Friday, February 6, 2015

Hollywood and Diversity

There's been a lot of hoopla about race in the American news lately.  By race, usually just black and white are meant.  I don't normally write topical posts, but this one is a mix of topical and broad observations.  It probably won't be as epic as its title.  Hollywood has a diversity issue which Al Sharpton, a race-baiter for sure, tried to bring up and dubiously tie into a couple of Oscar "snubs."  I already have a slew of problems with media awards shows which you can read about here.  "Snubs" happen every year and the designation is relatively subjective.  The idea that racism is involved is entirely unprovable and therefore an irresponsible allegation.  People who seem to be conservatives, on the other hand, are standing up for Hollywood, oddly enough, with ignorance and bad logic, seemingly to only be anti-Sharpton.  They are very ignorant about how the industry works.  Affirmative action is bad, but what does affirmative action even mean in an artistic field with no objective measure of excellence?  The acting field is not a meritocracy of talent, but actors are judged on all sorts of things that have nothing to do with talent.

I am against affirmative action!  Affirmative action, to me, means flipping a coin one hundred times and mandating fifty heads and fifty tails.  In real life, career fields, school applications, etc. don't always reflect the census of America.  Disproportionate amounts of different groups of people get into different things.  The odds that the numbers would ever line up perfectly are one in a quintillion.  Insofar as this disparity has anything to do with real discrimination, which is increasingly rare, it is a problem to be stamped out.  Insofar as it is just a matter of personal choices and ambitions, who cares?  Affirmative action also dumbs down standards and punishes people for their ethnicity and not even just white people.  This is why it is not so much about correcting past injustices as it is a never ending quota system.  It also pushes people into environments that are over their head where they won't thrive.  If one group of students isn't doing well in school, fix their schools, don't accept them to colleges where they will fail.

Art and especially acting is different.  Art is not a technical field.  Many people have compared art to sports, a terrible analogy, and pointed out the disproportionate amount of black people in the NBA.  White people, though, are objectively and measurably not as good at basketball.  Art doesn't have a scoreboard. You can't compare a largely subjective competition which is open to bias to a largely objective competition that isn't.  Also, unlike sports, in movies, diversity makes a difference because it changes the type of stories you can tell.  Basketball is basketball no matter who is on the court.

Acting is a representation industry.  Thus, a person's appearance, and whatever perceived identities come with it, are directly the product in a way that can't be said of dentistry, engineering, or other non-performative industries, which is also why major movies star good-looking people.  Now just because appearance is more peripheral in other industries of course does not preclude all bias, but it does mean that diversity is altogether less important in those fields.

Hollywood is not an actor's utopian meritocracy.  Anyone claiming it is is ignorant.  Most Hollywood movies star the white male lead.  Is this because women and minorities are bad actors or are not trying very hard to break into the industry?  No!  There are all sorts of reasons for this, but many revolve around the people making the stories, the people controlling what gets made, the people casting these stories and last but certainly not least, audience demographics.  None of these things, except the casting portion to a large degree, have to do with actor's talent.  Add in connections, good looks and a slew of other things and you realize that few fields are less of a meritocracy than acting.  Movies begin with scripts, not actors.  The script defines what types of people can play a role.  Casting websites, when used, are mostly just pages of head shots.  Head shots are one of the first criteria used to thin the herd, not talent.  Minorities currently seem to be moving up in television and this is because of the changing American audience demographics, not because minority actors magically just got good.  If Hollywood is not telling a group's stories, it's because they don't care to.  It would seem that if an industry is marketing to a majority, then that majority becomes a further over-represented supermajority in the final product, especially when the minority has been shown to suck it up and buy the product anyway.

I would like to add a note on a largely new trend of race-swapping minorities into white stories.  Obviously, there is a double standard here, but we see many racial double standards as a response to history.  I am somewhat sympathetic towards this.  There's really no point in turning minority characters into white people as white people are not under-represented.  Part of why this happens so much is Hollywood is obsessively cannibalizing old IPs, which were originally much less diverse, rather than creating new content.  In terms of diversity, race-swapping minorities into white stories is a half-measure that misses a lot of the point of diversity and arguably implies that white people have better stories.
Ultimately, if American audiences really want to see more diversity on their screens immediately, the first thing they should do is go to their local library and pick up a foreign film.


  1. I don't think calling Hollywood out on its diversity problem has much at all to do with affirmative action. Rather than seeing it as an issue of doing non-white actors a favor, perhaps the issue should be seen through the lens of what the world actually looks like. Hollywood producers, casting directors, etc. regularly show a tendency to whitewash casts, even when historical, literary, or the historic social demographics of the setting would naturally lead to non-white actors playing significant parts. Probably the most egregious recent example of this is in the movie Gods of Egypt which, though largely fantasy anyway, naturally led many to ask why in a movie portraying Egyptian gods, were the main protagonists played by actors of Western European descent? Seems like a fair question. The otherwise critically acclaimed TV show Mad Men is an example of writers creating a universe in downtown NYC in the 60s that somehow didn't include any non-white people for a number of seasons, save as extras or as just a little more than that, and then later on only in roles that had little substance. As one critic pointed out, an award that the show's lead, Don Draper, was awarded on the show, the Clio, was--as a point of historical fact--designed by a black advertising executive. So there was no reason for the show to act as if such individuals simply didn't exist.

    It is regularly seeing Hollywood make intentional choices to exclude non-whites from scripts for no particular reason other than (presumably) "they" have decided that that's who they want on the screen.

    Also, and perhaps more importantly, it is not as if highly successful, racially diverse casting is something that we still need to verify actually works. The StarTrek franchise, one of the highest grossing in television history, was ahead of the game on that point from day 1 even in the 60s and did not suffer one bit with audiences because of it. The Cosby Show--another one of television history's most popular shows--was hailed as an example of the ability of audiences to cross over racially, as even with an all-black cast in principal roles, there were many white audience members who loved the show. It premiered in 1985. This has been done before. It's been done well. And those are just two examples of many. The immense success of Shonda Rhimes' various series is another testament to the fact that audiences will watch multi-racial casts.

    So at this point, unless there is a particular reason related to the setting or the plot for a cast to be racially homogenous, it's suspicious when it doesn't happen.

    1. I agree entirely.

      One of the reasons that big movies whitewash, in my opinion, is that Hollywood hasn't cultivated big enough minority stars to fill those roles. This is still wrong, of course. It's interesting that that sort of casting rarely goes the other way.

      There's a certain segment of Americans who deny white privilege, while some, of course exaggerate it. The first group seems to think that white success is always purely meritocratic and minority success is usually suspicious.

      I've seen enough of "my tribe" on-screen that I am content with my amount of representation. I now just want to watch a good movie regardless of cast.

    2. I would add that when a character like Little Orphan Annie is re-imagined as a black girl, this is not really "blackwashing" because no one is trying to simultaneously pretend she is white.