Sunday, February 7, 2016

Able-Bodied Actors Playing Disabled People is Not the Same as Blackface

I have noticed that some folks online and presumably in the real world have come out against normally-abled actors playing disabled people in movies and television, absurdly claiming that it is tantamount to blackface.  Blackface has a long history in racist minstrel shows and looks ridiculous.  All acting involves being something you are not so how do we decided what forms of representation are politically correct?  Can an actor changing ethnicity ever be acceptable?  There are many questions about who can represent who, but so-called "disability drag" is not equivalent to blackface.

Blackface is historically tied to minstrel shows.  Minstrel shows gained popularity in 19th century America and didn't really all but disappear until the gains of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Probably most old-time racist stereotypes of black people can be traced to minstrel shows where white performers put on blackface and acted out said stereotypes.  I don't recall a prominent correlating history of disability minstrel shows.  This is why whiteface is also not a big deal.  Also, blackface looks downright silly and unrealistic in a way that a person who can walk being in a wheelchair does not.  In the latter, no one can tell the difference so there is nothing innately offensive from the viewer's perspective.  The latter is not a caricature.

It's silly to view this... equivalent to this.

All acting involves pretending to be something that you are not.  How do we decide which forms of representation are politically correct and which ones are not?  How do we decide which groups are entitled to self-representation and which groups are not?  There's no limit on the number of ways that we can classify humanity into different groups.  With all the new identity politics taking shape right now, we may end up going down a rabbit hole of more protected identities to the point where most or all types of acting may be deemed taboo.   It would be a real example of bootleggers and baptists.

Can it ever be acceptable for someone to play a different race or ethnicity?  Examples of blackface make us cringe, but what if it was done realistically and respectfully?  Perhaps it's only offensive when done insultingly?  Ethnically ambiguous Sir Ben Kingsley, who apparently is part Indian, has played multiple ethnicities, including a Jew in Schindler's List, despite saying that he is not Jewish in real life.  His performance in that movie was not offensive to me, nor most others.

While a good, convincing, and respectful performance may be okay with the final product viewed in a vacuum, there is still one sympathetic extra-textual angle and that is the real-life actors.  I imagine actors with disabilities already have a hard enough time getting gigs.  When they finally have a role that seems tailor-made for them and more famous, able-bodied actors swoop in and take that role too, I imagine it feels like a slap in the face.  Should we be more sympathetic to their plight and fight more for inclusiveness in casting?  Perhaps, but this is still a different angle than the representation itself being wrong.  Some have also noted that those who actually have said disability would act it better.  This seems logical, but a good actor could close the gap.

Many questions about representation and sensitivity remain, and hopefully the movie industry is moving in the right direction, but "disability drag" is not the same as blackface.

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