Hale: Hello! I’m Hale.
Mady: and I’m Mady.
H: And we’re students at Vanderbilt University.
M: And we just watched the film version of RENT (2005).
H: And it was really weird!
M: I always go back and forth about whether I actually like RENT.
H: This was my first time, and it was certainly a trip. For those who don’t know, it tells the story of a bunch of couch-surfing, rent-not-paying, bohemian-rhapsody-ing, artist types in Alphabet City during the AIDS epidemic.
M: Rent is really trying to represent diverse perspectives. It has all these different characters going through very real experiences. I find it hard to talk about Rent starting out because I feel like it’s supposed to be taken in all at once.
H: Right, and when you compare it to other media about the AIDS crisis like Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, RENT seems watered down in comparison.
M: I see what you are saying. I mean, the only time the hardship of AIDS is brought up in RENT is with the character Angel’s death. It’s a hardship in life too, not just in death
H: Yeah, if they are trying to represent diverse perspectives within economic crises too, where did all their money come from to do the things they are doing?
M: Well, the character Joane is a lawyer but I’m not sure if she’s necessarily providing. Also, that guy Roger just picked up his life and went to Santa Fe? No one in economic distress could actually do that.
M: I mean I think part of the goal with the diversity in the casting is that you can’t talk about the AIDS epidemic without talking about the Black community. Because of the higher presence of AIDS in that community and how it caused an increase in racism and homophobia.
H: How come none of that is in the script then? It can’t be a casual representation without recognizing that race affects life. Only a white person can say race isn’t an important part of life.Just because RENT has a racially diverse cast doesn’t mean it actually portrays diverse perspectives.
M: What do you think about Mimi, Ben, or Joanne? How would that character change if it were played by a white person?
H: If race isn’t talked about, you are just effectively white. For instance, in video games where they give you this whole range of skin colors but don’t include the actual experience of race and ethnicity, it’s all effectively white.
M: Yeah, like Rent decided to be diverse for the purpose of being diverse and not for the purpose of showing the struggles of those people. Rent doesn’t really show homophobia or racism, just the idea of being a starving artist.
H: Nobody gets to be their race, they are all white.
M: They all have the same cookie-cutter struggles. You could change anyone’s race and it wouldn’t change the plot. So it kind of misses the mark of representation.
H: Also, it’s very convenient that Benny is Black. Like a rich white landlord is an unprofitable look for them.
M: And that would be more truthful.
H: The movie is also mostly the original Broadway cast.
M: The two main characters are white men, they’re the center of the plot. And the fact that this is the og cast means this is Jonathan Larson’s intent and they wanted to keep it that way. Which is important because he died right before the first showing of rent. It’s also why the number “La Vie Boheme” is performed the way it is, with the cast dancing on top of tables and across the diner. They had originally decided to perform the show by just sitting at three tables, singing it through, but when “La Vie Boheme” hit, they couldn’t contain themselves and they performed the rest of the show as it was meant to be. So “La Vie Boheme” is usually performed with three tables pushed together.
H: So it’s stiff in some ways because they want to keep Jonathan Larson’s idea.
M: Yeah, like how West Side Story changed, but they didn’t change all the bad parts. Not erasing history, but this is for multiple reasons.
H: Moving to “La Vie Boheme” though, protagonist white guy Mark is the most racialized person in RENT as a Jewish man, but he’s also white.
M: Yeah they even include the Mourner’s Kaddish in “La Vie Boheme.” References to Jewish culture throughout are almost the only references to any culture at all.
H: The cast are singing about how great it is to be indie, edgy, cool, and starving, but then the song kind of devolves into just singing the names of stuff that they all like. When the cast sings their joy at “Being an us for once instead of them” they show an interracial couple. They just kind of throw them in there.
M: It’s everything all at once again: gay, interracial, AIDS, drugs…not really representing in any way, just showing.
H: Besides race, you can’t tell who those background people are. They are essentially white.
M: And then later when they say, “rice and beans and cheese” and then “huevos rancheros” they are just trying to fit Spanish culture into there also.
H: The whole musical is “look! we all like the same white guys!”
M: They say “homo sapiens” after bisexual and trisexual as in we are all human but we all also a little gay, which slay, but there is difficulty with being gay. They’re trying to show unity but…their experiences are actually different.
H: So the answer is no: race does not exist in the world of Rent.
M: Yeah, but everyone knows how to tango!