Marginalized Groups and On-Screen Representation

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.

Representation issues

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?

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21 thoughts on “Marginalized Groups and On-Screen Representation”

  1. Hmm, not sure. I don’t know about trans issues, but as someone with autism, I wouldn’t necessarily say an autistic character must be played by someone with autism. I would be more concerned with the type of performance they give, whether it was sensitive or stigmatising.

    A while back some Jewish actors in the UK were saying that if white actors aren’t allowed to play black characters, non-Jews shouldn’t be allowed to play Jews. I felt that was wrong, although I heard their point that some performances of Jews by non-Jews are antisemitic, not necessarily consciously. But Jewish identity meets you marginalised+born with it test, although non-Jews don’t necessarily understand either of those two points (which is half the problem). On balance I wouldn’t say that only Jews should play Jewish characters though. (With Jews, a bigger problem is the writing, either unrealistic writing or just not showing anything other than a small subset of the Jewish community.)

    1. I wonder if it makes a difference how central the character’s Jewishness is in driving the story. On the Basis of Sex cast a non-Jewish actress to play Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, and apparently, RBG completely approved.

      1. I think it’s less to do with how central it is and more to do with how it’s written and whether the actor plays it in a stereotypical way or not.

        I haven’t seen the film and from your comment assume she’s not presented as religious at all, but when she died there was a lot of debate in the Jewish press about her Jewish identity and there seems to be some evidence for her having some Jewish identity, even if not religiously observant.

        That’s kind of what I mean about bad writing, that Jews are either shown as 100% the same as other white secular characters except with a Central/Eastern European surname or completely 100% weird ultra-Orthodox (and usually stupid or repressive too). The fact that lots of Jews fall between these extremes (even without the assumptions about ultra-Orthodox life) is generally not noted.

  2. I think it’s a problem. Hollywood sets stereotypes that inform our views, which is why I ended up hating Mrs. Maisel, and I don’t think it was the fault of the actors. It was the writing, same as always, exploiting stereotypes. People with mental illnesses are invariably played as evil or incompetent, no matter who the actor is. Definitely contributes to our misunderstandings…

  3. If actors are allowed to put themselves into the role, telling their own story can be important, empowering. Showing that mental illness and neurological atypicality are not discredits to achievement (as an actor and in other aspects of life) seems important.

    But experience isn’t universal! We would suck at being a spokesperson for any disability because we only know us. Context is everything to us. We are cultural relativists.

    What we see as transcendent are needs, feelings, and human suffering and greed. The needs list is long and beautiful.

    If authenticity matters, who writes the script also seems very important. That we are having this conversation at all seems important to overcoming stigma.

    1. I agree, the conversation matters. Likely there aren’t any perfect answers, but dialogue can help to find options that are most likely to meet people’s needs.

  4. I think that this is an issue full of nuance, and I am very glad that you did the digging to find all of the relevant details wrt your opening story, which provides an excellent backdrop for this discussion. I think that taking the time to understand those nuances is the key, and yes, it is important, regardless of who ends up playing which roles. Thank you, Ashley, for drawing my attention to this issue.

      1. Thank you for taking a stab at it, if not a stand on it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to take a solid position on this issue, but you are quite right: it needs to be discussed.

  5. I agree with much of what you’re saying here. My issue with the Sia controversy was Sia’s responses to autistic people on Twitter. It just seemed very unprofessional and rude. It really turned me off wanting to even check out the movie. Thanks!

  6. Very thought provoking and I agree it’s difficult to see where the line is. It’s certainly something that needs discussing more when looking at casting for movies and TV so make sure that minority groups are better represented. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I completely understand the issue around transgender and whitewashing but with mental illnesses it’s tricky. Do you demand proof of diagnosis of autism at the audition? That could get messy real fast.

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