULTURE OF WORDS

For myself and co-creator/co-star, Lourdes Duarte, Miami was always the main character in “Miami XL”, and we were just the ridiculous vehicles that gave it life. As the series title implies, not only is Miami the subject but also quite eXtra, and quite Large. Particualrly “extra” are the lively cultural terms we use in Miami to express ourselves. And, no, that is not limited to “Spanglish”. Sure, you’ll find our staple Spanglish moments paused and defined throughout the series (i.e. “Santeria“, “pa la pinga“, “una cualquiera“), but you also learn what Ultra Kids are, and about a local chain of stores that’s literally called “Fucking A That’s Cheap!

One of my favorite examples of a non-Spanglish (and very American!) term comes from an episode called “Waterfalls”, in which we use the Miamism “mickey mouse” (adj). At approximately the 2:00 marker (below), X and L find themselves driving around Miami and lamenting their choice in consistently dating men from the same cultural backgrounds (Ximena likes the papis; Lourdes likes the gringos). And so Lourdes, in her characteristically over-dramatic tone, proceeds to bemoan that “Brian’s mickey mouse idea of a date night is penny beers at The Grove!”

 

In Miami, when we refer to a thing as being “mickey mouse” we mean that it is a “poor man’s” or “watered down” version of something really great. I’m not sure that anyone could trace it’s origin, but if I had to guess, the term was likely born from Miami’s proximity to Disneyland. More specifically, the tradition of driving up to Orlando as a family, either as kids or “for the kids”. In other words, something “mickey mouse” is akin to something childish or fun-sized, though not necessarily child-like. There are countless ways in which culture reveals itself, and words are just one. Each tells a little story about the place and the people that embody it. On film, whenever culture is lacking, reality is lacking. And the burden of representation falls on creators, not audiences.

HOW TO WRITE AN AMERICAN STORY

Look, I’m not feeding the hungry or solving the worlds problems here but, yes, that web series I made where condoms are literally flying through the air, was trying to add something to a conversation on “American culture”: (i.e) the existence of one of many regional American (sub-) cultures rooted in historical, immigrant, or geographic traditions. Did we absolutely nail it? On our budget, probably not every time, but we worked towards it from the inside, and that’s crucial when writing culture. Because trust me, Miami is not what you see on TV.

Do you know what I want to see? A series made in Hawaii, written by Hawaiians, with Hawaiians in it. Why? Because despite Hollywood’s love for filming there (and casting white people to play Hawaiians), how often are we watching something that is homegrown in Hawaii? Unfortunately, I’ve never visited the stretch of islands, but I get a feeling that most of what I’ve seen of it on film and television doesn’t even begin to authentically acknowledge the culture and politics there. An American culture, yes, but one rich in cultural specificity beyond what the media normalizes as “American”. Something that deserves to be seen as lived, and not “othered” by uninformed outsiders.

Miami XL - 1.03 "You, Me and Molly"
“If you go to Cuba and post pictures on Facebook, my mother will unfriend you.” (Miami XL – 1.03: “You, Me and Molly”)

 

YOU BETTER RECOGNIZE

But the times they are a chanin’, right? Like many of you I am thrilled about the necessary — albeit slow — shift towards racial and gender inclusiveness on film and television that has taken shape over the last several years. However, it is my hope that as writers and producers of web, film, and television content, we begin to recognize American (sub-) cultures as yet another neglected category of misrepresentation in the media. A category that, like “woman” or “African-American”, is not a representational minority of the thing. It is the thing.

It was no coincidence that in the “Waterfalls” episode above, the protagonists are struggling with their predisposition towards men of specific cultural (though not specifically racial) backgrounds. Like X and L, we’re all flawed and “normal” in our prejudices. Addressing those prejudices both within us and towards us is just as important. When we, as filmmakers, acknowledge the (sub-) cultures we move in as authentically American, we can serve towards both normalizing their presence and addressing their issues in the media, as well as defining our own artistic voices. Today more than ever. In a country divided by more cultural differences than we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

Previous Post Share Post:

More Posts

Leave a Reply