I can still remember the first time I read the “looks like me” trope. It was from a guy on twitter, Anil Dash, who had a huge following for reasons that eluded me, and was attacking J.K. Rowling for not having written a character in the Harry Potter series who “looked like” Dash’s kid. I responded, “so write a book and make the characters whoever the hell you want.” How was it Rowling’s problem that her characters didn’t look like Dash’s kid?
But Kwame Anthony Appiah makes a more astute point. What does it mean to “look like me”?
The actor Eva Longoria, who appears in the film “Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” in which the principals are played by Latinx actors, has said she had to take the part because of what the film represented “for my community and for people who look like me.”
No, you don’t look anything like Eva Longoria. You may be “Latinx,” which is a word I would never use in front of my Latino clients lest they say mean things to me, but lots of people are Latino and they all look different. And very few, maybe no more than one, look like Eva Longoria.
The “look like me” formula appeals because it feels so simple and literal. We can think of a black or Asian toddler who gets to play with dolls that share her racial characteristics, in an era when Barbie, blessedly, is no longer exclusively white.
A toddler being able to play with a doll of the same skin color might not be a great analogy to movies or plays starring actors who aren’t the white vision of beauty and normalcy. While it’s certainly, simple, it’s only literal in a very figurative way.
For one thing, nobody means it literally. Asians don’t imagine that all Asians look alike; blacks don’t think all blacks look alike. Among Latinx celebrities, Eva Mendes doesn’t look like Cameron Diaz; Sammy Sosa doesn’t look like … Sammy Sosa.
And if “looks like me” doesn’t actually mean looks like me at all, does it even bear upon looks?
What the visual metaphor usually signifies, then, is a kinship of social identity. That was apparent in July when the soccer star Megan Rapinoe declared that “Trump’s message excludes people that look like me.” She didn’t mean extremely fit white women; she meant lesbians and gays.
What does a lesbian or gay person look like? Pretty much any other person, as far as looks go. But it gets worse.
The same goes for “Black Panther.” Let me go out on a limb and say that the fictional land of Wakanda isn’t a very representative picture of black life on any continent. What made the film so important, the writer Allegra Frank tells us, is that “an entire group of people that look like me” got to be heroes in a big-budget blockbuster. Yes, actors of color are often stars of such movies, but that usually feels like a casting choice, not an indelible feature of the character. It mattered that the characters in “Black Panther,” not to mention the film’s Afrofuturist vibe, were specifically and not contingently black.
There are many films about black life, but they almost always reflect poverty, ghettos, crime. The leads may have the same skin color, but if you’re a double Harvard Ph.D. doing earth shattering research, is that your world? Sure, they have a similar skin color, but do they look like you? Is their world anything like your world?
What these fantasies ask is, Who gets to tell you what you look like? It’s not a representation of identity so much as it is a renegotiation of it.
As the more banal understanding of “intersectional” informs us, none of us are just a skin color, a gender, an occupation, but an amalgam of all the details of our life wrapped up in an unseemly (and un-Eva Longoria-looking) package. So few actually want somebody who “looks like me,” but somebody who looks like the fantasy version of the underappreciated part of you to feed the dream, because the reality is that not even you want to go to the movies to see somebody who looks like you, unless you’re Chadwick Boseman or live in Wakanda.