Entertained by Marginalized Characters, but Not Empathizing with Them

A few weeks ago, vice president-elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton and the internet got into big fights over it. No surprise there. While there is no need to retread the controversy itself, or get into political debate, Pence and his party’s politics are well known. This event got me thinking, though, why would he want to see that musical? Was Pence unaware of the racial and social issues inherent in the musical? Maybe. Surprisingly enough, this made me think of many online multiplayer games in which we can see the same phenomenon happening. In games like Overwatch, people sometimes behave in a racist or sexist manner even while playing with a very diverse cast of characters. But I started to notice that this behavior is more prevalent when characters’ identities aren’t reflected in stories.

(via USA Today)

During online multiplayer gameplay, people will occasionally spurt racial slurs or jokes (usually towards Black people or folks of Middle Eastern descent) or sexist comments. While this is unfortunately nothing new to online games, this sort of harassment feels even more out of place in a game like Overwatch. The cast is multicultural and of many genders, and their various skills are all useful and necessary in different ways. Specifically, Lúcio, who is Afro-Brazilian, and Mei, who is Chinese, are considered especially useful and in some cases necessary to a proper team. I feel quite bewildered when someone calls me (or someone else) the n-word as they themselves are running around playing as a Black-Brazilian DJ. There is a disappointing dissonance here, that a person sees a character with a marginalized identity as valuable and necessary because of the skills they bring to the game, but does not see value in a real-world person of the same demographic.

A similar phenomenon happens in the culture of sports worship, where some fans will watch every game, but still harbor and express racist views in comments sections and discussions. How can this happen? I have some theories. With sports, it’s the most apparent: the athletes’ identities are not directly tied to their performance on the field. You can like the player for their abilities without caring much about their identity as a person. In Overwatch, this sentiment is still mostly true. While there are some flourishes around the characters that hint towards their cultural heritage, such as quotes in other languages or separate costumes, you can pretty much ignore the characters’ races or genders. We don’t engage with their identity in any meaningful way; knowing that Symmetra is an Indian woman, or that Sombra is Mexican, or even that Zarya has Russian heritage doesn’t have any real bearing on the gameplay. (The lack of cultural awareness isn’t limited to people of color or gender.) And finally, this brings us back to Hamilton. Despite the cast being largely people of color and despite the fact that it includes queer people and women, the story is still about white men. Rapping and diversity don’t change this.

The music helps, but what else do we know?

The music helps, but what else do we know?

I believe this is why we can get, for example, a politician with documented homophobic and racist beliefs who can still see and even enjoy media starring people they don’t care much about in real life. If characters don’t actively reflect their demographics, it can be difficult to empathize with that part of them. In a way, their culture can feel more ornamental than tied to them. It’s like a twist on the sexy lamp test: if a character could be replaced by a character of a different demographic and the same skill set, would that change anything significant about the story? In Overwatch, the story has such little effect on the gameplay that players never have to interface with the parts of the character that could teach players to have empathy for real-life people in that demographic.

In the case of Hamilton, part of the charm is that the founding fathers are racebent but still retain their historical impact. For example, you get Lin-Manuel Miranda telling Daveed Diggs that he is a slaver. This dissonance can give bigots a chance to dissociate identity from systemic issues. It’s one thing when you have one white man tell another to stop owning slaves; you keep the racial aspect intact. But when a Puerto-Rican man tells a Black man to stop owning slaves, slavery becomes a purely moral problem, separate from the racist institution it actually was. While I do find the value in having characters from marginalized groups live out stories that don’t only focus on their marginalization, I think reminders of their demographic can be useful to include in their life. I’m a Black man, and I participate in Black culture; I don’t just fight racism all day. If there was a story about my life, I would like it to reflect that. Stories about trans folks should be able to be told without transphobia, but their trans identity shouldn’t be hidden. Women characters shouldn’t have to be “one of the boys” to have a valid story.

By including these markers of identity, the character becomes more fully realized and encourages privileged people to see characters as a whole person rather than just something that exists for their amusement. Hopefully, in seeing them as a whole person, that privileged person can start to shed their internalized biases and learn to identify with someone different from them rather than simply expecting to be entertained by them. If creators add these markers to characters more often, I believe it will help to break down some of these walls.

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4 thoughts on “Entertained by Marginalized Characters, but Not Empathizing with Them

  1. Very interesting thoughts…thank you for this.

    When I first heard about the Pence (may his bones rot!) attendance at Hamilton, one of my first thoughts was that, to him, it was probably like what I saw in the U.K. when I went to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Troilus and Cressida, which is about the Trojan War, and had (when I saw it) an all-white cast except for one Black actor who played Paris. In that situation, that the actor was Black was incidental–he was a good actor and was in the RSC, and so he got that particular part, which was great on the one hand (since I’m sure he’s played Othello more often than not!), but on the other, despite the show being very much about race in many ways (Greeks vs. Trojans was considered entirely different “races” in the original Greek context as well as in Shakespeare’s play), since all of the other Trojans–mostly Paris’ brothers, as it happens–were white, this aspect wasn’t highlighted. When someone like Pence goes to see Hamilton, his thought probably isn’t that race is an issue, it’s along the lines of “Well, these are just actors who happen to be Black/Latinx/etc., and it doesn’t mean anything about the characters.” I think of the Marshall McLuhan idea of “the medium is the message,” but how often where acting is concerned, the “suspension of disbelief” aspect of it encourages people to not see the medium, and especially to not see the messengers, as the message at all.

    In any case, as much as I wish it were simply a lack of (useful!) cognitive dissonance on Pence’s part that prevented him from being changed by what he saw, and also by what the actors had to say to him, it might (sadly) be that just because of the nature of Western theatre and the theatre-going audience’s assumptions can see a show like Hamilton and be utterly blind to what is going on because of actor identities being subordinate to character identities, or something like that. It’s hard to convey, which is frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as the blindness that this situation has demonstrated in Pence, Trump, and their supporters towards anyone who isn’t white, cis, het, Christian, able-bodied, and preferably male.

    • I agree, yeah, it is frustrating. On the one hand, it’s totally great that people can see actors of any color and it not affect their enjoyment. And in most productions, like the show you mentioned, I don’t think it would matter. But with Hamilton, the casting is intentional. So in that case, if you’re doing it for more than just giving PoC and queer folk exposure, I think having cultural elements is important.

  2. So good! It makes me wonder about all of those future high school productions of Hamilton, and whether the cast has to made up of POC performers, and whether what counts in the end is that white people are always able to *play* POC, you know, like the minstrels did.

    • Thank you! I think these high school productions will sit in an odd place. I was never in drama clubs growing up, so I don’t know how much audiences lend a critical eye to them, so I’m not sure it will matter. But, there is an inherent tone to consider when a predominantly non-PoC school does the show. I think as long as the actors approach the roles sincerely and don’t try to caricature the racial elements of the Broadway actors, it should be fine.

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