In case you haven’t heard, Hollywood wants to remake everything. That isn’t new. And, in the view of big producers remaking old things as “gritty” and “x-treme!” new things, we have a new rendition of Peter Pan. Again. That hasn’t made much in the way of headlines, because A.) more people want to see Angelina Jolie in Meleficent and B.) Once Upon a Time already does “gritty”, YA-friendly retellings of Peter Pan et al, so who cares? Plus, I just think this market has kind of worn out its welcome. At first it was cool, what with our Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but now, now that we have “x-treme!” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and “x-treme” live-action Disney cartoons, the genre of “it was old and now it’s new and grownup and filmed in HD” is not really that cool. People didn’t embrace Robocop and Total Recall, and I haven’t seen anyone getting terribly stoked about the new Peter Pan.
That being said, it did make headlines for casting a white woman as Princess Tigerlily.
So, here we go again, the endless battle of racial casting. The usual arguments are as follows: “But, it should be about the talent, not the race! It’s just casting who’s best!”
And then we get The Last Airbender and The Lone Ranger, and clearly, no, there is no way what we got is the best. Airbender is unwatchable, and Lone Ranger just has Depp being Jack Sparrow again. Clearly this is not a meritocracy. It’s more of a stuff-producers-and-board-rooms-thought-would-sell-best-ocracy. So, capitalism. And you thought Hollywood was progressive, ha!
But, actually, a lot of people have been defending this casting decision, including a weird, Buzzfeed-style article from NPR. Seriously, first NetGeo went all Swamp People on us, and now my beloved bastion of pretention has started emulating the stuff I look up when I want to see pictures of French bulldog puppies? What’s next, putting One Direction in a Tiny Desk Concert? You leave Tiny Desk Concerts alone, evil boy bands!
Anyway, for those of you who actually pay attention to NPR (all 9 of us…) and know about it from something other than what does the FOX say, you know it’s really not a leftist station. Unless you think BBC collaboration is grossly left wing for not saying Obama is a Nigerian terrorist Muslim atheist child molester, in which case you are insane. Most of NPR is devoted to classical and underground music, trivia, car talk, Prairie Home Companion, interviews with artists and writers, discussions about the history of the world’s greatest cheese (possibly the best episode of anything ever). It’s more likely to tell you about all the craft beers you can drink at a rally than to tell you to rally. Unless you’re rallying behind craft beer. Is it perhaps more likely to appeal to someone sipping a latte in an indie café while reading Bitch Magazine than FOX’s demographic? Yes, but that’s hardly the only audience that tunes in to NPR. Although, I admit that it suffers from excessive gentrification at times, it also gives voice to unknown folk, country, and blues singers from down home places who may never have otherwise had a platform. So, I don’t know that you can say there is an NPR crowd other than the fact that it doesn’t actively fight to exclude the latte-sipper-Bitch-reader-in-indie-café the way FOX does. If anything, what you can expect is a lot of art and culture, a fascinating crossection of Americana, lots and lots of classical and opera performances, car talk, and some generally smart, solid programming, so what the hell is with this buzzfeed crap? (Says the person who inserts excessive pictures into all her posts to casually attempt at driving up hits…)
Anyway, I think the argument is thus: If you’re upset about this, are you also going to be upset at casting minor comic characters as black when they were originally white? Are you upset that the newest Phantom is black? Or that stage show Aladdin is Filipino?
And, I get where they’re coming from to an extent. Tigerlily isn’t exactly an iconic Native American character. Her tribe isn’t real, and is in fact named after a really racist word (no really). And, it’s not like the Disney cartoon isn’t, you know, offensive.
There, I said it. It’s an offensive representation. I’m always shocked when someone comes up and says, “Oh, Beauty and the Beast is SOOOO offensive! There’s a fleeting image of a pastor in the crowd when Gaston was going to marry Belle, because who ever heard of pastors at weddings? Offensive! And the father isn’t portrayed as a god-like figure of pure amazaballs! That’s offensive stereotyping!!!!” and then says, “Oh, don’t be so hypersensitive about Peter Pan. They’re only gross stereotypes of an entire people. Stop being so Politically Correct.”
I’ve come to a conclusion about Political Correctness:
If it affects the person speaking, it’s not Political Correctness, it’s decency! It’s morals! It’s family values!
If it doesn’t affect the person speaking, it’s Political Correctness, tyranny, and Hitler!
What’s weird is that almost every time someone invokes the ol’ PC it has exactly jack to do with being PC. What’s the political bent here? Real PC talk is like refusing to discuss money in politics, calling rich people “job creators”, and other forms of politicized language. What we’re referring to is just manners. It’s just being decent toward someone else and not caricaturing them as something sub-human, which, if you’re going to do any Nazi comparisons, is way, way, way more apt. Nostalgia doesn’t exempt someone from being respectful. You can’t be like, “Oh, I thought it was funny to laugh at Stepin Fetchit as a kid. So, that must be totally okay, you PC Nazis!” That works about as well as saying, “Oh, I enjoyed staring at people in sideshows! Therefore The Elephant Man is a liberal Nazi Hitler PC movie for making me recognize the humanity of people I just wanna stare at and mock!”
Also, stop invoking Hitler, people.
There actually is a difference between casting a black Phantom or a black Nick Fury, and casting a white Native American or Asian character. And, here’s why. We do not have a shortage of white actors in roles. Most of our heroes, romantic leads, and overall casts are white. Even in good movies, like Her, we’ve apparently conceived a very white future. If you’re a white actor, you are only limited by the number of other white actors you’re competing against. It’s not like there are only a handful of decent roles for you, and the rest of the time you’ll be in some niche like Tyler Perry movies or direct to DVD fare, or low-budget arthouse selections that will pay you in pennies while the director sells organs to get a single theatrical release. And, the majority of our celebrity coverage is also of white Hollywood.
So, when a white role is given to an actor of a different ethnicity, it’s not taking away from a tiny pool of representation, and it’s not taking one of the few jobs an actor can get. It’s not like when Nick Fury became a black character that was the only role for white people. The entire Avengers ensemble is white!
Furthermore, there is history to consider. Who has told the stories? Whose voices get heard the loudest? In cases of Native American representation, they have been cast by white people in circuses and mock train robberies to play “savages”.They have been cast as antagonists for cowboy heroes. They have been cast as hippies for a yuppie earth-love analogue of bourgeois values. There is a long history of appropriating and defining their culture as whatever white people want it to be.
However, how often do we see Native American roles? Really. Ask yourself that. And, how often in roles when the race is incidental, like a rom-com heroine, a scientist, an action star, do we see Native actors just getting cast? Are you saying that Native American peoples just cannot act, that acting just isn’t a thing they can do? The fact is, when you give a Native Role to a white person, it’s not the same as casting a black Phantom. It’s not the same because there are hardly any Native Roles written, for anyone.
It’s also not the same because Phantom of the Opera is a stage show, so there are many, many chances for people to play the title role, in many productions. Plenty of white people have played the Phantom. Most. Pretty much all. This is only making the news because it’s the first time on Broadway, maybe ever, that he hasn’t been white. Also, stage shows don’t follow the same rules as movies. People bend gender, race, age, et cetera, all the time. While there is a lack of representation for particular groups, and I wish every talented actor could be cast fairly, it’s much more fluid than movies. You can cast a 47 year old woman as a teenaged boy in an opera. But, you can’t cast white people as Asian people in Cloud Atlas and have it not be incredibly uncomfortable and scary as hell. Film demands more verisimilitude.
And, again, the argument that Tigerlily isn’t a good role kind of doesn’t… work at all. What, you’re saying the source material and other adaptations are racist, so we have to be racist? I thought these were supposed to be reboots. Are we not rebooting the character, just keeping the stereotype? Why? Why do that? Why bother rebooting at all if you think the original should just be left alone? What is the point of that?
And, lastly, I think that producers don’t give audiences enough credit. They have really strict ideas about what audiences will and will not watch. They think that boys won’t follow the adventures of girls, and it was a cliché truism until The Hunger Games and everyone proved them wrong. Which, if you have ever encountered human beings outside of a very strict bubble, you already knew. Little boys have long been just fine with stories about girls, like Pippi Longstocking, which was a favorite when I worked in children’s libraries. A favorite of more boys than girls, actually.
People also think that America will only watch white people, so they do things like make the racially diverse Avatar the Last Airbender a white vs. Indian/Middle Eastern story.
And, yes, I know that Zuko becomes good. But, that’s not really the point, especially since there won’t be any sequels to the movie. The point is, the show has many fans, and they love it, and they love the characters, and they don’t want to see a bunch of bad child-actors shoved into roles that that shouldn’t fill. Not only shouldn’t they fill the roles because they are bad actors, but also because these aren’t white roles. Part of what people love about the show is its world-building, and it is built on distinctly non-white culture. This is just what the show is. Casting white actors just feels like cultural appropriation. It also just looks silly.
Similarly, audiences didn’t love Jack Sparrow Tonto, and that movie was an enormous disaster.
When Hollywood has occasionally rebooted material with black actors in what had been white roles, it’s also not a role contingent on race. The Karate Kid’s race is incidental. And, there’s nothing about being an orphan that makes Annie inherently white. But, Tigerlily and Tonto are specifically written as Native American characters. The Karate Kid and Annie are not played in white-face, and the characters are not representing some specific part of white history. They’re just kids, and kids are everywhere. Tigerlily and Tonto cannot be played as white, because the characters are Native American. It isn’t like having a black Karate Kid. It’d be like having a black John Smith, where race is in fact integral to what we are representing. Or, in terms of fiction, a black Snow White doesn’t work, for obvious reasons. If your character is written as inherently a specific race, then the actor doesn’t just make the role his or her own. The actor has to appropriate the race, and it is awkward. Depp didn’t play a role that had once been played by a Native actor. He played a role that is a Native character, and that is the difference between this and other race-bent reboots.
I don’t think that the meritocracy argument works, mostly because it isn’t a meritocracy. But, even if it was, it hinges on the idea that only a white actor would be best for the part. There are plenty of white actors who are very talented, and there are many roles for them, but to say that they also need the roles of other races is to imply that other races aren’t as talented. Yeah, Roony Mara is a great actress, and she may have done really well reading for Tigerlily, but does that mean that no one else could do as well in the role?
It isn’t as if Tonto or Tigerlily are especially great Native American roles. But, with so few Native Roles, and Hollywood’s disinclination to cast non-race-specific roles with diverse actors, there are only so many opportunities for work. This isn’t an issue of whether or not it’s okay for these stars to play race-bent roles, but whether or not other actors are able to get work at all.
My question is: did the filmmakers even try?
And this brings me to a recent pseudo-news, celebrity faux pas story about Heidi Klum, who recently dressed up like a historically inaccurate “sexy squaw” stereotype for a German reality show.
Although I don’t think German reality TV ever needs to be news, any more than American reality TV or British reality TV or any reality TV, what interested me was the reaction. People were outraged, not over Klum’s “redface”, but over the fact that anyone considered it racist. People were quick to point out that, you see, Americans just don’t get that Germany has a tradition of seeing Native American people in this way.
Because we all know that if Germany has a traditional view of a particular race, it’s best to follow that view without question. I don’t remember a time that has ever been racist in the slightest…
However, this does bring up an interesting point. The argument isn’t whether or not the people represented care, but whether or not white America or white Germany are the best white people in this white person argument. The voice of the Native American people doesn’t matter.
This is regularly the argument behind race issues, that white liberals are just whining and other white people should do their thing. The only people whose possible offence is even questioned are white. The idea that someone from another race might actually have opinions about how they are represented is never questioned. Which, for the record, they do.
Another reaction I saw was that if people like Heidi Klum do not dress up as stereotypes of Native American culture, then the Native American peoples will only be represented by casinos. In other words, Native Americans don’t have a culture anymore. They’re just poor. And, white people now rightfully own all that is attractive about their culture and can appropriate it as such.
The fact is, Native American voices do exist. There are actors, artists, writers. If you are more familiar with a white woman in feathers than you are with Zitkala-Ša, Leslie Marmon Silko, Mary Brave Bird, and Sherman Alexie, then it’s not that Native American culture is missing but that you’re systematically ignoring it.
Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite people of all time and author of Fahrenheit 451, once said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
By not knowing these writers, or artists, or employing actors to represent their own people, you’re silencing the culture. It isn’t that casinos and silly modeling reality shows are all that are left for Native Americans. It’s hard to read, so let’s just watch Heidi Klum take sexy pictures for a reality show.
The greatest sin a person can commit these days is asking someone to care about something. The best way to bring on rage is to say, “Maybe you should eat something that doesn’t hurt the environment, or be more energy efficient, or not commoditize a person based on sexual appeal in order to sell beer, or not sexualize young girls, or not support exploitative businesses, or care about the representation of a people.” It doesn’t cause people to change oh-so-much to say that maybe Heidi Klum’s bad photoshoot was also pretty racist, or that maybe we should actually start casting Native American actors. But, even this small amount of change is enough to send people into a rage of tooth-gnashing and pants-wetting.
But, in the end, these aren’t abstracts that white liberals and white conservatives do or do not care about. These are issues about people, people who have their own voices and cares, and whose culture is very real.
It’s not that they don’t have a voice. It’s whether or not anyone is listening.