Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sometimes I Appreciate Complaints I Find Stupid



A while back I shared a post about whitewashing minority characters. It swore to boycott the The Forest over most movies that casted white people when an Asian one would suit, or even be better, because it discussed a real problem in a real place ongoing in Japan.

Because, the poster suggested, that suicide rates of the Japanese are among the highest in the world, and the forest is where many people really do go to kill themselves, having a blonde hair, blue-eyed lead is doing a disservice to the issue, and is extra insulting considering Hollywood’s tendency to cast white actors in roles that minorities could or should have.

I am rarely political on Facebook, partially because of narcissism, partially because it doesn’t have anything to do with why people are on my page, partially because I don’t want to deal with it.

But a lack of diversity in entertainment and the arts is something particularly important to me. To be clear, I’m very white. I’m the sort of girl who flashes a little leg to stop a car and causes an accident. It’s not altruistic, and it’s not something I experience a lot of myself, but it does reflect my personal fears, the experiences of close friends; it’s personal to me.

For starters, when I look at my career and think what is holding me back, I think I need sociability, business sense, a better vision, style, execution, and a go-to attitude. All of these things are under my control. If I’m not where I want to be, my main reasons are changeable.

This is true for everyone. What if you’re an actor who’s not getting any roles? You want to be the next big thing? What can you do to bring yourself above your high competition? It’s difficult, and I don’t think we should belittle white people’s (my) struggle to get to the top. Yet hope is a key factor in helping you continue on. So as I sit back and imagine what it would be like to be an Asian actor struggling for a part and seeing a film that would be perfect for him be taking by the generic pretty blonde girl who could be in anything, and I have no idea what to do. I am helpless. What do you do if the main thing keeping you back isn’t skill or marketing, but something you can’t ever change?

That scares me. Terrifies me even.

The big difference from high school to college was realizing how much you had to fight for just the opportunity. When I was a child, everyone pandered to us, going out of their way to pay for activities we wanted to do. I mean, I came from a rich, charitable town filled with people throwing their fortunes at the arts left and right, so it is probably an extreme case of having prospects available to us. Yet most children see some sort of system or group bending over backwards in hopes that they can be in a play, learn how to paint, to play music, to write. You are offered options left and right for performances and contests and other means to try out activities you may like.

Out in the real world, however, it’s not the same. No one cares if you, a 25 year old actor, gets the chance to be in a play. The directors want to create their vision. They’re not going to cast extra people just to give them something to do. The producers want to create it cheaply. Play producers deliberately pick scripts with fewer actors, limiting the number of people who can even be in the production to about five. The playwrights want to be picked up, so they’re going to deliberately write smaller casts in contemporary settings because those are the ones made and awarded. Everyone is out for themselves and no one is thinking about, “How can I include you?”

To be perfectly clear, that’s true for everyone, and it makes sense to me in both artistic and a business sense. I am going to create the best work I can, and I’m not going to go out of my way to hire a model or actor who doesn’t fit the character, or accept an artist whose work I don’t like just because they need the exposure. I may take a chance on someone if they are just as viable as a more experienced person, or cast the minority actor over a white one if I don’t care about the race and they’re both as good, but that doesn’t happen often. I believe people should do what’s best for their work even if it hurts feelings. It’s not a creator’s job to cause more problems for themselves just to help someone else out. I mean, he should want to and supporting each other does some good, but at the end of the day, he writes the play he wants to write, not the one that actors can do.

But what it means is that everyone has to work their asses off to just find out about a viable opportunity, then work their asses off to prove to the people in charge you are the best candidate, to then work their asses off to do the best job they can do. And after all that, you have to start all over again when the job is done because the art world is most often a contract to contract sort of job.

Now cut those limited “viable” opportunities drastically because you, as an Asian actor, can’t play most parts. Certainly not the leads, but you’re lucky if they’ll consider you for the funny friend. Today it’s getting easier to get one-liners and bit parts like the guy who serves your coffee, but you still have to look the part and, unless you are moderately attractive brown haired, mid-aged white person, people are going to notice you, remember you, be distracted by you. Then there’s the factor that you’ll probably get some sort of racist comment about, “Oh, I see. Hiring the Asian guy as a math teacher,” or, “Trying to buck the trend by making the gym teacher Japanese?”

It’s easier for people to just cast a white guy and avoid complaints about how they casted the Asian guy wrong.

And while I believe that the best way to overcome a non-white actor’s “noticeability” is by a straightforward casting of more non-white people (which I actually think is being implemented more and more), I also think it’s incredibly wrong to deliberately take jobs away from hard working white males just to encourage a wider variety in artists.

For instance, I read about a suggestion that a fairly successful literary journal should stop producing men’s work for a year to only include women. I don’t agree with that. It is too hard to become a successful author for anyone that refusing men on gender alone is a damaging and sexist tactic. It wouldn’t be a big deal if being a white male guaranteed you publishing, but it doesn’t.

When Colin Trevorrow, the director of Jurassic World, was asked about why female directors aren’t seen as much as men, he responded with most of them aren’t interested in that kind of thing and received a great deal of backlash.

I don’t really agree that there aren’t any women directors out of apathy, but I will say that finding non-white actors in America can be difficult, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you struggled with finding female directors. This doesn’t come from disinterest, however, but discouragement.

Back in college, my theatre teachers had a bad habit of trying to demoralize their students. We had a predominantly Hispanic student body and the faculty were very much guilty of easy criticism wherever they could find it.

They didn’t spare the white males, however; just got more personal with their reasoning. Non-white men were too brown. Women were too fat. White men were… well, one was blonde, so they told him blonde hair couldn’t be lit on stage. (This is directly after requesting a female bleach her hair even lighter than it already was.) Another was “a character actor” and there wouldn’t be parts for him until he was forty. It didn’t matter who you were or what you did, they would come up with some sort of reason you weren’t going to succeed.

As for me? They were kind of scared of me, and so just waited until I was out of the room to bad mouth my projects to the other students with words of wisdom like, “They’re just bad.” Unless, of course, they were talking to prospective students in which their tune changed to how wonderful and common my self-initiated projects were.

My professor’s argument whenever I asked him why he was going out of his way to belittle a student was, “If you can be discourage, you should be.”

“You should teach kindergarten,” I told him.

Get anyone early enough and everyone can be discouraged. Besides, in this business, you’re going to face trials, rejections, and assholes whether or not someone takes it on themselves to make your life harder.

It hit me especially hard when one student approached me in near tears due to a conference he had with his professors. I had actually found it to be worse when they just took it on the chin and accepted their word as law; my fellow students had a habit of just believing these old bastards when they were told they weren’t going to succeed. Out of thirty students my freshmen year, only four of us graduated in that degree. Technically, I graduated alone, but that was because I did so a semester early.

At least, I thought, he had the ability to take it to heart and not just trust these professors who had begrudgingly given up on their dreams and now were determined to never allow a student to waste their lives like they had wasted their own.

We discussed it. I pointed out that they can tell every student they have that they’re not going to succeed and, statistically, they’re probably going to be right. Most of us aren’t going to succeed. It wouldn’t be shocking if none of us did. But it should be noted that most famous artists have a teacher who told them they weren’t going to make it. You don’t need to analyze someone’s talents to say they’re not going to be the next Johnny Depp. It’s just really good odds that they’re not.

They told him, of course, that he wasn’t going to be able to be an actor because there are no Hispanic parts. He abruptly sobered up and waved me away, saying, “Well that part is true.”

It stuck with me.

Yes, it is true that out of the limited parts for “everyone” even less of them are for non-white people. Drastically less.

But from my perspective as a white person, no one, I don’t care how racist they are, is going to admit to you straightforwardly they think like that unless they are trying to hurt you. Sometimes people will make racist jokes to a black guy because they want the catharsis, to release the tension they feel by not being able to voice those thoughts. Donald Trump says horrible things because not being able to talk about race makes people feel helpless and angry, because he knows his audience wants a scapegoat to their fears and lack of control. But when a white person comes up to a non-white person and actually says the words, “You’re not going to succeed because you’re brown,” he is not trying to help you.

For starters, he doesn’t know. Yes, he can recognize it. I see it. I’ve been a stage manager for seven years and I am very aware that the one black actor is not going to get to play Dracula, and he’s certainly not going to get Harker. Maybe Helsing (because he is supposed to be a foreigner to Victorian England anyway), but that’s only if the director is deliberately choosing to try and cast a minority actor.

But truth is, he can only be privy to his own racism, especially, in this case, as a director himself. He can look at statistics and cite anecdotal evidence, but only another actor of your race can really say, “It’s not worth it,” and have the perspective to know if it is or not.

What stood out for me though, in this comment, was how helpless I felt. I believed, and believe, that the only way to get a wider diversity in entertainment is for artists to keep reminding people that they are there, for them to dedicate their lives to their art despite the overwhelming odds against them.

I say that, but could I do it?

Hope is such a key in keeping yourself going. I don’t worry about my race, and I don’t even really worry about my gender, though some women do. I strongly think that I can do something to affect my position in life. I don’t have this overwhelming and unchangeable obstacle stopping me. Could I ever be capable of pursing my work if I knew that it is severely unlikely I will succeed? Just because I might be paving the path for others like me?

It’s a lot to ask.

It’s unfair to ask people like Colin Trevorrow to take a hit on his career and turn down a movie just to give it over to a woman, especially if he did step down, it would still go to another man. Even the implication that he only got it because he is a white male is disparaging to him. I can’t say why he got asked to do it, but I know that whether it was through hard work, networking, or luck, no one said, “Oh, you’re white,” and let him have the job.

It’s difficult to ask writers and producers and directors to write and finance minority leads because it actually does limit your target audience. People point out that the new Star Wars movie had a black and female lead and it sold perfectly fine. Yet, I say that it sold because of the branding, and that script, for many reasons outside of bigotry, would not have done as well if it wasn’t Star Wars. I don’t think it would have even gotten made. I mean, what’s the pitch?

The great thing about self-publishing is we see much more diversity in books from indies because they’re not so business oriented, singularly minded enough to think they can get away with it, perhaps unaware, or it simply being important to them personally. The self-publishing industry begins to normalize the sight of non-white males, which is exactly what needs to occur. But what you also see on these books featuring a dark skin protagonist are comments like, “Sorry, I just can’t relate to black people.”

And God forbid you write an interracial romance.

I think we all know that everyone will go to a movie about a white man, but there are many who were furious to see who starred in this last Star Wars. (Though, it makes sense to me, because Rey isn’t “competing” with Luke personality-wise.)

White people, especially a brown haired, thin, clean-shaven, 30 year old, male, has no personality. That is our sexism against men—you are defined only by your work and how much money you make. In some ways, it’s freeing because a man, especially a character in a book, can be whatever you want him to be. He can’t exactly get away with “women’s work,” but in personality, the character is defined by his actions and only his actions. As a woman or a minority, you already have something said about you the moment you walk in. On the positive side, you have an immediate personality, something that will make people remember you. Even if “all Asians look the same,” when meeting a person in a one-on-one situation, people tend to immediately create backstories for a non-white person or woman, while white males are likely to go ignored and forgotten.

This, in many ways, makes it easier for a writer when sticking to white male characters. Every time you put in racial diversity, or even a female, you’re saying something. It’s not even the issue of everyone being able to implant themselves into a white male easier, it’s that a white male is a blank slate, one that can be transformed into whatever you want him to be. No one’s going to say much no matter what flaws you give him: workaholic, lazy, greedy, selfish, a doormat even. Yes, these flaws will say something about him, but it rarely says things about white men in general. Not unless the author is very pointed in saying, “THIS IS HOW I SEE MEN.”

But you write an Asian person you’re going to get comments. Everything that character does becomes a reflection on how you see Asian people. Even if you avoid stereotypes, it’s going to get complaints.

So we have a problem. White male characters are defined by their actions. They don’t need to be role models, but they could be. Pretty much anyone will come and see (and pay for) a movie featuring a white guy, less for an Asian guy. The writer is free, the producer is happy, the audience doesn’t have to be jarred out of immersion wondering why the creators chose to make that character black. The only real reasons, it seems, for anyone to ever make a movie about a non-white character is to either deliberately encourage diversity or because it makes sense for the script.

And in The Forest, it makes sense the character would be Asian.

I am not boycotting the film, though I’m probably not going to go see it either. I don’t believe that just because it is set in Japan it needs to feature a Japanese person, just as much as I would like the entertainment industry to stop jamming in token female characters that don’t belong in the story. Writing a horror film featuring a blonde tourist in the suicide forest of Japan isn’t that big of a deal in itself, but we can see why, being that we don’t see Asian leads often at all, it can be especially painful or insulting to some when it deliberately avoided casting a non-white person obviously because they thought a white girl would yield a more positive reaction.

When I shared the post, I did so because I thought it was interesting, it was passionate, and I felt for him. What I did not expect (albeit naively) was the comments I received about how he was just whining and it didn’t matter and we all needed to stop being so politically correct.

I get this. I like some racist and sexist jokes, and I too have struggled with a culture that demands for contrary and too vast of understanding for anyone to truly be able to accomplish. I have been pained over whether it was insensitive to make my hotel maid Hispanic or if it was insensitive to avoid making her Hispanic. Is this joke poignant or insensitive? How can we reflect the reality we see and yet encourage a reality we want? I have avoided making posts like this, discussing racial issues that I question a lot simply because I am white, because I know people will flip a bitch at the mention of it, and because I don’t want to admit my own warped view of the world. I also don’t want to seem like I’m pandering to a problem I don’t understand, that whole, “But I’m different guys,” mentality. I don’t want to look racist, I don’t want to look like I’m bragging about how unracist I am. I certainly don’t want to sound insincere. How can you discuss race without saying something about yourself? Yet avoiding making commentary about real patterns we see in our life can just make problems worse.

I remember when Jim C. Hines made a joke about how some people respect male authors more than females, his comment following the lines of, “Does typing with your penis really produce better art?”

The next week he posted a second blog apologizing. Someone, very angry, pointed out how they believed “gender” wasn’t defined by autonomy but by identity.

This irritated me beyond all belief. It wasn’t that I was against transgenderism, but that person was ruining a joke—which are pretty much guaranteed to exclude certain perspectives and personal experiences—because he felt his philosophy on what is a man or a woman wasn’t being considered. Get over yourself! I thought. At the time, I believed that it obviously wasn’t the point and that it didn’t matter. Any joke about gender would be a generalization.

Later on I looked back on it and started to realize: even though I still thought this commenter needed to accept that writing, and especially comedy, can’t make a statement while being completely inclusive, I realized that because of that comment I was better aware of that person’s existence and different perspective.

So it’s not that I’m saying we get rid of racist comments or force ourselves to always include minorities in a movie, or that just because one person feels a script should feature a person of their own race it must be limited to that, but instead of shutting down every time someone points out a problem that we don’t care about, that we think they shouldn’t care about, instead of getting mad, do exactly what we’re telling them to: Get over it.

A man I had gone to high school with—quintessential Wyoming guy and everything that comes with it—posted a comment on my share about how we were racist for even focusing on race in the first place. What pissed me off most was that this lazy attack actually got to me, and in the end, it wasn’t an argument. Racism, stupidity, being “fat” or ugly—all easy insults you can state to anyone without knowing anything about them and it will get to them.

And, yes, you can validly label the desire to see more minorities in film as racist, I’ll accept that, but it’s not really the question. The question is why is the Asian blogger bothered so much? Why is the white writer bothered so much? Why is the white classmate bothered so much? Why does racism bother us so much, whose needs are important, whose are petty, and how can we come to a solution?

When I shared that post, I got a lot of “Who cares?” comments. Some were friendly enough, but said, “It’s just one film.” Most people said the problem was irrelevant and wasn’t worth anyone’s time.

But really? Because I post complaints about adverbs and why “minute” needs to be spelled differently all of the time and you never take the effort to state how completely irrelevant it is to your life. And those concerns of mine are pretty damn irrelevant.

If it doesn’t matter if the character is Asian or white, then let those who it does matter for speak their minds and make a change. Because it doesn’t matter, right? So what do you care if they convince someone down the line to start giving leading roles to Asian people? If this post and others like it finally convinces someone to go out of their way, take a chance, and cast someone who rarely gets any opportunities to create the art they love simply because they don’t look right? But if you do care, if you do find yourself feeling unhappy because someone chose to make the lead a non-white, then you should understand best why it’s so important to them to have themselves represented in a film, and why complaints like this are so necessary. Because you know how they feel when they have to look at someone who doesn’t look like them.

And, on the good side, the more open we are to having diversity in our stories, the less restricted we are to having diversity. No more token women crammed into a story-line she doesn’t belong. No more trying to pussy-foot around the issue of the time-traveling African American. Better representation of real cities and locations. More freedom to represent females in the way we see them without fear of “pissing off the feminists.” More freedom to write about a tourist in Japan without instilling pain to the Asian community. The more we see females and minorities on screen, the less we need to see them.

It’s not that one film chose to star a white woman. It’s that it’s one of the few that had very good reason to star someone else, and it still couldn’t be compelled to take the horrible risk of having a non-white protagonist.



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