Welcome to International Blog Against Racism Week!
If you would like to participate, here's what to do:
1. Announce the week in your blog.
2. Switch your default icon to either an official IBAS icon, or one which you feel is appropriate. To get an official IBAS icon, you may modify one of yours yourself or ask someone to do so, or ask oyceter
to do so as she has agreed to make a custom one for everyone who asks, or go to her LJ and take one of the general-use ones she put up.
3. Post about race and/or racism: in media, in life, in the news, personal experiences, writing characters of a race that isn't yours, portrayals of race on TV, review a book on the subject, etc.
Basically, the idea is that by fostering open discussion right now, future discussions will be less fraught and everyone will feel more comfortable talking about the subject.
There are a number of discussions going on at the moment regarding the portrayal of race in the second Pirates of the Caribbean
movie. I cannot comment on that movie, because I haven’t seen it. This post is about multicultural casting in general, by which I mean both the issue of writing roles for and casting minorities (as opposed to not writing about and casting them), and how doing so may or may not be done in a stereotypical manner.
My intent is to demystify the process by which dramatic media (plays, TV shows, and theatre) end up with the casts that they end up with, and in which minority actors end up playing memorable and unique characters, or are forgotten in the background, or play embarrassing stereotypes.
Once I get past the introduction and begin to discuss methods of casting, I will touch upon all the relevant issues: artistic, practical, and political.
(I will discuss similar issues in prose fiction in a different post.)
This is a subject which is quite complex and interesting, both artistically and politically, but which tends to generate discussions in which more heat than light is shed. However, I hope we can get past our natural defensiveness regarding a touchy subject, and actually talk about the issues at hand without insulting each other or resorting to straw-man arguments like, “You’re saying that a movie is racist unless 51% of the cast is black.”
I have faith that all my regular readers can do that. However, posts on touchy subjects tend to attract drive-by commenters. In the Pirates
debate, I was particularly startled by several totally non-sequitor anti-Semitic remarks like it's like some of the Jewish people thinking that all white people are neo nazi supremecists because EVERYTHING in some way comes back to anti-semitism.
and our teacher was so Jewish even the Jewish kids thought she was weird
. Not to mention the astonishing display of chutzpah by the latter commenter, who attempted to prove that she was not only not racist, but had been oppressed more than anyone ever, by claiming that her ancestors had been oppressed by slaves.
Given that, let me give fair warning to anyone who might drive by: any comments along those lines will not be deleted, but will be mercilessly mocked and preserved for all eternity, so little children who pass by will cry out, “Dear God, what is that thing?!”
Before I start, I will address a couple of points in advance, as they will certainly be brought up in comments if I don’t, and they tend to drown out discussion of more interesting issues.
(Note that I am mostly referring to American media, because that's what I'm most familiar with. The default for a hero in India, say, is not a white man, but an Indian man. If you are not American, please mentally substitute locally discriminated-against groups where appropriate. Also, while I am primarily talking about racial minorities, much of this is also applicable to women and non-racial minorities.)
1. Why should a movie have to put in a minority actor, solely for the sake of having a minority?
Why should the default be that everyone is white? Seriously: why?
If the story is intended to be realistic, most places and eras were not entirely white; if the story is fantasy, then why must an entirely made-up world be inhabited solely by white people?
2. Movies and TV are just entertainment. Please don’t ruin my light entertainment by forcing it to make a political statement by casting minority actors.
Why should entertainment be any less entertaining because there are minority actors onscreen?
Why shouldn’t minority audiences be able to enjoy light and fluffy entertainment that shows people like them, and isn’t spoiled for them by the inclusion of insulting stereotypes about them?
Finally, racial stereotypes, like non-racial stereotypes, are boring and predictable. If you avoid them, your work will be more entertaining, not less.
3. If you’re white and you write about minorities, you get criticized for stereotyping. If you leave them out, you get criticized for that. You can’t win!
Yes, this is a touchy area. Minority writers also get criticized no matter what they do. (If a minority writer writes about her own group, she may be criticized for making them look bad, or look unrealistically good, or by failing to address every possible angle, or of locking herself into a ghetto. If she doesn’t write about her own group, then she’s contributing to the lack of portrayals of that group.) Also, no matter how well anyone writes, they will get at least one bad review. No one is immune from criticism, nor should expect to be.
But if you make a good-faith effort to be inclusive and not be stereotypical, some people will appreciate it. Also, you will be helping to change the climate that causes so much criticism. A big reason why roles for minorities attract disproportionate criticism is that minorities are disproportionately underrepresented onscreen. Write more good minority roles, and eventually the sheer mass of them will cause each individual one to be less weighted.
4. But the movie just happened to be cast that way. No one sat down and decided to be racist, it just coincidentally happened that the Jewish characters were all greedy, the Hispanic ones all spoke in bad English, the Asians were sexless geeks, and the white characters were articulate, smart, sexy, and heroic!
It is quite possible that no one decided to be racist. However, movies do not descend from Heaven, untouched by human hands.
Every single thing in a movie is there because someone decided to put it there, and they decided to put it there for a reason. The choice to put a vase of flowers on the table, the choice to make them roses, the choice to make the roses red: there was a reason for all of that, whether thematic, plot-related, character-related, or because they harmonized visually with the heroine’s dress. And a human being also deliberately chose to either write in characters of a certain ethnicity, or cast them that way.
Now, it may be that no one thought of the implications of the greedy Jews, etc. Maybe they made the Jews greedy because of an unconscious assumption that Jews are greedy, not an active hatred of Jews. Or maybe they live under a rock and had never heard that Jews are frequently stereotyped as moneygrubbers. However, the result is the same. This is why it’s good to be aware of the implications of the choices we make. If we don’t ever question our assumptions, we may end up making statements we don’t mean to make, and be boring and stereotypical to boot.
(This doesn’t mean that you can never write a Jewish character who’s greedy, but that you should be aware that it’s a stereotype and have a reason for doing it anyway, and execute that reason well.)
5. What, I’m not allowed to enjoy anything unless it passes a political correctness litmus test?
Not at all. It is perfectly legitimate to have differing opinions on whether or not a work is racist or otherwise offensive, unless it’s something like Mein Kampf.
Also, we all love works which contain opinions or representations that we disagree with, whether it’s film noir where every woman is either an evil whore or an innocent victim, or a charming romantic comedy with a bit of vicious anti-Semitism thrown in as comic relief. It is perfectly possible to love a work and still be capable of seeing and discussing flaws in it, whether those flaws are artistic or political.
I will now discuss several different methods of casting, with particular reference to the various iterations of Star Trek. ( Black Klingons, Asian Computer Geeks, and Lt. Al Giardello )