For much of its history, the film industry – regardless of plot or genre – has told stories focused squarely on white, male protagonists. There of course were some additions; the rise of the token Black character became a thing through the 90s, a not-at-all pioneering way of presenting audiences with just a tad more color to the wall of white.
Recent years have seen a push for not just diverse casts and crews, but in the stories being told; Black, queer, women, and those with disabilities. While these stories proved to be bankable for Hollywood again and again, we are rarely given an honest picture.
There is now a wider variety of people appearing on our screens, with the industry focus no longer centering solely on white-on-white-on-white narratives. Women are seen leading their projects, queer stories are on the regular, black characters’ have more than the singular purpose of bringing the “ghetto” punchlines to their scenes, and inspiring tales of disabled people making it in the ableist world are heart-warming.
Except that this is bullshit.
Women are still objectified, continuing to be presented for straight men to ogle, and too much attention spent on her relationships with her male characters. Black portrayals are restricted to lighter skinned actors, being more relatable to white audiences, while many other ethnicities are still played by white actors (Scarlet Johansson, stand up). And let’s not forget how white saviorism continues to play a lead in many non-white narratives in need of a big-budget release. And when it comes to queer and disabled storylines, roles are nearly always headlined by straight, cisgender, and able-bodied actors (sadly including even the ones I like).
Now this is usually where someone steps in with, “But they’re actors! It’s their job to play different people!” and, “Once again the political correctness police are looking to shut something else down.” And to you, I say:
As a disabled man on Twitter said, when was the last time you saw an able-bodied character played by a disabled actor? If acting is all about playing different people, then why did fanboys lose their shit when Doctor Who‘s latest interpretation was a woman? Blaming PC culture is the straight, cis, white man’s excuse for everything they don’t want to change. Actors, they forget are limited. They can only fill stories with realism and emotional depth from their own experiences, and sadly these white actors haven’t lived their lives as diversely as they may like to believe.
Able-y playing disabled
The Upside sees Bryan Cranston star as a wheelchair-bound writer who hires Kevin Hart as his caretaker. Through the tropes of prejudice breakdown between black/white and abled/disabled people, it’s easy to forget Cranston is able-bodied. But people are now asking why an actor who is disabled couldn’t have taken this role.
If the goal is to tell an inspirational story then someone who knows what life in a wheelchair is like would have offered more than just the fact there is a chair. There is little comprehension of both challenges and joys from life from this perspective. The Upside is one in a long list of standardized portrayals which leaves the inherently able-bodied audience to fill in the blank space with their own uninformed views.
Our understanding of what it’s like to be disabled is limited and doesn’t reflect the experience of those who live this life every day. There are microaggressions we don’t see, and mental health strains not spoken. Similar to how every Black movie was a tale of civil rights or slavery, it’s fair to assume not every movie with a wheelchair-bound lead needs to focus on a person’s life in that chair; there is more to tell than this.
Black stories, white saviors
The last few years has seen a broader range of Black movies hitting the screens. From the familiar slavery and pre-Civil Rights era stories in 12 Years a Slave and Detroit, we now have a Black Panther and Girls’ Trip redefining 21st Century representations of Blackness. Yet, the nonsensical importance of white characters in Black movies persists.
White saviorism in film is only really there to appease white people, informing us of non-white-owned stories we hadn’t yet heard. Instead of seeing dialogue between two people of color, we find a forced chat between white and non-white people, rarely adding anything of substance to the scene. Not only does it simplify the discussion of race relations between Black and white people, like in The Upside, it, detrimentally, takes away the ownership of a story, like in Green Book, and walks past race and the Black experience, like in Crash and Three Billboards. The focus is always on white people solving a problem within a two-hour period because of the systemic racist understanding that white-is-might. Believe it or not, it isn’t that easy to wash over generations of discrimination while having a sit-down over a quick meal. Regardless of how good or bad they are, these films white-wash an experience no white person can or will ever understand.
The many faces of women
With women it’s a little trickier. Since moving pictures became a commodity, [white] women have always had a part to play, one usually occupying a love interest and/or sexual fantasy. As time progressed, women took more leads in the romantic comedy genre, telling fun tales of how they got their guy! Even when female leads in action, thriller, and other more serious stories were accepted, the insistence of the love story, even if it moved to a sub-plot, remained.
Take Wonder Woman. Finally, a big, box-office movie about a strong, tough, brave, and intelligent female superhero taking on everyone she comes up against. Except she does it in an armored swimsuit with the help of men, one of which ends up being the great love of her life (spoiler: millennia surrounded by women, and the first man she meets is the one… if only I could get that lucky). I love Wonder Woman, but resent the fact a man had to help her save the world. Thor, Captain America, Batman, Iron Man… these dudes had a lady, sure, but they watched or looked after the men who did most everything else. And at the end the women were treated with either a knowing look of love, or got a first kiss at the end; Wonder Woman slept with the first man she ever met in the middle of the film, made all the more interesting by World War I being the backdrop. It seems there will never be a reason to not sexualize women in these “progressive” times.
Gay for pay
Unlike movies about Black people, women, or those who are disabled, I actually have some personal experience when it comes to being gay. And the one thing that really pisses me off is the number focused on coming out stories or love interests. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an action movie with a gay character whose objective is to solve whatever problem he’s facing, and not on their sexual exploits.
When it comes to straight actors playing gay characters, this is where it gets a little more complex. First, generally speaking, this shouldn’t happen – there is a ton of LGBTQ+ men and women out there who can play believable queer characters, whether homosexual, transgender or non-binary.
For gay men, there is a whole fetishization of straight guys who we want to be gay (look at the aggressive demand for Shawn Mendes to come out). Watching hot, straight men kiss adds a whole level of taboo to the imagination. But it’s also problematic, building up the fantasy of the straight man or woman who we might be able to turn. It isn’t healthy for the many young lesbian and gay adult pinning hopes on an impossible fantasy.
For those who are gender non-conforming, being represented correctly is crucial to sharing experiences and ideas. The political battle transgender men and women face on a daily basis is painful. Stories of transgender people isn’t enough; we need to actually see trans actors play these characters. Using cisgender, heteronormative actors in these roles creates a fictitious bubble around movies, allowing audiences to suspend their belief, taking no real consideration of the complexities. Trans and non-binary actors leave an impression, forcing the audience to confront their own prejudice, either to eradicate it or build it up.
[Straight white actors] can’t handle the truth
Telling stories that neither depict real life experiences, nor share their truth with the actors who tell them, is frankly dangerous. All we do is build in the status quo of “we’re just doing enough”. Enough is rarely enough. It’s all good for Bryan Cranston to say we do need to have disabled people telling the stories of disabled characters, but then he went and starred in the movie anyway.
Representation matters because it casts a real light onto a platform which is largely presented as fantasy. These superheroes aren’t real, nor is the talking car, the devils from the earth… and neither are the women who seem to be more than sexual pleasure for men; the Black community able to define their narrative in a white world and not through white people; the disabled who share their whole experience and not just the obvious physicality making them different from able-bodied culture; and neither is the LGBTQ+ experience something more than the binary options presented to us by the heteronormative world.
A diversity of characters and stories were the first and second steps. It’s now time to accept a diversity of actors to do the one thing art is supposed to: tell the truth.