Imagine the following scenario: You’ve been an expert at cooking burgers your entire life. Burger-making is your whole identity, your family are all good at cooking burgers. You want to be a chef in a burger joint more than anything in the world, and you’re more than qualified from years of training. It hasn’t been an easy road; you’ve often been mocked or bullied because of your burger lineage, and it’s been hard to find jobs that will accept you. You finally find a burger joint looking for a chef and apply. However, instead of giving you the job, the burger joint hires a popular football player. The football player can flip a decent burger, but he’s nowhere near as good a fit for the position as you would be. Nevertheless, people still praise him, saying his burgers are the best in town. When you complain, you are told that, if they didn’t hire you, clearly that means you just aren’t a good cook.
Does that sound ridiculous? Good. Now replace “burger expert” with “minority actor” and “football player” with “non-minority A-list actor.” That’s the reality for many actors of color, disabled actors, or LGBTQ actors.
Examples of this include white actor Scarlet Johanssen as Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell,” straight actor James Corden as gay character Barry Glickman in “The Prom” and neurotypical actor Maddie Ziegler as autistic character Music in “Music”. Any of these roles could have been filled by actors that actually represented the characters. In the case of “The Prom” and “Music,” the portrayal of gay and autistic characters was stereotypical at best and harmful at worst. Critics of each said that Corden’s flamboyant flourishes reflected offensive and shallow gay stereotypes, while Zeigler’s overexagerated tics and meltdowns were presented as problems to be solved rather than behaviors of a real human being.
It’s also worth noting that the meltdowns in “Music” are dealt with by using what is known as prone or supine restraint — physically holding an autistic person down until they stop having a meltdown. This method is not only dehumanizing, but has led to the traumatization and death of countless autistic people. It was only after “Music” had been nominated for two Golden Globe awards that Sia finally apologized for the inclusion of the restraint scenes, claiming they would be removed in future editions of the movie.
“Music” also carried controversy due to musician and director Sia’s response to criticism. On Twitter, when real autistic people raised concerns over the casting, Sia claimed that casting an autistic actor at the level of functioning she wanted Music to portray would be “cruel.” In response to one autistic actor who criticised the casting, Sia said “maybe you’re just a bad actor.” One tweet even featured her swearing and literally growling at critics of the film.
Meanwhile, after “Ghost in the Shell” had its share of controversy for whitewashing, Johanssen was cast in another role she did not fit — transgender man Dante Gill in “Rub & Tug.” In a later interview she dropped a quote that has since become a meme: “As an actor I should be able to play any person, or any tree, or any animal, because that’s my job and the requirements of my job.”
Johanssen has since elaborated on that statement: “In an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness…I recognize that in reality, there is a wide spread discrepancy amongst my industry that favors Caucasian, cisgendered actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities that I have been privileged to.”
I agree with Johanssen’s last statement, but not as much with the ones before it. Sure, as an actor, she has the capacity to play any role, but giving proper representation and opportunities to minority actors isn’t “political correctness,” it’s the absolute bare minimum. Choosing to be “color-blind” for the sake of Art is ignorant, harmful, and disappointing.
Am I saying that minority characters should only be played by minority actors? Yes and no. I agree that sometimes, straight actors manage to play LGBTQ characters respectfully. I realize that limiting actors to “play what you are” limits everyone, not just the white cis straight A-listers. However, I think if you are casting a character who is a minority, particularly if the story focuses on their minority-ness, you should prioritize minority actors. For example, if someone were to make a movie about my life, I would want them to audition at least 50 Jewish women before turning to other choices, because religion is a major part of my life story. I want the same for characters of color or characters with disabilities.
Casting minority actors in minority roles allows for nuance and sensitivity that “color-blind” casting completely misses. It can prevent harmful stereotypes and give visibility, something still sorely needed in today’s mainstream media. And, most importantly, it can give jobs to actors still struggling to find roles. At the very least, take the time to properly research and sensitivity test a subject matter before casting.
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