Friday, August 31, 2018

Privileged Actors Playing Minorities

It’s a debate that won’t die as again and again we see cishet white, able bodied actors cast in minority roles. (And yes I had to use that meme). And every single time it happens there’s always a legion of supporters jumping out to say why it’s completely ok.

It is not. It really really isn’t. There are a large number of POC, gay, bi, trans, disabled actors out there who can perform these roles. And cishet, white able bodied actors will be ok folks - 90% of the roles out there are already tailor made for them. They don’t have to have the last 10% as well!

But beyond the fact that cishet, white, able bodied actors already grossly dominate the entertainment industry, casting them in these roles has severely damaging implications with a whole lot of terrible history behind them

We cannot separate what privileged people playing marginalised characters means and has meant, no matter what creators current intention is. Both collectively and for individual minorities. Casting white characters in POC roles cannot be separated from a context of deeply racist abominations and minstral shows. Casting cis people as trans characters cannot be separated from the context of people claiming trans people aren’t REAL men/women and that a trans woman is not distinguishable from a cis man or a that a trans man is not distinguishable from a cis woman. Casting an able bodied actor for a disabled role cannot be separated from the context of people believing disabled actors don’t exist and disabled people cannot actually act at all

You cannot separate these contexts from your casting.

And all of these share a common context of mockery - of privileged people putting on these identities and turning them into clowns, caricatures, something for everyone to savagely laugh at and regard in contempt. POC, disabled, LGBTQ people, all have been worn by cishet white able bodied people to portray something worthy of nothing but revulsion and hilarity. We can all think of numerous examples (and don’t tell me you can’t. You’re lying. You really are).

And all of these share another common assumption of, well, every industry but certainly the entertainment industry, that there is a complete lack of minority actors to fill these roles. This is an excuse trotted out constantly and it’s so blatantly not true. You had to cast Scarlett Johansson because you can’t find a talented Asian actor? Really? Out of the billions of Asian people in the world, you couldn’t find one with a modicum of acting talent? REAAAALY? You cast Jack Whitehall as a gay man because he’s the best actor for the job? Really? A stand up comedian is literally the best actor you could find?

How long did you look? WHERE did you look?

You cannot divorce your acting, your portrayal, from this context. You cannot pretend that your casting exists in isolation, that they do not carry these messages and aren’t perpetuating these issues. Every time we get this privileged casting we have these messages repeated and invoked.

Especially since we also have to remember how much minority actors struggle to get roles. The number of roles for POC is vanishingly small. LGBTQ actors repeatedly have spoken about having to be closeted to get roles and how much being out has harmed their careers. Disabled actors are almost invisible entirely and many people argue they don’t even exist.

Contrast that to how a straight, able bodied actor playing gay or disabled role is almost guaranteed to be award bait. Actors will be hailed for their “courage” and acting like they’ve somehow achieved something impressive by acting this role. They’ll get to gush in numerous interviews about how Important it was and how Hard it was or, even more nauseating, how they are doing such a wonderful service for the minority in question by taking this role, appropriating the story of marginalised people and profiting at it

Bonus points if they make a big speech about why these issues are so important - while they’re marketing the role. And then going oh-so-silent once the movie’s finished and they don’t have something to advertise any more (remember Benedict Cumberbatch’s really selling it when cast as Alan Turing).

This is also a growing part of the whole problematic element of this casting: the appropriation of marginalised movements, of minority’s fight for equality and using it to make money. Through biopics and issue films, taking these vital stories and histories, removing the actual people involved and using it for privileged profit and exploitation. These films are going to extra mile and exploiting a minority’s struggle of equality, dignity, even existence for profit without any respect and regard for the community in question

Let’s also be clear what privileged casting means - it does mean having a privileged actor pretending to be marginalised, straight playing gay, white playing POC, ect. But it also means changing the character itself - both in adapting fictional work and doubly so when creating biopics of actual people. If a character is canonically a minority and you decide to re-write them to be privileged, when you decide to cast a whole set of blindingly white Egyptian gods, or trot out a Shakespeare who is straighter than a laser beam. You’re replacing marginalised actors - AND marginalised roles - with privileged people, doubling down on the erasure and the insistence that these identities don’t matter and can be  discarded; that they’re irrelevant.

Note again the context here - so all you people running to the comments to say “what about gay actors playing straight roles!” or “this character was white in the original and they made her Black!”; stop. Stop you are not acting or arguing in good faith. Look at the above context - NONE of that applies to privileged roles. On top of that, we must consider the ongoing role of erasure in our media - minority actors have very very very few roles open to them. And what roles there are are inevitably less prominent and less important than the roles open to cishet white able bodied actors. This erasure, on top of well documented prejudice, is career limiting to say the least. I say again, anyone claiming there is an equivalency here between a gay actor playing a straight role or a white character being turned Asian is not arguing in good faith. They simply are not - they cannot be ignorant on the lack of opportunities, the lack of roles and the prejudice in the industry to think these are equivalent.

A cishet, white, able bodied actor’s career is not going to be limited or harmed by them only taking cishet, white, able bodied roles. Scarlett Johansson will find roles as a cis, straight, white woman. Johnny Depp and Matt Damon’s careers will not end if he is limited to taking roles for cishet white able bodied men or only roles that were always white and not whitened for them. Also a really really good rule of thumb is: if someone is talking about how something affects minorities, responding with “BUT WHAT ABOUT CISHET WHITE ABLE BODIED MEN!” is not a good response. Really.