Privilege and Representation: Some Thoughts

Today, I will turn on the tv and probably see someone just like me, albeit much thinner and with nicer hair. White, female, heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle-class and able-bodied. She will be articulate and successful. She could be a hero or a villain, a lead or a bit-player. Whoever she is, chances are I will see her. My partner will also turn on the tv and see himself represented, probably more so than me. We can both be confident that whatever show or film we choose to entertain ourselves with, we will likely see someone just like us staring back at us.
I recently read an article in the Guardian about a controversial film called The Assignment, where Michelle Rodriguez plays a male hitman who is turned into a woman. This has angered the transgender community, because Rodriguez is a cis woman, and the role could have been played by a trans actress. I’ve seen similar criticism directed at the castings of Matt Bomer, Eddie Redmayne, Jeffrey Tambor and Jared Leto in trans roles; this story is not a new one.

“Any actor should be able to play any role, that’s why they’re actors.”

Where my brain really started working though, was reading the comments – “This is exactly the sort of liberal bullshit the Guardian is churning out.” “Who cares who plays the role, it sounds like a crap film anyway.” “Any actor should be able to play any role, that’s why they’re actors.”

That was the comment that lit up my synapses like a Christmas tree – any actor should be able to play any role, that’s why they’re actors.

But that’s not what’s happening. The trans community is not seeing themselves represented in leading roles, not even the flipping TRANS leading roles! I refuse to believe they couldn’t find one trans actor that was more suitable than Rodriguez; I just don’t buy it. It’s very easy to say this stuff doesn’t matter, when you can find a role model easily on tv or in the movies, but to someone who doesn’t have that luxury, I would imagine it matters a great deal.

“It’s very easy to say this stuff doesn’t matter, when you can find a role model easily on tv or in the movies”

Riz Ahmed recently delivered an excellent speech about how young Muslim men are under represented in the media, and how ISIS recruitment films make them look like James Bond. This is a huge issue for casting agents at the moment – anyone could be cast, but the anyone who is being cast (for the most part) is cis, white and able-bodied. Any differentiation seems to need to be spelled out in the script. For example, when a character is played by an overweight actor, there are often many comments made about their weight, or a gay character will have the central plot point that they are… well, gay.

“Maybe the straight or white or able-bodies actor was just the best person that auditioned?”

There is also the argument that keeps coming: “maybe the straight or white or able-bodies actor was just the best person that auditioned” – every time?! Those are amazing odds, unless the only people invited to audition filled that criteria… (this is in part due to normative thinking, which is too big to get into here. I’ll write a separate post later to dig a bit more!)

I have noticed recently that casting is improving (but by no means perfect yet) for actors of colour – for example, Tulip in Preacher is played by the exceptional Ruth Negga, and her skin colour is inconsequential to the character, or Rosario Dawson’s recurring role in the Marvel universe as Claire Temple. They are well-rounded, multi-layered characters, not just a catalyst for a racism storyline. However, some shows still seem to suffer with the kind of unicorn syndrome outlined on Aziz Ansari’s fantastic Master of None episode Indians on TV – namely, you can only cast one person of colour, or people will think it’s a “black show”.

From Master of None


I think it’s very difficult to have this argument when you come from a position of privilege, but it’s the people in privileged positions whose voices are heard. I wanted to shout at all the commenters on that Guardian article “If you can see someone just like you represented regularly on tv, you have no argument against someone who is not.” I love watching films and shows where I strongly identify with one of the leads, and it must be very frustrating to rarely or never have that opportunity.

And, to quote my good friend in the lower half of the internet, “any actor should be able to play any role”, so let’s see a bit more variation, eh?

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