On Privilege, Casting, and Loss

Gentle readers,

About a month ago, I wrote a post that was mostly about Michelle Rodriguez kind of putting her foot in her mouth while talking about race and superhero films. It was of the most forgivable sort; she was walking to her car when someone stuck a microphone in her face and she said something off the cuff that had the veneer of being reasonable. She even went back and explained, in a mature fashion, what she meant after being met with backlash. I still think she was wrong. Change the gender, race, ability, and sexuality of white, male, straight, cis, and abled characters. Do it often, and be bold about it, because there’s nothing to lose, and there is only inclusion to gain.

The subject of “loss” brings me closer to my actual point: a significant proportion of white male rage over changing the gender and race of superheroes can be connected to a sense of loss. I’ve previously emphasized that it represents a fear of “loss of cultural property”, but I’d like to broaden my point for a second before returning to it. This fear is a microcosm of the larger fear of loss of those who occupy a dominant position in our society.

For proof of this fear in the world of comics and film, one need only look to the backlash against Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch, Idris Elba as Heimdall, a woman Thor, and the idea of Donald Glover as Spider-Man. For proof of this in the world at large, one need only look to the “Diversity is White Genocide” people. These are people who are genuinely afraid the goal of “diversity” is to remove white people from the picture altogether. Here is an article about these nutjobs. I will, for obvious reasons, not link to any of their actual material.

But, let’s zero back in. In my post on M. Rodriguez, I mentioned a now-infamous article on Deadline, originally titled “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of Good Thing?” which received significant backlash from people of color. I think the piece was well-intentioned, but cursed with a really stupid title, and is illustrative to my point though the case is not so much superhero properties but a fear of a loss of casting opportunities. Take the following:

…some suggest that the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors, some agents signal… “Basically 50% of the roles in a pilot have to be ethnic, and the mandate goes all the way down to guest parts,” one talent representative said.

I’ve explained my issues with a “color-blind” approach to casting before, and I still believe it to be a well-intentioned but functionally useless approach to equality. I may not have mentioned that I believe unconscious bias plays a role in the previous lack of diversity in casting. Why? It seems fairly plain that if casting directors, producers, and talent agents were genuinely committed to diversity and equality, the overwhiteness of television would not have been such a problem in the first place. The article quotes another talent rep as saying, “They need to say the best man or woman wins.” That is, to me, a tacit admission that meritocracy has not yet been the modus operandi of casting, though this rep thinks that’s how it should be.

It’s unfortunate, but good intentions are insufficient to counter years of racism and entrenched attitudes, and decades of Black people being relegated to magical negro sidekick roles. I respect the contention that “replacing one set of rigid rules with another by imposing a quota of ethnic talent on each show might not be the answer,” but nothing about the TV and film industries inspires trust that their good intentions alone will guarantee vibrant and nuanced roles of actors of color moving forward. It’s not as though inequality was the official policy and casting directors and producers had to be racially biased in their writing and casting, they just were. That’s not surprising; that is the world they lived in and the culture they were raised in. But that truth means it’s not enough to just throw up one’s hands and say, “It’s okay, everything is gonna be equal now.”

The article continues:

Many pilot characters this year were listed as open to all ethnicities, but when reps would call to inquire about an actor submission, they frequently have been told that only non-Caucasian actors would be considered.

This strays into territory which essentially asks “With this push for diversity, what about parts for Caucasian actors?” I struggle to take this seriously, because it’s been a while since I watched TV for a couple hours and didn’t encounter a veritable sea of the melanin-deficient. But it indicates this idea that a push for diversity is harmful to those at the top of the historical socioeconomic food chain.

In a way, that’s true. If you imagine someone who is at the top of a see-saw, Yertle-the-Turtle-esque king of all that they survey, and then the see-saw becomes level, their position has lowered somewhat. But, having had privilege, they don’t recognize that their elevated position was undue, and required that someone else be at the bottom. So, it’s understandable that they see it as a loss. Just ask any person of color: living and competing in a world without white privilege can be challenging and scary. But not everyone sees it as a loss.

Last week, such Hollywood figures as George Takei, Edward James Olmos, and Sonny Skyhawk joined a call from a wide-reaching coalition of ethnic advocacy groups, telling Hollywood to essentially get its house in order. The press release quoted a report from UCLA on diversity in the main talent agencies which said that “minority talent remained underrepresented on every front at the dominant agencies, as directors, leads, creators, and writers in film and television”. The press release goes on to say that given the “tremendous influence major talent agencies wield […] people of color are denied a fair chance at advancing their careers in the entertainment industry”.

You might take a look at data and information from NPR’s Codeswitch project on the subject. These data indicate that while America is 40% nonwhite, people of color are only 17% percent of lead roles. They also indicate that diversity sells, if you can get people to get over themselves long enough to try and change an overwhelmingly white and male entertainment industry.

The takeaway is the same whether we we’re talking about comic books, films, television, or just life in these United States. Not enough stories are written which make explicit space for diverse talent, and there’s strong resistance when people attempt to make that space in other ways, but we can’t let white men’s fear of losing privilege deny talented artists career opportunities. It’s both ludicrous and simply unfair.

Allow me to end with another quotation:

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

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3 thoughts on “On Privilege, Casting, and Loss

  1. I’m with changing the ethnicity of characters sometimes. But I feel perfectly valid to when seeing a character you love adapted into a visual medium to want them to look how you’ve always pictured them looking due to how they were written. Especially when being adapted from one visual medium to another.

  2. Okay, this comment is probably going to piss somebody off.

    But its interesting that White people are so interested in fairness now when for the last hundred years there’s been virtually none. After all, in order to claim that they are losing something, they first have to acknowledge, that there is SOMETHING that they are losing, but whatever it is they have, and are losing, they refuse to say. Nobody wants to say.

    Well I’ll say it. It’s called “privilege”. It’s called “dominance”. It’s called “mine” and “entitlement”.

    And how much of this backlash is a fear from White men, that once the playing field becomes truly level, that quite a few of them are really going to have to stop relying on “mine” , a smile and a firm handshake to make their way in the world, and have to seriously bring their “A” game. Especially if they expect to compete with women and PoC, who have had no choice but to be at the top of their game if they were to succeed. (Cream doesn’t always rise to the top. Sometimes it’s impeded by mediocrity taking up the space.)

    There are plenty of White men who are secure enough in their professional abilities, that the idea of diversity doesn’t bother them. The ones with their mouths open the loudest are usually the lazy, the mediocre, and less secure, who , deep down inside, know they’re no great shakes in their profession, were hired not on their professional capabilities but because they “fit in ” and would be slowly edged out of their jobs, if actual merit was the criteria being used.

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