A fellow blogger wrote a while back about social media claims that a film was whitewashing. It reminded me of a conversation about on-screen representation of marginalized groups that I’d had with someone not long before that, and I thought I’d write about it.
Let’s begin with the conversation from a while back. My best friend gets most of his information about the world from Youtube. Social justice isn’t on his radar at all, but he does like movies.
He told me that Halle Berry had been cut from a movie because the character she was supposed to play was transgender, and there was backlash that she’d been cast in the role rather than someone who was trans. He thought the studio made a bad decision, arguing that the nature of acting is people playing roles.
There were a few levels of things wrong with that to chew through. The first was that there was clearly something missing from the story. Turns out there was a lot missing; Halle had been in talks about potentially playing the role, but she hadn’t been officially cast. She’d done an Instagram live interview in which she repeatedly misgendered the character she was interested in playing. It was after this that interview she received backlash. In response, she released a statement that “As a cisgender woman, I now understand that I should not have considered this role, and that the transgender community should undeniably have the opportunity to tell their own stories” (source: Variety).
Alice’s post was about Music, a soon-to-be-released film directed by the singer Sia, in which a neurotypical actress has been cast to play a nonverbal autistic character. This has been met with backlash from the autism community.
What’s okay and what’s not?
My friend raised the point that actors play characters all the time without sharing personal characteristics or experiences with their character. And that’s a valid point. But is there a line somewhere, and if so, where?
I think it makes a difference if it’s a characteristic related to who someone is rather than what they do. Acting is all about the “what they do,” from astronauts to dictators to anything one can imagine. Inherent characteristics, the “who someone is,” gets into potentially more problematic territory.
Okay, so what if it’s an actor playing someone with an illness? That happens a lot. What if it’s cancer? Probably not a big deal. What if it’s Ebola? Sure. How about mental illness? When Bradley Cooper played a character with bipolar in Silver Linings Playbook, there was talk about whether the character was an accurate depiction of bipolar, but I don’t recall hearing any criticism of a non-mentally ill actor playing the character. With A Beautiful Mind, the focus seemed to be on the accuracy of the character, not the casting of Russell Crowe.
Next up, autism. Back when, no one blinked at Dustin Hoffman being cast in Rain Man; dialogue around the film was more focused on the character and stereotyping. But that was 32 years ago (huh, that makes me feel old), and this is now. So, what sets casting of an autistic character apart from casting a mentally ill character? Both are surrounded by misunderstanding and stigma, but there is the born-with-it factor. While someone may be born with a predisposition to mental illness, they aren’t born with an illness; autism affects the brain’s development from early on.
The marginalized + born-with-it factor also kicks in when we consider transgender representation. Hilary Swank has recently stated that a trans male actor should have played the lead character in the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry.
Where to draw the line
One potential problem with this topic is that it runs the risk of being chucked into the PC dustbin by people who see it as a bunch of politically correct nonsense. That’s why I think it’s important to define where exactly the line falls between acting as a character and inappropriate representation. The combination of marginalized and born-with-it seems pretty reasonable to me.
The fact that none of this was an issue 40 years ago doesn’t mean that change isn’t a good thing. Fifty-some-odd years ago, I might have been a stop on the Lobotomobile lobotomy road show; I’m certainly glad that’s left behind in the reject pile of history.
Perhaps the most important thing to recognize is that certain groups of people have been dealt a craptastic hand by society. As a society, we collectively dealt that hand, and perhaps we can do something about it.
Where do you think the line ought to be drawn regarding on-screen representation? Or do you see it as an issue at all?
The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.