Who Gets To Play Who?
Scarlett Johansson is in trouble again. In an interview with As If magazine she addressed previous controversies over ‘insensitive casting’, where she portrayed a character that was originally Asian in Ghost In The Shell and a transgender character in Rub & Tug —which she later dropped out of because of the backlash. Many on social media complained that she was taking roles away from ‘marginalised groups’ and ‘people of colour’, but she remained defiant and defended her right to play “any person, tree or animal” despite what “political correctness” desires:
“I feel like it’s a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions…I think society would be more connected if we allowed others to have their own feelings and not expect everyone to feel the way we do.
As was expected many people took to social media to express their outrage that ‘ScarJo’ hadn’t learned her lesson and condemned her as a privileged cisgendered white heterosexual woman- you know how it goes - with a powerful platform that is disrespecting the experiences of ‘marginalised groups’ (God I hate that phrase!) by taking roles away from them that ‘belonged’ to them.
Johansson shortly after this ‘controversy’ was ignited released a statement sent to The Hollywood Reporter to clarify her comments which she claimed were “edited for clickbait” and “widely out of context”:
The question I was answering in my conversation with the contemporary artist, David Salle, was about the confrontation between political correctness and art,”... “I personally feel that, in an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness. That is the point I was making, albeit didn’t come across that way.”
… “I recognize that in reality, there is a wide spread discrepancy amongst my industry that favors Caucasian, cis gendered actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities that I have been privileged to. I continue to support, and always have, diversity in every industry and will continue to fight for projects where everyone is included.”
I think she has a point here because a lot of media sites do love their clickbait and will slightly distort someone’s remarks for the sake of a headline in order to generate clicks and direct traffic to their website. Unfortunately, in many instances, people will just react with their gut to what they see in a headline and not take the time to read the whole story to improve their knowledge with the full context. Just because she ‘clarified’ her remarks doesn’t necessarily mean she is apologising or flip flopping, but to reiterate that her comments doesn’t change the fact that she supports diversity and isn’t ignorant of the fact that she is a beneficiary of ‘privilege’. She is after all the world’s highest paid actress earning an eye watering $40 million last year. It doesn’t matter what colour or gender you are, this is privilege enough for anybody!
The irony is not long before there was a lot of chatter on social media over the casting of Halle Bailey, best known as one half of the RnB duo Chloe x Halle, as Ariel from Disney’s Little Mermaid, as well as the more recent story of Latasha Lynch apparently taking over the 007 moniker. Of course there were a few fruitcakes and cranks puking out their racist excrement in the midst of expressing their horror that black women are portraying characters whose previous iterations have traditionally been ‘white’. No doubt alt-right ghouls will feel this is another instance of ‘cultural marxism’ in action undermining white people and their ‘identity’. I think I am safe in saying that Mermaids don’t have a ‘race’, but I guess folks are entitled to their own illusions.
But what is fascinating about this whole situation is the double standards and inconsistency from both sides. Some of those who will agree with Johansson and defend her against accusations of ‘appropriation’ from the ‘PC mob’ in a culture war skirmish are some of the same people who are apoplectic over Halle Bailey playing Ariel, or Lynch taking over 007. While those who champion Bailey’s & Lynch’s casting as an exemplar of diversity and the ‘inclusion’ of ‘women of colour’, and would defend her from attacks from the cultural hard right are some of the same people who will argue that Johansson by virtue of her being white and cisgendered has an inflated sense of entitlement, knows no constraints, and in asserting her right to play any role she wants is ‘appropriating’ the lived experiences of ‘marginalised groups’ and robbing them of the opportunity to play themselves.
What neither side seems to understand is that the principle Johansson was espousing where she as an artist claimed the right to play any person she wanted is the same principle that undergirds Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel: that their acting talent and star quality should be the basis on which an actor should be cast for a role, not their skin colour, gender, sex, sexuality and so on. A very simple and uncontroversial principle in my estimation.
But I guess this is what ‘fighting racism’ is to some people: To exercise in what Nietzsche called “moral masturbation” and claiming yourself to be the cultural police in obsessing over these micro cultural struggles over representation in the way that pop-intersectionality often does. You hear similar cackling when Black British actors are accused of ‘stealing’ roles away from black Americans, or when Disney cast Naomi Scott, a non-Arab, British Indian actress for the role of Jasmine. This is the pathetic narcissism of a cultural philistine and abject escapism. It is only interested in superficial spectacle mixed with an orgy of tribalism and ethnocentrism, rather than any kind of substance as is the case with puerile representationalism. As I have said before on the cultural appropriation debate, it isn’t going to stop with white people. It never does.
Taking place in the background is the wider debate on diversity in Hollywood which has been going on for quite a few years now. Obviously, Hollywood wants to prove to the world that it is increasingly willing to commit to diversity and inclusivity in a post #OscarSoWhite and #MeToo sensibility.
Some of this is clearly understandable because Hollywood has long had a reputation for typecasting and representing women, non-white people & LGBT people in the most caricatured and vulgar forms. For instance, Mickey Rooney portraying a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in an extremely cringe worthy and racist manner, the history of one dimensional Orientalist portrayal of Arabs as terrorists and fanatics who will be cut down by the white American hero, or the decades long near exclusion of black Americans from Hollywood altogether. So for many from ‘marginalised groups' there is a feeling, if I may butcher a quote from Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that we aren’t representing ourselves or our stories but are being represented, or shall I say misrepresented, on our behalf by white people in such a way that robs us of our humanity and dignity.
No doubt, things need to improve in terms of representation and I think they are, albeit rather unevenly and at a snail’s pace. But I sometimes feel slightly anxious in these debates as I always detect that the arguments in this debate are so narrow and don’t interrogate the broader double standards that are upheld where ‘people of colour’ and other members of ‘the marginalised’ at best are just interpreters of their specific experience while white people are transcendent and universal. In fact some of the arguments actually uphold this double standard but inverse to give it a pseudo-progressive gloss.
This is why I think there was nothing wrong with Scarlett Johansson’s comments. I understand that sometimes in the case of biopics or certain historical dramas one may have to discriminate as to who plays what role. It would be a little bit silly if Scarlett Johansson was cast as Martin Luther King in a biopic, or Latasha Lynch was cast as Oliver Cromwell for obvious reasons. But the broader principle is films are premised on the idea of people pretending to be other people, often very different to themselves to tell a story. I do not believe only gay people can play gay people or only Jews can portray Jews anymore than only Arab novelists can write about Arabs. Furthermore, I wouldn’t watch a film because its lead was a ‘woman of colour’ anymore than I wouldn’t watch it because she was a ‘woman of colour’. I am more interested, at the end of the day in the story, the acting, the character, the finesse, the humanity of it all. If its good enough then its good enough for me. Skin colour, gender and sexuality don’t enter the equation for me, nor should it in a better world.
In fact, fiction and art demands that we don’t simply ‘tell our own stories’, but that we can break out of our particularity and enter into a universal conversation. So yes, cisgendered actors should be able to play a character who is trans, heterosexual actors should be able to play gay, lesbian and bisexual characters and likewise, trans actors should be able to play cisgendered characters and gay, lesbian and bisexual should be able to play straight characters. Moreover, actors ‘of colour’ shouldn’t have to play ‘race specific’ roles. Take the example of the first ever transgender woman to play Mozart’s Don Giovanni as the lead. This is what I’m talking about in terms of breaking down barriers and opening doors.
This is not about any one film or individual, but a principle. One can only improve the representation of the formerly excluded by releasing creative energy and create new opportunities for better quality roles and new stories, not for any nonsense about being a microphone for an authentic communal ‘voice’, but to better the explore the human condition, which is what art in all its forms should be about. Not by acting as the cultural police to patrol the boundaries of art and culture. In other words, this entire conversation needs to be reconfigured.