The Pressure Of Being First

Imagine, for a moment, that you are about to design the world’s first city. Humans have never congregated in urban areas like this before, and it is up to you to provide them their first such experience. Their experience in your designed metropolis will be the only one humanity has ever had, and will form the entirety of their understanding of cities and city life. Can you imagine the pressure that would rest on your shoulders? Can you imagine how humanity’s reaction to your city would define their future? If they enjoy your city they may well move forward into a substantial chapter of their future, but if they don’t they may never live in cities again.

This is, of course, a particular example of a fact far more general: when you are the first to do something, that matters. If you are the only person doing something, that matters. The degree to which you execute that thing will likely determine its entire future. If you succeed, you could open up human experience to something new and wonderful. If you fail, you may well close off the possibility of such a thing ever happening again. The credit and praise and genuine impact will all be yours if you do it right, but so will the blame if you do it wrong. And either of those would be earned.

Recently, we’ve seen something similar to this play out in our own cultural discourse, as a comedian named Hari Kondabolu recently released a documentary entitled The Problem With Apu. He describes himself as a lifelong fan of The Simpsons, the show on which the Indian stereotype , and argues that this character existing as largely nothing more than a conjunction of Indian stereotypes is profoundly hurtful to other Indian-Americans, perhaps moreso because Apu is the only example many Americans have with Indian culture at all. Predictably enough, there’s been some backlash against this idea, with some arguing that an Indian-American character existing at all onscreen is meaningful and important. But of course, this backlash is ridiculous. Far beyond the fact that it’s entirely reasonable for someone to find a character problematic even if others take solace in the fact that at least such a character exists, when you’re putting the first character of a minority to screen you bear a special responsibility. A huge group of people will see themselves represented for the first time onscreen in your work, will for the first time see an example of themselves onscreen to incest in, identify with, and understand as the worlds perception of them. It is up to you to ensure that this representation is something that they can be proud of.

The first of anything matters and that is especially true when the first being discussed is a first that many people have, consciously or unconsciously, prevented form existing in the first place. Minority characters are a textbook example of this. When, the stakes are higher. If you succeed, praise and glory and ver possibly an award or two are yours. If you fail, that failure will have very real consequences fora great many people. And if you can’t shoulder the responsibility of creating that character, if you’re inclined to whine that at least you're making an effort when someone tells you your effort isn’t successful? You probably shouldn’t be eating such a character in the first place. As the old saying goes: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex