I keep running across white women saying things like, “I’m never seeing any film or play that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test ever again!”
This statement epitomizes the problem with white feminism.
First, a quick definition of the Bechdel test, invented by amazing writer and comic artist Alison Bechdel, known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her memoir Fun Home, which she turned into a Tony Award-winning musical. Just in case you weren’t already convinced she’s a genius (and I have been since the old DTWOF days), she was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.
The “Bechdel test” is a metric she created in 1985 in a DTWOF strip to evaluate female representation in films. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two female characters who have at least one conversation that is not about men. It sounds surprisingly basic, yet the vast preponderance of films cannot pass the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test becomes tricky when applied to theatre. For example, it immediately eliminates all solo performance and all male/male and male/female two-handers, regardless of content.
And this is exactly my issue with the Bechdel test being used as a basic metric of acceptability in theatre– it ignores both content and context. It ignores intersectionality.
Let’s take two examples. The first play, written by a middle-aged white man, is about four wealthy white women discussing their problems and lives while at various brunches in upscale New York eateries. The main topics of conversation are their wealth and whether the sacrifices they made to obtain that wealth were worth it. The central narrative is one character revealing she has lost most of her money and must now live outside Manhattan. This play neatly passes the Bechdel test.
The second play, written and performed by four young Black men, is about their experiences growing up in Oakland. The main topics of conversation are police violence and racism. The central narrative is the loss of their friend, murdered by police while unarmed, driving home from work at a local elementary school, the same school where all five friends met. This play does not pass the Bechdel test.
If the goal of metrics like the Bechdel test are to hold artists accountable for the work we create, insisting on work that resists cultural marginalization and works for inclusion, the Bechdel test is not enough. It is not enough to fight for the inclusion of women and ONLY the inclusion of women. Insisting that a play about privileged white women is so deeply, intrinsically superior to a play about Black men that we can issue a test to “prove” it is counterproductive to every diversity goal we have. We’re issuing a test that by design marginalizes men of color.
We need work that passes the Bechdel test, and we need it badly. But we cannot use that test as a metric for the acceptability of all work.
We live in an intersectional world, and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be addressed intersectionally. Yes,we must fight for the inclusion of women in our narratives, but we must also fight for the inclusion of other marginalized groups. When we refuse to do so– when we announce that all plays must pass the Bechdel test in order to be acceptable, as I have seen so many white women do– we fail. We become “white feminists,” content with centering ourselves while ignoring other marginalized groups.
To state that you will never see a play that does not pass the Bechdel test is to state that Crimes of the Heart, In the Boom Boom Room, and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress are intrinsically important and worthwhile, while Topdog/Underdog, The Mountaintop, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, The Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.
The Bechdel test even fails at what it was purportedly designed to do. Many films steeped in misogyny pass. “Lesbian” pornography made for male consumption passes. Most Disney princess films pass. The Bechdel test, I have to believe, was never meant to be an iron-clad metric.
I don’t know Alison Bechdel, but I consider the Bechdel test excellent social commentary, not a call to action. It’s meant as criticism, to make a point about how few films have female characters with objectives of their own. It’s meant to point out how few films present women as human beings rather than as events in the lives of men.
We cannot use the Bechdel test as the sole metric for acceptability. The examination of our work and its resistance to, and participation in, systems of oppression is a complex process, not a three-point test.
Even issuing a test is a classic white gatekeeping maneuver. White liberals are always looking for clear-cut guidelines to make us instantly “not racist” or “not sexist,” and we excel at creating oversimplified litmus tests that prove we are the Most Woke and everyone else is Doing It Wrong.
You can’t fill out a form with your credentials (“voted for Obama,” “watched Jessica Jones,” “smiled hard at Black guy on the street”), mail it in with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Women’s Studies department at Howard and then just wait for your NOT RACIST OR SEXIST certificate to roll in. There’s no “Woke White Person” checklist.
There’s no test.
Fighting for diversity and equity in theatre is a complex, multifaceted process that involves the stories we tell and how we tell them, including who tells those stories and who’s in our audiences, who are the decision-makers and gatekeepers, where the funding comes from, and so much more. As tempting as it is to get a definitive ruling on what is “resistance theatre” and what is “collaboration theatre,” that fact remains that each piece of theatre we make will have facets of resistance and facets of collaboration, and all we can do is commit to the process of examining our decisions in both the work we make and the work we consume as thoroughly and realistically as possible. It’s never going to be as simple as only going to shows with The Gold Star of Bechdel next to their titles. Fighting systems of oppression requires more of us, much more.
Commit to the process. Continue to love the Bechdel test for what it is– an eye-opening way to examine narrative that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but can be an effective tool when used correctly. It was one moment of genius in a long career of genius moments for Alison Bechdel, but cannot be– and was never meant to be– the sole, definitive arbiter of acceptable work.
When I write about diversity in representational media (theatre, film, TV, video games), often the white anger (and there is always white anger) uses “artistic freedom” as its battle cry. “Artists should create whatever they want, without restrictions,” or “Total artistic freedom is sacred. Telling artists they must include diversity is wrong.”
The secret is: Every professional knows there’s no such thing as “total artistic freedom.” We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems.
The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes.
This? This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a magical day when everything goes according to plan and no changes need to be made.
The idea behind “artistic freedom” is one of the best ideas ever: Artists should be able to engage with the world around them without constraints such as censorship. Artists with artistic freedom create better, usually more impactful and important, art under those conditions. But those conditions always exist within a given framework. Some constraints are practical (time, space, and budget), some are legal (the law, your contracts), some are ethical (best practices), some are artistic (imposed on the artists by the director or producer, or just by the basic parameters of the project), and some are social (updating outdated topical humor, avoiding lines, characters, or narrative tropes that would be considered racist, etc). Although not every artist recognizes or follows every constraint every time– sexual harassment is a huge problem in all these industries– artists as a whole work within these constraints without questioning them.
The social constraints we work within are never questioned, and usually framed in terms of audience response– a joke your audience won’t find funny, public controversy that could impact sales, or a scene that evokes a hostile audience response, which is entirely dependent on your social context. I’ve staged plays in Berkeley without an iota of controversy that later were picketed elsewhere in the country. Conversely, I’ve been sent plays whose entire plots centered around the Horrible! Revelation! that Someone! Had a Same Sex Affair! In College! My Berkeley audience would laugh out loud at the idea that anyone cared about your same sex college fling; such a play is unstageable here no matter how well-written because the premise is nonsense within our particular social context.
So when we talk about the need for increased diversity (or the need to examine how various types of people are portrayed) in the theatre, film, and games we make, why is that seen as a massive, impossible imposition on an artist? We’re already working within a number of constraints and considerations, and, frankly, removing race as a primary consideration, instead using just type, talent, and skill set, doesn’t seem much of a constraint at all to me. All it takes is stating in calls (or instructing your casting people) that you’re open to actors of all races and ethnicities, and suddenly your hiring pool is expanded, not constrained.
That said, if you believe your work demands an all-white cast, no one is restricting– or can restrict– your right to use an all-white cast. No one can stop you from casting every lead with a white actor for the entirety of your career. So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.
This, by the way, is what they mean by “taking America back”– back to the days when shutting out people of color was completely uncontroversial.
Due to this desire to create all-white art without criticism, there has been an immense backlash, especially from the alt-right, about the very concept of using social criteria like diversity or the portrayal of women to evaluate art. They claim that this is a new development brought on by “political correctness” run amok, and that in the golden past, before feminism or Black people with twitter accounts, art was solely evaluated as art, and critical discussions of its social messaging were nowhere to be found.
This is, of course, bunk.
For centuries, art has been evaluated, formally and informally, using social messaging as part of the critique. In 472 BCE, Aeschylus was publicly criticized by Aristotle, who claimed Aeschylus’ play The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, was too sympathetic to the Persians. Playwrights in Renaissance England went to great lengths to hide their critiques of the church or the government in metaphors that would get past the censors. When Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930, reviewers criticized the choice to cast a Black man instead of a white actor in blackface. One wrote: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man for Falstaff.” There are literally thousands of similar examples from the past.
There are, of course, nearly as many examples from the present as well. While the right (alt and otherwise) bitterly condemns using diversity and other social justice-based criteria in evaluations of art, they themselves do this all the time. The right’s response to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is an excellent example. Her performance came under fire solely for its pro-Black social messaging, which many on the right took to be “anti-white” and, somehow, “anti-police.” Ads for Old Navy and Cheerios featuring interracial families came under fire from right-wing racists for their social messaging alone. Evidently “interracial families eat breakfast and enjoy Old Navy 30% off sales” was a bridge too far for them. In 2012, the wildly popular, highly rated video game Mass Effect 3 included same sex relationship options (as they had throughout the series), but really came under fire for including a bedroom scene that many homophobic players complained bitterly about. (Of course, those of us who played through the game knew you had to click through many conversations with that gay character, continually taking the obviously marked “romance” option, to trigger that scene, or go out of your way to seek it out on youtube. But that’s none of my business.)
While some people do not wish to be told that people would like to see more diversity, they clearly have no problem telling us that diversity is, in essence, wrong.
There’s only one conclusion to draw here, and it’s not about “artistic freedom.”
For those of us who work in representational media, and must work within constraints both out of our control, like physics and budget, and well within our control, like personal artistic goals and vision, “artistic freedom” can be a touchy subject. We want as much artistic freedom as we can get, in part because we know that in reality, our freedom is constrained in multiple ways. Those of us calling for increased diversity (and equity) in film, theatre, TV, and games are simply asking our fellow content creators to consider diversity an important artistic criteria that exists alongside all the other self-imposed artistic criteria we all have.
Making a commitment to diversity is actually reducing your constraints, because it widens your hiring pool. Once you make the decision that a role can be cast with an actor of any race, or a show can be directed by a person of any race or gender, suddenly your hiring pool becomes much wider. Making a personal commitment to diversity increases your artistic freedom because it gives you far more to work with.
There is no true “artistic freedom,” including the many constraints artists put on themselves as they strive to meet (or exceed) their artistic goals. Encouraging others to make personal commitments to diversity– and holding them accountable when they do not– increases the artistic freedom both of the individual artists who would be widening their hiring pool considerably, and the artistic freedom of the industries as a whole, that would have a wider variety of artists working within it, which we all know is a massive strength.
So don’t believe anyone who tells you that calls for increased diversity or using diversity as a criteria for evaluation is limiting “artistic freedom.” We know better.
Recently director Tim Burton was asked by Bustle writer Rachel Simon why his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, features an all white cast with the single exception of Samuel L. Jackson (who is cast, disappointingly yet unsurprisingly, as the murderous villain), Burton had this to say:
“Nowadays, people are talking about it more,” he says regarding film diversity. But “things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”
“Things either call for things, or they don’t.” This is an alarmingly incorrect position to take.
By “things” one can only assume he means “films” or perhaps “film casts.” The idea that a film can, all on its own, cry out for an all white cast with a single black villain while the humble director, helpless, must obey without question is, of course, preposterous. “Things” do not “call for” anything– directors make specific decisions. You cannot abdicate responsibility for your casting by blaming it ON THE FILM YOU MADE, in which you personally made or approved every artistic decision.
If by “things” he means “the source material,” meaning that initially the book series was all white (adding characters of color later on in the series), once again he is abdicating responsibility for his personal decisions by pretending that he’s but a faithful reproducer of the source material. Where was this desire to faithfully reproduce the book when he was directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example? While Burton’s version is closer to the original 1964 Roald Dahl book than the 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Burton still deviated in multiple ways from the book. Is whiteness the only inviolable aspect of source material?
As directors, we make the decisions that bring the world of the play, the film, or the show to life. We create the worlds you see on screen and on stage. We can choose a diverse world that reflects the one in which we live, or we can choose an all white world that shuts out people of color, denies opportunities for actors of color, and creates the illusion that white people are the only people whose stories are worthy of telling unless something is specifically about being Black, Latinx, Asian, etc. When a work is just about “people”– when the story has nothing to do with race specifically–if you then think the work “calls out” for whiteness because you see white as “neutral,” you have, at the very least, a failure of imagination. But that failure goes much deeper.
The alarming aspect of Burton’s abdication of the very basics of film directing– the artistic decisionmaking– is that he imagined the work itself somehow told him he needed to create a group of wonderful white people whose major threat is a murderous black man. This kind of reinscribing of whiteness as superior, innocent, and good alongside blackness that exists solely as a dangerous threat to that whiteness is a trope that literally gets innocent black people killed every day. This isn’t “just a film.” There’s no such thing. Our culture is primarily impacted by the narratives of popular culture. Films are massively important cultural artifacts that have the power to shift an entire culture.
When police officers have a split second decision to make, why do they imagine seeing a gun in the hand of an unarmed black man, or imagine a black man reaching for a gun when he reaches for his wallet as instructed, or imagine a black man lying on the ground with his arms in the air is a threat, or imagine a black child with a toy gun is an adult threatening their lives, especially when police bring in European American active shooters alive routinely? When our culture pumps out narrative after narrative after narrative equating blackness with DANGER, that has a massive impact on the real world.
When we talk about police “retraining” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives– which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before black people with their guns drawn.
As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better. It’s an insult to their lost lives to say that the “thing” magically “called for” you to use an all white cast with a black villain.
It’s telling that Burton imagines that a lack of white people in blaxploitation films of the 1970s is somehow equivalent to his all white cast/black villain in 2016, as if the obvious race privilege of white people in the 1970s didn’t exist and the films at the time were racially problematic– yet magnanimously forgiven by Burton– for not including white people. As if we’re not now all aware of the massive social injustice faced by black people who are treated unfairly at every level of the criminal justice system, and who face police use of force– from small acts of violence to fatal ones– at far greater percentages than white people, and what it means in 2016 to make a group of innocent white children the heroes battling against a murderous black man. It’s astonishing, really, that anyone who makes his living from creating art– from understanding the value of symbols and tropes and narrative– could miss this. It’s alarming. These tropes, unchecked in our culture, are complicit in the deaths of far too many people of color, including children.
It’s telling that Burton says “oh, let’s have an Asian child and a black” in decrying the tokenism of shows– again from the 1970s (dude, that was 40 years ago)– like The Brady Bunch. Apart from the dehumanizing phrase “a black” (a black what?), Burton cannot imagine diversity as anything but tokenism, as if people of color do not exist outside of whiteness, as if including people of color is automatically tokenism, as if he can only imagine a single token actor of color in a film. Tim, why not cast people of color in lead roles? In lots of roles? In all the roles? Why not consider a diverse range of actors for every role and see who best fits the part when race is removed from consideration? Yes, sometimes race needs to be a foremost consideration in casting. If you direct A Raisin in the Sun (please no one ever let Burton do this), Mr. Lindner needs to be European American and everyone else needs to be Black. But in, say, Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, race is not central to the narrative. Nothing would have been lost by hiring a diverse cast, and much would have been gained. No one is asking you to cast a single token Black actor, and yet THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DID in casting Samuel L. Jackson, making that even more egregious by casting him as the villain. But The Brady Bunch‘s dippy 70’s “we’re all one big happy melting pot” nonsense is “more offensive” to you?
I’m not going to criticize Jackson for taking the role, since I have no idea how much he really knew when he signed the contract, and his statement about it does read like, “I am under contract to do positive PR for this film.” He’s an actor whose job is to act. Who knows what he was told about how the film would be created.
I am, however, flat out astonished that someone of Burton’s level of talent with symbol, narrative, and trope would create such an obvious lie as “things call out for things” as a cover for his own decisionmaking. Then again, I’m not surprised at all.
This article is also available on the Huffington Post here.
Please also check out “An Open Letter to Tim Burton from a Black Fangirl” by DeLa Doll, posted to HuffPo yesterday.
After the release of her game-changing, brilliant video, Formation, and the stir her Superbowl halftime show caused with dancers dressed like Black Panthers, Beyoncé is blowing up everyone’s feeds everywhere. And one thing I am shocked/notshocked to see is white outrage about both.
Let me begin by saying that I’m not a Beyoncé fan. I’m not a fan of any of the pop divas. I don’t have anything against them; it’s just not music that interests me. So Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Madonna, Mariah, Adele, I apologize, but I’m sure you and your massive success could not possibly care less that I would rather be listening to punk or classical. The only reason I’m pointing this out is to make sure you know I’m not a Beyoncé fan. This is not about defending a beloved star.
Let me tell you what it IS about.
The vast majority of Black people in the US are descended from people who were dragged here against their will and forced to live in a culture that shut them out completely from mainstream artistic production for 400 years. For 400 years, Black people were living in a culture where their pain, their culture, and their art were appropriated and sanitized for white consumption, or, more often, shut out of the narrative entirely, replaced by racist caricatures or rendered invisible. For 400 years, the stories of Black people on this continent were untold, belittled, or made the tools of white narrative and white profit.
Now we’re in a cultural moment where there are powerful, mainstream Black artists telling Black stories that may or may not include white people, may tell uncomfortable truths about white people in Black lives, or may use white people as metaphors. For 400 years Black people were used as metaphors in white art, so my sympathy for “not all white people” and “that’s not fair” is somewhere at the bottom of a pile of Magical Negroes, Gone with the Wind, and token Black friends.
In this cultural moment where powerful, mainstream Black artists like Beyoncé are telling their stories on their own terms, the white people who controlled the narrative– including how and when Black stories have been told– for the past 400 years need to sit back, shut up, and listen, listen, listen. You don’t like how white people are being portrayed? Spend some time thinking about why Black artists are portraying white people that way instead of demanding they adjust their stories to conform to your self-image as “the good guy.” We are not the heroes in these stories. We are not the intended audience. We are irrelevant, and there’s nothing people in power hate more than to be made irrelevant, but the fact remains that these are Black stories, by, for, and about Black people. You don’t like it? Don’t watch. But I recommend that you do, and give it some real thought. This is their truth. You do not get to dictate how Black artists see or portray their own lives.
The line of riot police surrendering to the power of a beautiful dancing child is not “anti-white” or “anti-police.” It is pro-hope, pro-life, pro-art, and pro-Black. If you don’t like the metaphor of the line of white police officers here, I suggest you spend some time thinking about why Beyoncé chose it.
The Formation video and the Superbowl show are examples of a powerful Black woman at the top of her game brilliantly telling Black stories for Black people, brilliantly seizing the narrative and asserting the beauty, power, and truth of a people who have been stringently and deliberately silenced for centuries in this country.
The call for Black women to get in formation, get information, and celebrate their power gave me chills. You hear a lot about “Black excellence,” and Formation is a potent reminder that Black excellence isn’t something created by white people congratulating themselves for bending down to hand out opportunities. Too many of us define “white ally” as “someone who is desperately needed by Black people to help them, and therefore deserves all the cookies.” Black excellence is already there, has always been there. It doesn’t need white validation, and the lack of fucks Beyoncé has for white validation from the center of her Black power is giving some white people fits.
Beyoncé, I hope you’re bathing in a marble tub full of white tears this morning.
My fellow white people: Listen. Listen. Listen. This is a Black moment, rarer than rare in this culture. If you don’t like the way Black artists portray white people, work on changing the impact of white people in Black lives, not on telling Black people they’re wrong about their own lives.
SIGNAL BOOST: “We Slay, Part I” by New South Negress is an excellent analysis of Formation.
IN ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTIONS:
The Oscars are nonsense. They’re Hollywood’s Homecoming Queen elections, as insular, as clique-ish, and as disconnected from any actual merit as any Homecoming election in any rich white high school. Rich white people congratulating each other for the kinds of achievements attainable only by people sitting atop an obscene amount of money– their own or someone else’s. They ask you to believe that the actual best acting, best directing, best editing, and best design of the year just always happen to be located in the one narrow strip of filmmaking that (entirely coincidentally!) has the most funding.
So the Oscars are more or less the Tonys of the filmworld– limited to a very narrow strip of exceptionally well-funded work while we all pretend the awards somehow represent the best of the nation’s work as a whole.
Most of the artists who receive Oscars or Tonys did a fine, in many cases excellent, job. I begrudge them nothing and honestly wish them nothing but the best. But it’s important to remember that we don’t give awards for the “best” work in theatre or film because we don’t even consider most work, and, most importantly, there’s no objective way to measure whose artistry is “the best” once you’ve eliminated some of the obvious worst– and, let’s face it, when it comes to Oscars for acting, even that’s seldom done.
We give these kinds of awards based on how an artist makes us feel; generally, how an artist makes us feel about ourselves. There’s an old saying: “When the audience cries, it’s not about you; it’s about them.” The people who vote for these awards are no different.
Despite the fact that these awards are meaningless as measures of artistic merit, they contain an immense cultural value. A great deal of that stems from the narrative of artistic supremacy created by Broadway and Hollywood. There are an entrenched group of extremely wealthy and powerful people whose fortunes depend on you continuing to believe that Broadway and/or Hollywood represent the pinnacle of American performative art. They’ve built and expertly marketed a superstructure of dreams and wishes that will make people who’ve never worked in either Broadway or Hollywood defend their artistic supremacy as if they’re defending their own children. I actually admire the way Broadway and Hollywood have controlled that narrative. There’s a terrible beauty to that level of cultural manipulation.
An immense part of that narrative of supremacy is rooted in the cultural supremacy that comes from cultural saturation, something only money can buy. A film like Fifty Shades of Grey–a film of questionable merit on many fronts— had the financial backing to play in theatres all across the country (and the world, but our cultural exports are a story for another blog), saturate the market with advertising, and command enormous press attention, garnering $166 million at the box office ($570.5 globally) and a basket of award nominations for The Weeknd for Best Original Song (Oscars and Golden Globes among them), while literally hundreds of much better films lacked the financial backing to receive such culturally potent– and lucrative– attention. Fifty Shades of Grey becomes, therefore, a permanent part of our culture, attaining a position of influence unrelated to merit, created by the wealth of its backers. People in the BDSM community were largely aghast at the misconceptions about themselves and their lives now lodged like a tick into the national consciousness. Now people who have never met anyone in the BDSM community “know” what “those people” are like, will make decisions about “those people” based on that. The power of cultural saturation coupled with the myth of artistic supremacy is immense. Everyone sees X + X comes from an “important” source = X is truth, even when X is demonstrable bullshit.
This is why, despite the fact that I will laugh in your face if you tell me the Oscars have artistic meaning, I think it’s crucial that we look closely at the messages we’re sending when we shut people of color out of those awards, because those messages have immense power in the real world.
First of all, do not bother to comment that a number of people of color were nominated for the Oscars this year, including Best Director and Best Original Song, mentioned above. I know many people who work behind the camera, and I am keenly aware that the current discourse is limited to the actor awards. It irritates me that tech people, directors, designers, and writers are so easily disregarded, and that the work of actors is regarded as so much more important in a medium where the work of the actor is actually of far less import than the underscoring, cinematography, and editing. The cultural primacy of the film actor exists, whether I like it or not. There’s a culturally important mythology around film actors that just doesn’t exist for most of us behind the camera. They are our mythological figures– our Achilles, our Ajax, our Helen, even our Artemis, Athena, Hermes, Apollo. We create unending mythology about them and their lives. The mythological Jennifer Lawrence is a combination of Artemis and Dionysus in our culture right now. Yet the real Jennifer Lawrence is just a young woman, no different than any other. We have raised her (more accurately, a mythologized version of her) to a mythological height that makes what she eats, what she wears, what she says, what she does, and who she sleeps with a matter of national interest, just as humans once created stories about what their gods ate, wore, said, did, and nailed. Film actors are seen, in essence, as metaphors for Human.
Because the Academy members are nearly uniformly white men over 60, the awards are almost always given to other white people– human metaphors that are emotionally potent for the person voting on the award. When an award is given to an actor of color, these older white men are still voting based on how the artist makes them feel about themselves– in this case, self-congratulatedly “not racist.” Then, satisfied that they got the Good White Person cookie, they go right back to nominating and awarding reflections of themselves.
So when we choose a thin, able-bodied, all-white pantheon to honor for film acting, it says that the people who are the best metaphors for Human are thin, white, and physically “perfect.” Our culture is filled to the brim with negative portrayals of people of color. When children grow up, they look to the culture at large to determine what’s expected of them. Are we really OK with a culture that tells children of color– on the cusp of becoming the largest population of children in this country— that they’re not as worthy as white children? For that matter, are we really OK with telling our girls that their worth is indelibly attached to their attractiveness to men? Because we do both, all the time, and they’ve resulted in a million different kinds of cultural and personal problems.
So I applaud the Academy’s response to the current controversy. I think increasing the amount of women and people of color on the panel is the best thing the Academy can do, since that diversity will result in more diverse choices. What needs to happen concurrently, of course, is better representation of women and people of color across the board in Hollywood, just as there should be on Broadway and across the professional theatre community as a whole.
But let me be clear here: (coughs, turns on mic) NOTHING CHANGES IF ALL THE GATEKEEPERS CONTINUE TO BE WHITE MEN.
The Academy is making the best possible decision. I hope it happens in time to make swift changes, not glacially slow ones, as is too often the case. And our own best possible decision is to increase the number of women and people of color who are in gatekeeping positions of power in the rest of the film industry and in theatre.
It’s a massive problem if the solution to a lack of diversity becomes asking white men to please hire more women and people of color, thank you. We need more women and people of color in these decision-making, content-creating positions of power or all we’re doing is preserving the cultural primacy and power of white men.
I’m not saying that we should fire all white men and give their jobs to women and people of color. I AM saying that when these jobs become available– when it’s time to hire artistic directors, producers, and the like– let’s consider hiring someone other than the white guy every single time. I’ve been watching this for a couple of decades now, and almost every time a position of power opens up, it’s filled by a man, usually white, always able-bodied, usually straight. Out of 70 LORT member theatres, 50 (71.4%) have white male Artistic Directors, 16 (22.8%) are led by white women, 4 (5.7%) by men of color, and zero by women of color. When you consider that white men are just 31% of the population, that’s significant favoritism at play.
It’s nonsense to say that there are just fewer women qualified to produce either theatre or film. The indie world is dominated by women. We just don’t promote them to the high-paid gigs as often as we do the straight white guys because our hiring practices are exactly the same as our awarding practices– the white guys in power are looking for reflections of themselves.
We’re asking the existing people in power who created the lack of diversity in the first place to create the diversity we want. And they will, to a point, if we push hard enough. But as soon as the cultural attention moves elsewhere, those people– straight white able-bodied male people in power– will go right back to making decisions that reflect their own experiences of the world– will go on making decisions that mythologize people like themselves– because they are human, and that’s what humans tend to do. And yes, there are many white men who are committed to diversity in their theatre or film companies, but they are, obviously, the exception or we wouldn’t be here, sitting in the middle of dismal diversity stats.
All I’m asking is that we, who work in these industries, make conscious decisions to include women and people of color when we’re hiring for these gatekeeping positions. We understand the immense cultural power of the actor, but we who work in these industries– most of us behind the scenes– also understand the even more potent gatekeeping power of the people who choose the actors– and everyone else on staff.
There’s nothing wrong with telling stories from a straight white male perspective. They are humans who deserve to have their stories told. But we need to make room for the other 69% of our population as well. The way to do that is to ensure that the people making the decisions about what stories get told, how they’re told, and who tells them are representative of the population as a whole.
In case you’re interested:
Over the course of its history, 66 Black actors have been nominated for an Oscar and 15 have won; 28 Latino actors have been nominated and 9 have won; 17 Asian actors have been nominated and 4 have won. This is the 88th Oscars, meaning 352 awards to actors have been given overall out of 1760 nominees.
Black actors nominated = 3.75% of total nominations; Black actors awarded = 4% of total awarded
Latino actors = 1.6% of total nominations; 2.5% of total awarded
Asian actors = 1% of total nominations; 1.1% of total awarded
For comparison, Black people are 13.2% of the US population; Latinos are 17%, and Asians are 5.6%.
I know, I know: I write about overused tropes often. (Who said irony is dead?) Maybe one day I’ll compile them all into a self-published e-screed entitled “Melissa Reads Too Many Plays,” but for now, the blog will have to do.
Sometimes a cliché works. You’re engaging with the trope in an interesting way, or you’re commenting on the trope’s ubiquitousness. But most of the time, it’s just lazy writing. You plonk a clichéd trope into the scene because you haven’t given the moment much thought, and a well-worn piece of cultural narrative fits neatly into the scene with little effort. Sometimes the clichéd trope is a cultural narrative about race, gender, or religion that you take as given without examining your unconscious biases. Sometimes you’re more focused on other aspects of the scene. Sometimes you’re just . . . lazy. AS ARE WE ALL.
I don’t mean you don’t care about your work. I just mean, sometimes we take the easiest way out because the issue doesn’t interest us as much as other things at that moment. Sometimes we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing.
Today’s edition of “Melissa Reads Too Many Plays” is centered around LADYPARTS. There are approximately eleventy gynillion inaccurate, irritating tropes about women and our MYSTERIOUS LADYBITS. Here are a few of the most preposterous.
Nausea and/or vomiting as the first sign a character is pregnant. I AM CALLING A MORATORIUM ON THIS. This trope is so bad it drags down the quality of the rest of the work. First of all, it’s inaccurate. While 75% of pregnant women experience nausea, only 50% will have to endure vomiting. Most importantly, it’s nowhere near the first sign of pregnancy. (For most of us, that honor belongs to sore boobs.) Vomiting is, however, the first outward sign of pregnancy that men have historically noticed because it’s the first outward sign of pregnancy that women cannot hide. In the 20th century, when this trope was popularized in TV and film written almost exclusively by men, few women paraded around the office telling male coworkers about their sore boobs. However, no one can avoid noticing the stenographer rushing out of a meeting to vomit in the trashcan in the hall. Presumably some of those male writers were fathers who knew better (depending on the level of disclosure they were willing to tolerate from their wives about their ladybusiness), but they were never going to get “Ow, my boobs” past the network censors. I’m not saying we should replace the nausea trope with a sore boob trope. I’m saying: Think about the ways you’re hinting at pregnancy. The second a female character of child-bearing age discusses nausea, your entire audience knows she’s pregnant. Is that how you wanted your reveal to go? Every other hint and lead-in after that is a boring time-waster. Your reveal happened the moment she threw up.
Random Unexpected Pregnancy. Why is your character pregnant? Is it because you have a specific reason for her to carry a child? Or is it because you’re out of ideas and you need to create some conflict for the male lead? Are you already calculating how to make this pregnancy magically disappear as soon as the male lead resolves the conflict? If you’re not writing about pregnancy– if the pregnant woman is just an event in your male lead’s life– think about what you’re trying to accomplish with this unexpected pregnancy, and see if you can accomplish it in a more interesting way. Also, once this trope gets started, it often opens up a can of worms of sexist (and boring) tropes– Women can’t tell what’s important and what isn’t (important = male lead’s central narrative, most of which he hides from her; unimportant = helping her install the carseat, a prenatal appointment); women are killjoys (pregnant girlfriend = the death of fun); women are dreamcrushers (pregnant girlfriend demands he stop being an artist and get a job even though he’s on the verge of a breakthrough because women just don’t understand).
Childbirth Starts with Water Breaking and Ends Within Five Minutes. Honestly, just have her give birth off stage. When your water breaks, it generally trickles out, and it NEVER STOPS. Your body keeps replenishing it. Trust the woman who sat on a towel for hours. Only 10% of women start labor with their water breaking, and for those who do, it can be as much as 24-48 hours before labor begins in earnest. If your character’s water breaks, and all hell breaks loose because THE BABY IS COMING!!11!, you’re manufacturing conflict. Average length of labor for a first-rime mother is 6 – 18 hours, not one scene. Why do you want to show the actual childbirth? What narrative motion are you hoping to achieve? Is there a way to accomplish that without using an unrealistic, clichéd trope?
Menstruation Turns Women Into Insane Blood Monsters. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” Just . . . no. Extreme mood swings occur in 3-8% of menstruating women. Chocolate cravings are not universal. I’m just going to set your play aside if your male lead comes home with chocolate for his bleeding wife who then screams at him for no discernible reason other than that you wanted to motivate his affair later in the play. This trope is both boring and misogynistic.
Fish Jokes. This is exactly the way to get me to delete your play, take a shower, and try to pretend it never happened. I’m honestly astonished that men are still making these jokes in 2015, but evidently, they are. If you’re seeking a way to make a male character seem like an obnoxious idiot trying to hide the fact that he’s a virgin, I can see using this trope, but I still hate it, and I am not alone. Begone, trope.
Women’s Sexuality is Mysterious and Confusing. WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?!? I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out: ASK HER. When a male character is flopping around haphazardly trying to please a woman who has almost no lines but who, presumably, just sits there with a vaguely disapproving look on her face, most of the people in your audience are going to get very frustrated very fast. She can communicate, can’t she? Using her as a prop to establish your male character’s adorable awkwardness, sincere cluelessness, or comic lack of skillz is a trope I never want to see again. Women’s sexuality is not a puzzle for men to solve. Women’s sexuality is not a comment on male sexuality. Women are, believe it or not, people.
The advice is the same for all of these: Think about what, specifically, you’re trying to achieve with these tropes and then work to achieve them in a more interesting way.