In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak considers the issues of navigating the representation of marginalized identities within mainstream media when the marginalized individuals lack a platform to voice their own opinions. Although these representations in film and media often come from a desire to help, or understand, they ultimately act to speak over the voices of the actual people that they discuss. To this end, Spivak appears to argue towards the same point, that the subaltern cannot truly speak.
Similarly, Mala Mala (Santini and Sickles, 2014; available on Netflix) investigates the Puerto Rican trans and drag communities, sex work, and the passing of Law 238-2014 (in Puerto Rico) that prevents discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. While this documentary strives to genuinely educate the audience on the lives and experiences of its subjects, it ultimately feels as if it comes from a personal desire to understand, and consume, the mysterious “other.”
In an article for Gayletter Magazine, Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles describe their inspiration for pursuing the film as stemming from a desire to “figure it out” in reference to drag. Sickles also mentions a realization that, “Oh, there’s no platform for voices like hers.” However, the film only feels like a partial platform. While it offers visibility, it does so at a price.
In a scene (0:17:00) in the film, Puerto Rican trans activist, Ivana Fred, discusses the difficulty of navigating representation within the mainstream media, as often the possibility of a legitimate political platform regresses into sensationalism. She explains that frequently, in order to obtain the ability to educate mainstream audiences on the trans experience, she must endure some amount of exploitation. She gives the mainstream media what they want, in order to obtain what she wants. Ironically, the film itself gives off a similarly exploitative vibe as the directors seek to investigate the community for their own means.
We see glamorized, glorified images of back alley sex work in the dead of night covered in art house film filters with trance beats in the background. The body takes center stage as the film presents every intimate detail of its subject’s like a human zoo for the purposes of the viewer’s education. We watch as the film unknowingly perpetuates Fred’s words. And so while the documentary provides a legitimate platform for a “community” of marginalized voices to speak on, I must question if the more exploitative aspects of the film delegitimize the overall message and with it, silence the voices. Can the subaltern truly speak in Mala Mala?