Friday, 13 March 2015

Let's Talk Diversity In The Western Media

I've often asked people the question "what limits can an actor play with race?" receiving very little in response. It frustrates me because it's something that I'm genuinely curious about. As an aspiring actor, I'd like to feel as there are no limits to what I can do if I put enough effort, but nowadays it's becoming more apparent that maybe some limits should be set to actors. Specifically, don't play races or sexual orientations you're not. It's becoming more of a no-brainer to not paint your face any other color unless you're trying to be an alien, mutant or fantasy character, but there's still the matter of white straight men dominating the world of entertainment. The heroes, be them super, spy or regular are all the same dudes and the villains or supporting characters are always left to the more diverse selection of actors. Sometimes it's a matter of white-washing, other times it's a matter of centering it around the white guy and then there's the matter of "the inspirational story". It frustrates those who are of that race or sexuality that they can't get the main role that seems more geared to their appearance. Though acting is about becoming someone else, it does come to the detriment of someone else not being able to play their part. It's not only acting that's the problem, it's the representation of races, gender, disabled persons and sexuality in the media. Diversity is an issue has tons of angles to tackle from that it wouldn't be fair that what I have to say will cover all of it or even to it's fullest detail. My aim is more to get a general overview of the topic.

Now, you may notice I said Western media rather than just media in general. Well that's because the Western media is the one that has the largest challenge of multiculturalism. Other countries have their own issues with representing their population no doubt. Former Yugoslavian countries probably don't treat whoever their minority group is too fairly in their media, but we can somewhat agree that their population is more homogeneous than the US, Canada or the UK. Western media has to factor in that there's a lot of minority groups on their hands and that all of them together are more than their standard demographic. To an extent they're getting there, but not enough for people to stop complaining. See, there's always been sort of this complicated relationship between social progress and the media. For the most part, there's a party that always benefits and one that gets a nightstick shoved up their ass. When the latter pulls it out and starts chanting for change, a lot of art, entertainment and activism breaks out from it to be in support of the movement. Naturally there's tension but figures do seep through to the mainstream and make a bit of a change to improve the environment. When those do, the benefiting party then calls out "Alright, racism's over! Sexism is not a thing anymore!" whilst simultaneously telling the old joke about the Arab, the nigger and the spic who walked into a bar and "accidentally" knocking things down to get a peek at the secretary's panties. It's not that progress is an illusion, it's just that the amount made is. I thought racism was at the very least a lot less fucked up in the 21st century and then Ferguson happened. Things still aren't fairly leveled.

Though that's not to say that social structures haven't changed. Progress is still progress and in the current age of technology, everyone has a voice. As such, there's bound to be a lot of people who are creating and sharing their own stories which come from very diverse backgrounds. There's cultural diversity a plenty if we dig around the net long enough. So we can't really say that people aren't making an effort to tell these stories. Neither can we say that people aren't hearing those voices when there's enough of them. Works such as Orange Is The New Black or Book of Life are opening the doors for other perspectives in media to seep through. As well, we are getting actors, writers and directors exploring more roles than their race, sex or sexual preference would generally limit them to. Culture is being explored, sexuality is becoming a subject to talk about rather than suppress, important issues are being addressed in some ways. It's allowing people to become represented in some way, and representation can inspire others to make further advances. When you see someone like you in the media, you feel that you too can reach that level if you put in the effort, rather than be discouraged that the game is rigged against you.

Think about it in the context of an action movie. Everyone likes seeing action movies, they have people who are tough who do their best to fight evil and better themselves from the internal faults that stand in their way. Some of us look up to what those protagonists represent to us. There are tons of action movies that we watch and enjoy and respect. Now, if you add on top of it a multicultural cast and have the enemy be aliens, you are allowing more people to enjoy the product and be part of it positively. You'd have Pacific Rim, basically. That movie works so well not only because it gives way to various other characters of different cultures, but it treats them fairly. Action movies, as great as they are, will tend to have other nationalities as the enemy and the white badass man taking those bastards down a peg. Sometimes it's relatively harmless because we know it's not intentionally racist and that they connect it to a political issue. Other times, it gives off a bad taste because when it's seen so often and there's no other perspectives to even it out it feels more like an attack. Instead of that, we accentuate the better aspects of an action movie and include others on the good side to inspire more people. Having more of those stories and perspectives allows for this to happen. And sure they might be still have some issues with centering it around the white, straight and/or male (like Girls, Transparent and to a slight extent Orange Is The New Black), but we can't say that there isn't some progress being made, and large leaps at that. Certain circles are recognizing some of the efforts made by these people, others are not. That's not so much a problem as it is that there isn't enough chances being taken. People are still sort of leaning on the safe side of things.

Case in point, the superhero issue. It's becoming more of a routine to win easy diversity points by just changing an established superhero into someone of a different race or sexuality. Mostly you see this in comics, but people tend to not like it. Some complain that the heroes should just stay as they are which makes them sound like racists. Others complain that this is simply a superficial way to seem like they're making progress and really they only end up embarassing themselves either with stereotyping or just painfully progressive writing. It's not entirely crazy to perhaps give other people a try. I'm sure we'd love to see Idris Elba as the first black Bond, but maybe it would be better to see him as his own badass character in a separate production. It gives diversity more of weight if instead of replacing established roles to other groups that you already establish roles so that other groups can jump in. Even with that, there's a tendency to disregard it and simply go for the white straight man.

Look, I have nothing against the white straight man. I have a white straight man for a father and he's an alright guy. A lot of my favorite actors are white straight men. But I can understand when people get pissed off that the white straight man is playing a role designed for someone that's not a white straight man. It happens all the time when we have the Americanization of an Eastern movie, which not only shows the ignorance of Hollywood, but also their laziness. Not only there, but stories involving gay or transsexuals also have the issue of white straight men getting all the parts and more people are getting annoyed because of it. I'm sure that even disabled people are annoyed that the only ones that get to play those parts are white straight men (though really it may just be people that aren't disabled, period). These people want a chance too, so why not give it to them?

Well, there's a lot of reasons for it, but perhaps one that I'm interested most in is when an actor wants to push their own limits. The most challenging thing for an actor is if they stray as far from their own selves for a role. Fat actor becomes buff, shy actor becomes outgoing, straight actor becomes gay. They want to see that other side and some of them go to outrageous lengths to do it. This is prominent when an actor wants to play disabled as they look at people who have the condition they play as and spend hours imitating them to the point of exhaustion. We find that awe-inspiring to see an actor go to tremendous lengths to become someone so drastically different. Now, that can't happen with race because we know that blackface was never used as a way for white people to properly imitate a black person's plight so much as to make fun of them. Sexuality and disability though? It may be better since one can be more respectable about it, but we can't act like people are going to be peachy about it. 

Again, it's because it's at the expense of someone else getting the chance to play a role that people don't much like it when it's only left to people who are white, straight, male or a combination of the three. Though I understand why some of those actors play those roles. I left out that it's a matter of demographics, possible racism in Hollywood, the matter of "default" and a few others because I know that all actors want the wiggle room to play other roles. Some actors may be fine playing the same role, others want to avoid typecasting and stereotyping. And sometimes they want to play roles that transpire their own skin color and orientation, but those who already have that color and orientation should get the chance to play those roles as well as experiment if they so choose to. It seems prudish to simply say that every actor must play to their own ways, because then we might as well expect them to go through medical school if they're thinking about playing a doctor on screen. Though perhaps it wouldn't hurt if for a while we might have to let everyone just play to their own background and experiment in circumstances, until we even the environment enough so that people can play whatever they want if they're good enough at it. Although we sort of have it with voice acting, we need it more in live-action.

We need more stories to reflect more of the diversity of the world we live in. Those stories have to be big enough so that others can see. Having them in their own communities is fine if they're successful in them, but that success should be able to flourish in others if the product is well-crafted. When those who are not from the typical background make it through, we should not belittle them in their moment of grandeur or halfheartedly appreciate their efforts. We should be proud of them and acknowledge their efforts. I don't necessarily want all of them to be lauded endlessly simply because they're diverse, I just want more of them to have a chance on a larger stage so that more succeed. When more of them succeed, there's more appreciation and recognition for them. It's nice that there are a multitude of unique products that exist out there, but it doesn't seem fair that most of them are left underground rather than given a chance in the larger spectrum.