I wanted my first-year film students to understand what happens to a story when actual human beings inhabit your characters, and the way they can inspire storytelling. And I wanted to teach them how to look at headshots and what you might be able to tell from a headshot. So for the past few years I’ve done a small experiment with them.Some troubling shit always occurs.
It works like this: I bring in my giant file of head shots, which include actors of all races, sizes, shapes, ages, and experience levels. Each student picks a head shot from the stack and gets a few minutes to sit with the person’s face and then make up a little story about them.
Namely, for white men, they have no trouble coming up with an entire history, job, role, genre, time, place, and costume. They will often identify him without prompting as “the main character.” The only exception? “He would play the gay guy.” For white women, they mostly do not come up with a job (even though it was specifically asked for), and they will identify her by her relationships. “She would play the mom/wife/love interest/best friend.” I’ve heard “She would play the slut” or “She would play the hot girl.” A lot more than once.
For nonwhite men, it can be equally depressing. “He’s in a buddy cop movie, but he’s not the main guy, he’s the partner.” “He’d play a terrorist.” “He’d play a drug dealer.” “A thug.” “A hustler.” “Homeless guy.” One Asian actor was promoted to “villain.”
For nonwhite women (grab onto something sturdy, like a big glass of strong liquor), sometimes they are “lucky” enough to be classified as the girlfriend/love interest/mom, but I have also heard things like “Well, she’d be in a romantic comedy, but as the friend, you know?” “Maid.” “Prostitute.” “Drug addict.”
I should point out that the responses are similar whether the group is all or mostly-white or extremely racially mixed, and all the groups I’ve tried this with have been about equally balanced between men and women, though individual responses vary. Women do a little better with women, and people of color do a little better with people of color, but female students sometimes forget to come up with a job for female actors and black male students sometimes tell the class that their black male actor wouldn’t be the main guy.
Once the students have made their pitches, we interrogate their opinions. “You seem really sure that he’s not the main character – why? What made you automatically say that?” “You said she was a mom. Was she born a mom, or did she maybe do something else with her life before her magic womb opened up and gave her an identity? Who is she as a person?” In the case of the “thug“, it turns out that the student was just reading off his film resume. This brilliant African American actor who regularly brings houses down doing Shakespeare on the stage and more than once made me weep at the beauty and subtlety of his performances, had a list of film credits that just said “Thug #4.” “Gang member.” “Muscle.” Because that’s the film work he can get. Because it puts food on his table.
So, the first time I did this exercise, I didn’t know that it would turn into a lesson on racism, sexism, and every other kind of -ism. I thought it was just about casting. But now I know that casting is never just about casting, and this day is a real teachable opportunity. Because if we do this right, we get to the really awkward silence, where the (now mortified) students try to sink into their chairs. Because, hey, most of them are proud Obama voters! They have been raised by feminist moms! They don’t want to be or see themselves as being racist or sexist. But their own racism and sexism is running amok in the room, and it’s awkward.
This for every time someone criticizes how characters of color and female characters of color especially are treated in text and by subsequent fandoms. It’s never “just a television/movie/book”. It’s never been ”just”.
“…and by subsequent fandoms.“ <— bless this addition.
This one is always worth reblogging.
When I say, “Representation matters,” it’s not just the presence of PoC, women, PwD, LGBTQIA, in narrative, it’s the roles are those characters are occupying.
The hall of mirrors that is the interplay between fiction and real life becomes a negative feedback loop with real consequences, because we internalize things and then we act them out.
Storytelling is a powerful thing. What stories are we telling, and why?
This is a jar full of major characters
Actually it is a jar full of chocolate covered raisins on top of a dirty TV tray. But pretend the raisins are interesting and well rounded fictional characters with significant roles in their stories.
We’re sharing these raisins at a party for Western Storytelling, so we get out two bowls.
Then we start filling the bowls. And at first we only fill the one on the left.
This doesn’t last forever though. Eventually we do start putting raisins in the bowl on the right. But for every raisin we put in the bowl on the right, we just keep adding to the bowl on the left.
And the thing about these bowls is, they don’t ever reset. We don’t get to empty them and start over. While we might lose some raisins to lost records or the stories becoming unpopular, but we never get to just restart. So even when we start putting raisins in the bowl on the right, we’re still way behind from the bowl on the left.
And time goes on and the bowl on the left gets raisins much faster than the bowl on the right.
Until these are the bowls.
Now you get to move and distribute more raisins. You can add raisins or take away raisins entirely, or you can move them from one bowl to the other.
This is the bowl on the left. I might have changed the number of raisins from one picture to the next. Can you tell me, did I add or remove raisins? How many? Did I leave the number the same?
You can’t tell for certain, can you? Adding or removing a raisin over here doesn’t seem to make much of a change to this bowl.
This is the bowl on the right. I might have changed the number of raisins from one picture to the next. Can you tell me, did I add or remove raisins? How many? Did I leave the number the same?
When there are so few raisins to start, any change made is really easy to spot, and makes a really significant difference.
This is why it is bad, even despicable, to take a character who was originally a character of color and make them white. But why it can be positive to take a character who was originally white and make them a character of color.
The white characters bowl is already so full that any change in number is almost meaningless (and is bound to be undone in mere minutes anyway, with the amount of new story creation going on), while the characters of color bowl changes hugely with each addition or subtraction, and any subtraction is a major loss.
This is also something to take in consideration when creating new characters. When you create a white character you have already, by the context of the larger culture, created a character with at least one feature that is not going to make a difference to the narratives at large. But every time you create a new character of color, you are changing something in our world.
I mean, imagine your party guests arrive
Oh my god they are adorable!
And they see their bowls
But before you hand them out you look right into the little black girls’s eyes and take two of her seven raisins and put them in the little white girl’s bowl.
I think she’d be totally justified in crying or leaving and yelling at you. Because how could you do that to a little girl? You were already giving the white girl so much more, and her so little, why would you do that? How could you justify yourself?
But on the other hand if you took two raisins from the white girl’s bowl and moved them over to the black girl’s bowl and the white girl looked at her bowl still full to the brim and decided your moving those raisins was unfair and she stomped and cried and yelled, well then she is a spoiled and entitled brat.
And if you are adding new raisins, it seems more important to add them to the bowl on the right. I mean, even if we added the both bowls at the same speed from now on (and we don’t) it would still take a long time before the numbers got big enough to make the difference we’ve already established insignificant.
And that’s the difference between whitewashing POC characters and making previously white characters POC. And that’s why every time a character’s race is ambiguous and we make them white, we’ve lost an opportunity.
*goes off to eat her chocolate covered raisins, which are no longer metaphors just snacks*
When Superman: Man of Steel came out people were saying that the film was too gritty and cynical and it was that cynicism that destroyed the Superman we have always know and loved.
That it was that very cynicism that had Superman break his cardinal rule of do not kill and had him that very thing, kill.
As the reviews come out about Batman vs Superman and the bleakness and cynicism of that film I posit that the reason Superman has killed and the reason he is so unrecognizable as the hero we grew up with and the hero we loved and looked up to is because every essence of his Jewishness has been meticulously and calculatingly been scrubbed out.
Superman was written by two Jewish teens in the early 30′s and they imprinted onto Superman a Jewish identity.
Superman is in Diaspora. His homeland gone, his language, his culture, and his heritage both alien and foreign to were he lives. Living day to day with a part of himself hidden so as to be live a somewhat unmolested life.
He must struggle with what it means to be a member of his people while not having his people or culture around him and while having the outside culture imposed upon him and expected to assimilate to this outside force.
A great example of this can be seen oddly enough in Man of Steel when Lois Lane asks Superman what the S on his chest stands for. He tells it means hope in his people’s language and Lois responds by saying that here it is a S.
Superman is expected to accept this new reality and to let go of his culture and understand that he must rather assimilate instead. That he must let go of what it means in his language and culture and understand that it is now a S.
It is the internal struggle of the Jew. To survive in Diaspora. To endure and still maintain a sense of self and one’s roots. To keep your people’s language, customs, and culture alive especially surrounded by a world where you are the alien. You are the foreign being and you must assimilate and then be grateful that you were allowed to be forced to assimilate in the first place.
Superman has two masks. The mask of Superman and the mask of Clark Kent. Kal-el, is the face of Superman and not the mask. Kal-el is the struggle to survive when you are the alien.
Superman in the films and especially Man of Steel and even more so in Batman vs Superman is meant to be a jesus figure. A Messiah.
But that is not what he really is. He is rather the personification of Tikkun Olam.
Tikkun Olam is that each and every person is obligated to fix the world. To leave it a better place that when it was when you got there. To work towards justice, peace, and truth, the three pillars of Judaism.
Superman is meant to reflect what each of us can be. What we should be and should do. That when given the opportunity to good we should take it with both hands. That is whatever way we can with whatever our own abilities and powers are we should help others when given the chance. That is Tikkun Olam and that is Superman.
The new Superman does not fail because it is cynical. The new Superman fails because he is not Jewish.
You forgot to mention that kal-el, which in Hebrew is famously and intentionally spelled קל א-ל means “voice of G-d”. His story specifically was based on that of Moshe in many ways. His father and mother – knowing that if he stayed with them he would only find death – placed him in a basket. And that basket, they floated down a vast river. The river of stars and particles, and seemingly nothingness. A nothingness that swallows everything which has falls into it. And that basket came to a place where he could grow up, and where in the end, he was needed. I personally don’t know much about the movies – my job as colony paper pusher leaves no time for such fun, but I agree with you. To erase superman’s jewish identity is to erase superman and create an entirely new character, empty and devoid of its original meaning and purpose.
Running with this, I want to point out fundamentally different approaches between Christian and Jewish traditions on heroism, and good and evil. To simplify a couple hundred years of literature and parable: in Christian fantasy, you have to eradicate evil. The narrative of Christian goodness is generally a strenuous, violent opposition to badness, and frankly this moral philosophy makes people really fucking dangerous, because in order to define themselves as good, they have to be fighting something bad. Purge their sins, slay their demons, drive out the unbelievers. In Jewish fantasy, to do good, you have to actually find things to do that are helpful and needed. It’s not so oppositional, it’s… supplemental. If no one is helping someone, you help them. If no one is fixing something, you fix it. The hunger of children is as important as the enemy at the gate. Kal-El, the voice of god, protects his people both as a super-man and as a human reporter. In both cases, on both stages, he asks people to stand up for truth and justice, and to stand up for each other.
I did not know this and it is VERY NEAT
I wish straight people knew how heartbreaking queerbaiting actually is for us. Like, you’re not just teasing a relationship. You’re dangling equal representation in front of our faces, being treated like human beings in front of our faces, with amazing and varied characters whose storylines are more than how straight people kill us (bullying) disease kills us (hiv scare) or we kill ourselves due to the tragedy of our story.
You dangle it and go “am I gonna? Am I gonna? ….Lol no, a show with gay lead characters?! No one would *ever* watch that!” and don’t see why it hurts us.
Legit. The message it sends is “nobody wants to see people like you”, no matter how much anyone says otherwise.
(God Bless Bryan Fuller.)
the thing that Gets To Me about mark hamill’s treatment of luke’s gender and sexuality doesn’t really have anything to do with luke being gay because like. i’ve never watched these movies.
but it touches me so much, so deeply, because so often when creators or actors are asked questions like this, they either laugh it off or condescend to their fans. we get mocked for hoping our heroes could be like us, and it’s like – it’s just another slap in the face when you’re already being ridiculed by the culture all the time anyway.
“if you think luke is gay, of course he is!” is a statement that is about way more than luke skywalker’s sexuality. it’s someone saying that if seeing yourself reflected in The Hero is good for you – if it eases your pain, if it helps you navigate your trauma, if it brings you comfort – then of course you can. you don’t need permission. of course luke skywalker can be gay!
it is just so empowering and so good to not feel like the butt of a joke for daring to see myself in characters that i love.
praise be to luke skywalker, the trans gay hero we all deserve
Okay, but the first HP book came out in 1997. That was almost twenty years ago. No, JKR was not fully aware of her white/straight/cis privilege at that time. She has had 20 years to get better. She also wrote the first draft on table napkins while working as a single mother of multiple children and receiving public support.
We are allowed to retrospectively critique her lack of inclusivity. We are also allowed to think that perhaps her awareness of the lack of said inclusivity has improved.
Just as a goddamn FOR EXAMPLE, in 1997, if Rowling had tried to pitch Dumbledore, a school headmaster, as openly homosexual, her book would never have been published. Want some evidence? I can do that.
Regulations were introduced for discrimination protections on sexual orientation in employment on 1 December 2003, following the adoption of an EC Directive in 2000, providing for the prohibition of discrimination in employment on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Right, so he (Dumbledore) could have been fired for being gay at any point prior to 2000, even assuming Wizarding law was keeping up with Muggle law, which is a goddamn stretch considering how shoddy trials and evidence are maintained throughout Auror procedurals.
And, regarding “she could have made more students of color in the first place,” um:
The Race Relations Act 1965 outlawed public discrimination, and established the Race Relations Board. Further Acts in 1968 and 1976 outlawed discrimination in employment, housing and social services, and replaced the Race Relations Board with Commission for Racial Equality that merged into the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2004. The Human Rights Act 1998 made organisations in Britain, including public authorities, subject to theEuropean Convention on Human Rights. The Race Relations Act 2000 extends existing legislation for the public sector to the police force, and requires public authorities to promote equality.
After 2000, some argued that racism remains common, and some politicians and public figures have been accused of promoting racist attitudes in the media, particularly with regard to immigration, however race and immigration although related are not the same concepts. There have been growing concerns in recent years about institutional racism in public and private bodies. Although various anti-discrimination laws do exist, according to some sources, most employers in the UK remain institutionally racist including public bodies such as the police and the legal professions.
I’m not saying “JKR has always been conscious of her White Privilege.” I’m not saying “she intended this from the start.” I’m saying, she started this fucking series when she was 25, she got it published when she was 32, and she is now fifty and has millions of dollars, resources, and feedback.
Hey, check it out: she’s had twenty-five years to learn.
Jo Rowling is a white British woman with a Bachelor of Arts in
French and Classics from the University of Exeter. It may very well have taken her this much time and this much exposure to the greater, wider world- outside her very white, very British influences in Tolkien and Dickens– to realize, “Oh, shit, I could/should have made my books more diverse, that’s such a lovely idea, my fans are so wonderful, I love their headcanons, they have taught me so much, I’m really lucky to have learned all of this.”
We want people to grow, don’t we? We want them to expand their minds and change. So can we please stop hating on people who weren’t born into the movement for finding it later?