Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Who would play you in the movie of your life?

This conversational game, common among young teenagers, had two separate sets of rules for me. At school, the game was an exercise in vanity and flattery; which actor was basically the older, more gorgeous version of you? If you struggled to name one, friends would make flattering suggestions; being a tall, brown-haired white girl, I should naturally have been played by Julia Roberts. Among my youth theatre friends, the game was about identifying which actor (if any) had the colossal talent required to depict the full melodrama of your life. Few have such a range, darling! A young Diana Rigg might have pulled it off, but barely!

I still think about this game occasionally, when I reflect on the fact that people in movies never look anything like me. Foz Meadows recently described this as The Perfect Hair Problem; women on screen vary so little in their appearance that they usually have the very same hairstyle, and that hairstyle remains perfect, come rain, shine or zombie apocalypse. Women on screen are overwhelmingly white, thin and without visible impairments, even more so than men. There are more transgender women than trans men on screen, but these numbers are minute and of course, they're often not played by actual trans women.

Women on screen are also overwhelmingly young. Even female characters who you'd expect to be middle-aged in real life - experts, senior managers and politicians, high-ranking police officers, the mothers of adult characters and the partners of middle-aged men - are played by inexplicably young women. Angelina Jolie is just a year older than Colin Farrell but was cast as his mother in Alexander. However, often middle aged women characters who might exist (especially mothers), have conveniently died before the start of the film. Occasionally - although the practice is far more common in the theatre – a middle aged or older woman might even be played by a man (the St Trinians movies, Hairspray, Orlando etc.).

A big part of the problem is about story-telling. You notice things like perfect hair far more when a character is actually written like a real person who would not have perfect hair. In the movie of my life, there's only one woman who has perfect, long, shiny and mechanically-straightened hair and even then only some of the time. Often, however, I find myself watching a movie, understanding that the (only significant) female character is not a character at all, but an object, a sexy lamp, the girl. It's not that she must be beautiful in a very particular way because she is eye-candy so much as the fact she needs to look like that so we recognise what she is. She can't be black or a wheelchair-user, not because audiences won't find such a woman as attractive but because the girl is never black, let alone a wheelchair-user. If this woman just wore glasses and kept them on her face throughout a movie (as opposed to taking them off as she comes out of her shell), it might start a revolution.

When we talk about the visual representation of minorities and women, the issues of story-telling, casting and the cultural baggage that goes with it are intermingled. One of the reasons folk were so upset about Eddie Redmayne’s casting as Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything was that, even before the film was made, it was obvious both what kind of movie it would be and how it would be received. Redmayne was destined for critical acclaim, not for his courageous attempt to portray extraordinary genius, but for putting his able-bodied self into the position of a wheelchair-user. It didn’t really matter how well he imitated Hawking’s physical mannerisms because nobody really cares – he just had to look uncomfortable enough, disabled enough, and he was bound to be lauded. In Redmayne’s next biopic, he’s playing transgender pioneer Lili Elbe. Rinse and repeat.

Although there’s no serious argument for casting actors with the same sexual orientation as their characters, the pattern is the same with gay male characters, as with transgender women and disabled men: Non-disabled, cisgender, straight white men routinely play gay men, disabled men and transgender women in epic, often tragic movies which invite massive critical acclaim. The Fast Show’s parody of Forest Gump is almost twenty years old but the same movie is still being made right now:

Meanwhile, the most common objection to casting an actor with visible impairments to play a disabled role is that the character has to be non-disabled for some scenes, as was the case with Theory of Everything. This is only because almost every damn story with a disabled protagonist features the acquisition of impairment as a central dramatic narrative. Disability remains a metaphor for film-makers, rather than an incidental aspect of a character's life. I hope that, come an occasion for my biopic to be made, my getting sick will be the least interesting event of my life. It's already fairly low on the list.

Casting can't be about perfect authenticity. In the film of my life, someone with my particular condition would struggle to act in a film - I certainly couldn't play myself and my impersonation is seamless. However, this is about the representation of disabled people as a social group. We're all invisible for the same reason and the visibility of one of us benefits us all. As well as everyone else, who gets to see us as people rather than symbols.

Rigorous realism only matters when realism means representation. When they cast 5’7” Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, a character who is 6’5” in the books, movie-makers weren’t contributing to an ongoing under-representation of tall men (in fact, very tall men are over-represented, while very-almost-average height Cruise is widely mocked for being a short-arse). Fans of the books may have a complaint but tall men do not. However, when the movie Stonewall, supposed to be depicting the Stonewall Riots, invents a macho young white cisgender male hero and sidelines the real-life trans women, lesbians and femme gay men of colour, well that's a scandalous erasure. See also from this year, Aloha, a film set on Hawaii with only white protagonists, including a white woman who, conveniently, is not supposed to look like she possesses the Chinese and Pacific Islander heritage of her character.

One of the problems we have is that campaigns around representation fail to take an intersectional approach. I often see articles about the casting of non-disabled actors in disabled roles which insist that nobody would stand for this being done to people of colour - "blacking up" is a thing of the past. And yet, routinely, characters of colour are either erased in novel adaptations or historic dramas or played by actors with much paler skins. Ridley Scott defended his Exodus: Gods and Kings (a film where Ancient Egypt is run by white people);
"I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such, I’m just not going to get it financed."
In other words, it’s a racist world, so even massively powerful, rich and influential film-makers are compelled to be racist. We hear the same arguments made about the casting of all marginalised people. These actors are not well-known because they're not often cast so we can't cast them now because they're not well-known.

(Please read this by Jon Ronson speaking to Middle-Eastern American actors about their chronic type-casting as terrorists - it is both hilarious and tragic.)

Frankly, any deviation from the perfect-haired women and more various but still rather samey men would be of benefit to the majority of us who don't see ourselves on screen. Whenever I see prominent women of colour, short, fat, trans or older women in movies, I feel better - any kind of diversity suggests there might be room in this visual universe for me. When I see prominent visibly disabled women on screen (once every five years or so), I feel more like a real person.

In this post I've concentrated on film because television does much better. Television increasingly features transgender people in trans roles, far more incidental disabled characters and greater ethnic diversity than you'll see at the cinema. British television especially features a far more diverse variety of women fulfilling a variety of roles. It's not a perfect medium, but it demonstrates time and again that audiences don't switch off when a drama doesn't look like every other drama before it.