What is representation? Why does it matter? Well, ironically, if you believe it unnecessary, there’s a good chance you’re already represented.
With the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees comes yet another call for diversity. For the second year running the acting category has been dominated by a sea of solely white faces, prompting a fierce online response through the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. One would be forgiven for assuming that most minorities in the movies this year have taken some time off.
Yet, the Academy Awards are no stranger to accusations of whitewashing. Staggeringly, only 7% of all winners in the Best Actor Category have been black men. Since her win in 2005 for Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry remains the first and only black woman to win in the Best Actress Category. After 87 years and over 2,900 winners, it is somewhat telling that only 32 Oscars have been awarded to black people.
But from where does the issue stem? Is it in the scriptwriting, directing, casting or subsequent criticism? Do audiences really not care for films with marginalised leads?
An apparent lack of diversity seems to permeate every stage of production. It is not news that that Hollywood is a hard place for anyone who isn’t a white man; issues such as rampant ageism rooted in sexism and the gendered wage-gap – bought firmly to the public’s attention by Jennifer Lawrence’s now infamous open letter – have been widely debated and discussed in recent months. But the open condemnation of these issues does not seem to translate into any tangible change.
In one study, researchers found that of the 2,300 characters appearing in the top grossing films of 2013, only 15% of all clearly identifiable protagonists were female. Of those female characters, 73% were Caucasian, followed by African American (14%), Latina (5%) and Asian at a measly 3%. It is a sad and damning day when you are statistically more likely to see an alien on screen than you are an Asian woman. The study actually concluded that not only are women more likely to be naked and less likely to speak, they are also less likely to “have clearly identifiable goals or be portrayed as leaders of any kind.”
There is enduring and inert industry idea that films featuring minority leads do not make as much money, but how accurate is this belief? In the biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Ridley Scott set out to create a cinematic masterpiece, despite the platitude of the plotline and choice to solely casting Caucasian actors in Middle Eastern roles. Scott defended his erroneous decision to cast Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses, as he felt he would have been unable to receive financial backing had he cast “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” in his leading roles. He does have a point – it is notoriously hard to get a film funded, but it is still nescient and irresponsible, and the minority actors he did cast were used as nothing more than props and nameless antagonists. After a bombardment of criticism, Scott said he was thinking of talent and not ethnicity, but when there are innumerable brilliant actors and actresses that actually fit the ethnicity of the characters, why wilfully ignore them and opt for a white man in terrible fake tan instead?
But, plot twist: film and TV shows with diverse casts actually make more money. A study conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA found that TV shows with casts featuring 41 to 50 percent non-white characters attracted the highest household ratings and similarly in film, those with 21 to 30 percent non-white diversity earned the most revenue. Which begs the question, if it makes more money, is socially just and is what the audience wants, what is keeping us in this perpetual cycle of omission and ignorance? I mean, it took Pixar fifteen years to feature a female lead (Princess Merida in Brave, 2012) which seems a little short sighted considering Disney’s Frozen is now one of their highest grossing films of all time. How many more instalments of Taken and The Expendables do we have to sit through before we drown in testosterone or give someone else a go?
Elsewhere, in a surprisingly progressive – if somewhat problematic – plotline in the final season of Sons of Anarchy, writers reintroduced Venus Van Dam, a transsexual prostitute, who features as a possible love interest for one of the bikers. While initially presented as yet another punchline, Venus’ narrative shifted from one solely rooted in bigoted humour to a refreshing and inclusive discussion of trans issues, such as passing, prejudice and violence. For a show whose primary concern is the Hemingway-like exploration of hyper-masculinity and the unfailingly comradery of men, creating a trans character who is not only a valid and valued member of the community but is also a strong and sensual woman deserving of love, is as unprecedented as it is essential.
However, despite all the good intentions, choosing yet another cis male to play the role has attracted justifiable doubts. This is not to say that Walton Goggins did a poor or unconvincing portrayal, but when trans roles are so limited, there is a significant question as to whether cis men – of whom there is already a plethora of roles available – should be allowed to take the part.
A similar reaction was summoned when Eddie Radmayne was chosen to play transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, promoting calls for a boycott. Jared Leto faced a similar backlash when he was casted as a HIV-positive, drug-addicted trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club. Often actors who play trans roles will reflect in retrospect about how much the role has taught them and how they have grown, but who better to play the part than someone who not just understands the character, but has lived it?
It is the classic feminist conundrum: the need to tell our own stories and to reclaim our own narratives in world which repeatedly refuses our lived experience for one that is assumed. What Hollywood is essentially saying is that “we know more about your life and your experience than you do.” Furthermore, with actresses like Laverne Cox providing outstanding performances through her character in OITNB, it proves not just that these plotlines are feasible, but they are engaging and endearing and shed light on universal human truths: like the need to belong, the desire to both love and be loved and the ultimate fear we all face of rejection.
“If she can’t see it, she can’t be it”
It is undeniable that we are moulded by what we consume. The films we watch, the music we listen to, the people we surround ourselves with and the books we read: they all shape our consciousness and change the way we view the world. There is a duality of experience, a lack of singularity in each of our lives. We see and are seen through the lens of our ethnicity, gender and sexuality. These are undeniable truths. The film industry, like the structures of power at play in both politics and culture, is one controlled and created by and for white men and while we are making headway, the road to progression is a long one.
We need only look at the structure and distribution of power in business, politics and almost any role to see the imbalance. Women make up just under 5% of all CEOs in the Fortune 500 Companies. A study found that in film, male leaders “comprised 97% of blue-collar leaders, 89% of political leaders, 88% of criminal leaders, 86% of military leaders, 84% of white-collar leaders, and 77% of social leaders,” a discrepancy that subtly teaches the audience and builds subconscious bias. The majority of contemporary films do not pass the Bechdel test and given that a study released in 2013 stated that women made up over half of all cinema ticket purchases, surely it follows to at least attempt to appeal to them. Yet industry moguls still refuse to recognise a humongous portion of their audience. Now I’m not much of a business women, but even I can see that it makes sense to entertain the entire population rather than alienating and annoying over half of them.
But there is a darker undertone to what appears to be just an overlooked element of casting and writing. When the only experience you have with a particular nationality, culture or minority is one composed of shallow stereotypes and damaging two-dimensional villains, it has a real world effect on the way you see that particular group of people. Governments and newspapers have been doing it for years. We’re fed propaganda geared against a particular peoples who just happen to be the enemy of the moment. We need only look at the latest Daily Mail front page to see it happening in real time in front of our eyes.
The same tactic is employed in many Hollywood blockbusters. The hoodlum, the ghetto thug, the sexual and submissive latina mami, the angry black woman – these are all empty archetypes played out over and over, creating a culture which is unable to separate the individual from the way they are portrayed. It seems the roles are just not there and the ones that are available feature characters of little to no substance, heart or development. If nothing else, it is lazy writing. Yet what do these reductionist roles do, other than damage the esteem and dreams of those supposedly being portrayed?
Tell me, what does it teach a child when they look at politicians, actors and role models and see no one who resembles themselves? What does it teach a girl who grows up on films that sexualise and commodify her body before she has even hit puberty? If you can’t see it, you can’t dream it or be it. Representation matters not just because it changes the way we are viewed by the wider world, but because it changes the way we see ourselves. I am a firm believer that you cannot hate what you understand and by creating whole and human characters we can begin to breach the chasm left by circumstance and geography. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, representation is vital because “you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Be it in a book, film or song, we can all remember that moments we first felt a kinship and connection with someone, fictional or not, and knowing that feeling of being heard and understood – how could we deny that to anyone?
This year’s Academy Awards are expected to be watched in over 200 countries and so we should wish and work towards creating an award system that celebrates and reflects the vibrancy and diversity of our multi-faceted and magical world. So here I am telling you, Mr Movie-Maker. I love films, I really do, and I’ll give you good money if you just put someone who even slightly resembles me on screen. It’s like Chris Eyre comments in Reel Injun, “we’re not asking to be noble or righteous or good all the time. We’re asking to be human.”
What’s your take? Let’s continue the conversation below.