From The Godfather to Good Will Hunting, from Hitchcock to Michael Bay, white men continue to be over-represented both on and off camera. I won’t bury you in stats because you have Google, but trust me, they are depressing. So when we see non-white or non-male characters, it’s encouraging. Oh look, we say, there’s a girl Avenger. How empowering. Wow, a black storm trooper. Good for you, Hollywood.
But often these characters are imagined, written and directed by those same standard dudes, which creates issues of authenticity. If female, non-white and LGBTQ characters are usually written by straight white guys, are these oppressed groups truly being represented? Or only misrepresented? Now we’re bumping up against a question that’s been plaguing fiction for decades; who is allowed to speak for whom? And should we presume to represent those whose experiences we can never share?
In the 200 highest grossing films from 1995-2015, the eight (yes, that’s less than 5%) that were written solely by women all pass the Bechdel Test. Those written by men have just under a 50% pass rate. So it’s safe to say that generally, women are better at giving us decent female characters. And yet most of the women on screen do spring from the male imagination. Hordes of male screenwriters have given us the stunningly boring ‘strong female character’ trope, a lazy compensation for the damsels that make up the rest. As Dana Calvo says “when the only thing women talk about are men and shoes, I can hear the efforts of a man writing.”
One of the more appalling instances of white guy blinders is the assertion of Game of Thrones director Alex Graves that the Cersei-Jaime sept scene was not rape. Sexual violence from a family member or intimate partner (and in this case, both!) is a reality for many. But here, it’s dealt with in a shallow and sensationalised way, irresponsibly brushed aside after it’s been milked for shock value. Cersei is one of TV’s better antagonists, infuriating yet sympathetic, and the idea that she’d simply forgive an assault like that is an affront to the character. Not to mention to the lasting trauma of victims everywhere.
A similar oversight was the choice in The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyer’s Club to cast cis-gendered guys to play trans women. Just look at how moving and important Laverne Cox has been in Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black. The Danish Girl in particular has come under fire for being too glossy, too sumptuous, erasing the friction of struggle against confining convention, with critics wondering a. if the film consulted enough with trans people about transitioning and b. why the hell they didn’t get an actual trans actor to play Lili. The sexuality portrayed in the acclaimed Blue is the Warmest Colour has caused many queer women to speculate that there can’t have been a single lesbian on set. Then there’s the tremendously awkward choice to ‘alter’ an actor’s race for a role, like Zoe Saldana in blackface for Nina or Emma Stone as a woman with Chinese and Hawaiian heritage in Aloha. These bizarre blunders could have been avoided if they’d sought input from the minority groups in question.
Most uncomfortable is white filmmakers telling black stories. The Help is directed by a white man from a novel by a white woman, and unsurprisingly falls into the white saviour trap. Tarantino took advantage of slavery to add to his personal brand of shock, using Samuel. L Jackson’s character to “hold an obsequious black slave up for ridicule”. Here, the white saviour is Christoph Waltz. Django is the “one n—-r in ten thousand”, implying that the other 9,999 are content to suffer indignities quietly. This is similar to being presented with the dreaded Strong Female Character and being asked to like her on the basis of her being ‘not like other women’. As if a black or female character could only be strong if their peers are sufficiently weak.
These white takes are especially distasteful next to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, made by a black director and adapted from a former slave’s book. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a protagonist with dignity and agency in an intolerable situation. It’s a harrowing movie that stares relentlessly at injustice and portrays all the white characters as complicit, with even Brad Pitt’s character working for the movie’s principal villain. This is in line with how white privilege works, benefiting even those who aren’t outright ‘racist’, not offering us the comfort of ‘thank god for the kind enlightened white people’.
It certainly argues in favour of speaking for ourselves when we compare Django and 12 Years, or when Jessica Jones and Broad City write female characters who we can actually imagine hanging out with. Aziz Ansari’s excellent Master of None has two quietly incisive episodes dealing with racism and sexism, episodes that ring with authenticity because they are helmed by those they represent. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ was directed and written by women, and Ansari’s funny, cutting ‘Indians on TV’ rings with autobiographical candour. It speaks volumes that Natalie Portman insisted that her Ruth Bader-Ginsberg biopic have a female director, something she’s only able to do after many proven box office successes.
There are those who have presented passionate arguments for the fact that empathy is a crucial foundation of art, that the entire point of being a storyteller is the ability to imagine a life unlike your own. Seeing through the eyes of the Other will help us to become more accepting, more critical of our subtle prejudices. ‘Art’ is supposed to transcend social divides, built on the universality of human experience. Racism, sexism and homophobia are human issues that impact us all, and they are a discussion that everybody should take part in. On this side of the argument, Todd Haynes gives us a masterful story about women and queer experience with Carol, Taylor Hackford directed Jamie Foxx’s difficult brilliance as Ray, and Paul Feig lets women be funny and warm and real with Bridesmaids. On the other side of privilege is the Kathryn Bigelow puzzle, earning the first female Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker’s examination of the male psyche in combat, praised for its realism.
And a white guy makes a radical story less threatening, gives it wider reach. Akosua Busia, who starred in Steven Spielberg’s The Colour Purple, offered a defence of compromise; “we have to face it. This movie needed to be made and seen. If it had been made by a black director, me and maybe Margaret and Oprah would have seen it in an art theater somewhere and nobody else would have heard of it.”
That was in 1986.
So we were letting privilege take the reins 20 years ago in the hopes that it would open the doors for more diverse representation, and yet the industry is still just as homogenous in 2016. If it’s not helping anything, why do we continue to prevent minorities from telling their own stories?
Is there a solution here? Can there be a rule of thumb? Is it okay for a dude to direct a movie about motherhood if he joins a women’s group? If he wears a pregnancy prosthetic for nine months? Is it just more honest, more powerful, if an actual mother does the job?
Should it ever be okay for a white guy to make a movie about slavery? Or is that just another case of the privileged profiting from the oppressed? Shouldn’t he maybe sit this one out, and leave it to voices that have been historically silenced?
Perhaps the George Miller approach. For Mad Max: Fury Road, which is pretty much the most feminist action blockbuster you can find, Miller had the guidance of Eve Ensler, best known for the Vagina Monologues and kind of an authority on female experience. Or Sean Baker’s Tangerine, filmed on an iPhone, unpolished and knee-deep in the authentic world of its trans women of colour. Baker offered his filmmaking expertise without trying to impose a story, and the film’s subjects were essentially co-writers; “every vignette and subplot in the movie — from the way the cops interfere with the girls to the hate crime at the end — is based on stories that we heard from Mya and the other girls”.
So sometimes it’s okay. Is it? Personally, I feel very sceptical of a male voice lecturing me about female reality; I don’t believe that a guy can understand the bruising, nauseous power of the word ‘slut’, or the sense of suspension in a group of men, the feeling that anything you say is dangerous, that ridicule looms. And that’s from a hetero white girl who doesn’t have to fear hurtful portrayals of my race or sexuality. On the other hand, I really enjoy some women written by men, like George Martin’s female voices, or Rachel from Master of None, a miraculous creation from a male writing duo. But there can be no absolute rules here; it’s subjective, a matter of respect, sensitivity and collaboration. Even though every human knows pain, amusement, disgust and awe, we all perceive and respond to things differently. This is determined by the lives we lead, and the impact of race, gender, class and sexuality can’t be overlooked in the name of ‘art’. It’s a matter of everybody asking, who can best tell this story? The only real rule is this: If in doubt, leave to somebody who has lived it.