Lived Experience in Art and Journalism
What are the limits of representation?
Newly-minted NYT columnist Pamela Paul explores “The Limits of ‘Lived Experience.’” Her insights are not novel; indeed, it’s been the conventional wisdom for all but perhaps five minutes of human history.
Let’s make it personal: Am I, as a new columnist for The Times, allowed to weigh in on anything other than a narrow sliver of Gen X white woman concerns?
Not according to many of those who wish to regulate our culture — docents of academia, school curriculum dictators, aspiring Gen Z storytellers and, increasingly, establishment gatekeepers in Hollywood, book publishing and the arts. It’s the ultimate litmus test: Only those whose “lived experience” matches the story are qualified to tell the tale.
So what is this vaunted “lived experience”? You may recognize it by its longstanding name, “personal experience,” or less excitingly, “experience.” But “lived experience,” with its earthy suggestion of authority, says to other people: Unless you have walked in my shoes, you have no business telling my story.
This represents an extreme view in academia and elsewhere but it’s certainly one that’s gaining some traction. Regardless, she dutifully reports the thinking behind it:
Here’s the argument: The dominant culture (white, male, Western, straight) has been dictating the terms for decades, effectively silencing or “erasing” the authentic identities and voices of the people whose stories are being told. The time has come to “center” these other voices.
In practice and across the arts, this means that only those people who have directly experienced discrimination or oppression, for example, or who in some way embody that experience should be allowed to portray characters, create stories or drive programming about it. They’re the ones who can truly interpret those tales accurately. The goal is greater share of the narrative and greater stake in any profits.
And then a more cynical spin:
It’s essentially a turf war. Only Latino authors can write novels about Latinos. Only Holocaust survivors can convey the truth of the Holocaust. Only disabled people can portray disabled people. Everyone else is out.
Again, I think few people actually believe this except at the margins and it would be absurd in most circumstances. If only people who fought in the Civil War can portray Civil War soldiers, well, there’s going to be a problem. Even more so if one is casting for superheroes, wizards, aliens, and the like. But there is a growing sense that certain highly marginalized groups—those with severe disabilities and trans individuals come to mind—should only be portrayed by members of those groups.
This is one point of view, and as with most points of view, some of it is valid. Clearly those who have lived through something — whether it’s a tsunami or a lifetime of racial discrimination — have a story to tell. Their perspective is distinct and it’s valuable.
But it is, crucially, only one perspective. And to suggest that only those whose identities match those of the people in a story — whether it’s the race of a showrunner or the sex of the author of a book under review — is a miserly take on the human experience.
Surely human beings are capable of empathizing with those whose ethnicity or country of origin differ from their own. Surely storytellers have the ability to faithfully imagine the experiences of “the other.” If we followed the solipsistic credo of always “centering” identity when greenlighting a project, we’d lose out on much of journalism, history and fiction.
Culture is a conversation, not a monologue.
There’s quite a bit more but you get the point. And, again, I think it’s the conventional wisdom.
Hell, the very essence of fiction is that writers imagine worlds and create characters and circumstances. Presumably, their “lived experience” factors into that but it’s only a starting point. Similarly, actors pretend to be a character for the duration of a film, as Sir Ian McKellen put it in a classic bit:
More seriously, in response to the controversy over the casting of Helen Mirren to play former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, McKellen responded,
“There are two things: Is the argument that a gentile cannot play a Jew, and is the argument therefore that a Jew cannot play a gentile?”
“Is the argument that a straight man cannot play a gay part, and, if so, does that mean I can’t play straight parts and I’m not allowed to explore the fascinating subject of heterosexuality in Macbeth?” he added.
“Surely not,” McKellen concluded. “We’re acting. We’re pretending.”
This seems obvious, right?
But some argue it’s not so simple:
Mirren was first accused of engaging in “Jewface” for her role in the currently-in-production Golda in January, when British actress and comedian Dame Maureen Lipman stated that she disagreed with Mirren’s casting “because the Jewishness of the character is so integral.”
“I’m sure she [Mirren] will be marvelous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there,” Lipman explained to the Jewish Chronicle. “Right now, representation f***ing matters. It has to also finally matter for Jews as well. Especially Jewish women.”
It’s certainly true that Kingsley would never be cast to play Mandela. Not so much, though, because of accusations of blackface (unless, you know, he was actually in blackface) but because it would be distracting. Few complained about Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Alexander Hamilton or Leslie Odom, Jr. playing Aaron Burr.
But back to McKellen’s point: does it stand to reason that, if only Jews may play Jews that Jews may only play Jews? That would be rather limiting, no?
Still, Lipman isn’t an extremist on this:
My opinion, and that’s what it is, a mere opinion, is that if the character’s race, creed or gender drives or defines the portrayal then the correct — for want of an umbrella [term] — ethnicity should be a priority.”
I’m not sure I agree but it’s certainly a defensible position. A gay man can probably always play straight characters and vice-versa. But perhaps if the character is stereotypically gay, it would be preferable to have a gay man play it?
And, indeed, Lipman goes further:
“Which is not to say that ‘Pericles, Prince Of Tyre’ has to be [played by] a pure Tyresian thespian. It is complicated,” she continued. “We are really talking about lack of outcry. In a sense, I am a tiny outcry because every other creed, race or gender discussion with regard to casting [causes] tsunamis. Think Eddie Redmayne, Scarlett Johansson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Johnny Depp, Rooney Mara and, ridiculously, Javier Bardem in ‘Meet the Riccardos.'”
At the end of the day, actors should be allowed to act and writers to write. It would be absurd for a Hispanic showrunner to be relegated to the “lived experience” of his ethnicity. Then again, Miranda has been criticized for using mostly light-skinned actors of color in his casting.
As to Paul’s parameters as a commentator, surely they’re rather wide? While there are those who argue that men should not comment on issues that only directly affect women and that whites should not weigh in on issues that primarily affect people of color, that’s a rather fringe position, no?
The whole thing about prejudice, malicious or unintentional, cutting off actors of one ethnicity or another, one gender or another, one sexual orientation or another from roles they would be able to play well, that’s a tragedy and an injustice and deserves a whole lotta outcry and outreach.
But morphing this into a thing about actors or writers or other professional storytellers having to “stay in their lane”, is absurd. It’s a child’s view of the world.
Worse yet is the constant harping on what is acceptable and unacceptable in the writing and portrayal of complex characters. A character that is gay and also a secretly malevolent villain, plotting the downfall of his secret rival? What a juicy role ripe for portrayal with nuance and depth. And, according to all too many, an abomination since it assumes stereotypes about gay men. Modern storytelling in the US is starting to resemble mediaeval morality plays, full of one dimensional characters named “Truth”, “Envy” and “Virtue”.
To some there appears to be one acceptable minority character: one who is subjugated and oppressed by all straight white characters around them but who has a noble heart. And every story has to deal with the issues of the characters status, every time. I gotta believe this is just as stifling for actors of color or gay actors as for anyone else in the creative process. It reminds me of major modern Chinese films, where there is one unobjectionable plot* and every movie tells it over and over and over, with directors and actors struggling to find something new in it.
*The one unobjectionable plot: Takes place in ancient and mythical China. Based on real characters well known to all Chinese. Hero is noble and pure and gradually realizes that he emperor/lord/general is corrupt and sets out to right the injustice. Ultimately, though, realizes that to do so would cause chaos, which must be avoided at all costs. Allowable plot branches: A) Hero ends up nobly sacrificing themselves to protect the social order and keep the corrupt ruler in power, or B) Hero walks off into the sunset, presumable so they can star in a sequel.
It is much harder for someone without that lived experience to adequately and accurately convey the subject and all too often they don’t do the work to truly understand the role. And when they don’t do that extra work required, you end up with stereotypes, inaccuracies and/or misplaced focus.
@SKI: Sure. Lazy writers and actors are going to be bad at their jobs. The military, for example, is often portrayed very poorly on film. But it would be absurd to suggest that only those who have served be allowed to make shows or movies featuring the military. Those embarked on the project should, however, put in the work to get the portrayal right.
The reductio ad absurdum of this argument is that someone can only portray their own autobiography.
This sounds a lot like someone complaining about PC or cancel culture not letting them do something without understanding *why* it’s an issue in the first place.
And herein lies the problem – what does that mean? Who defines “drives or defines”, how and why? Is it the mainstream understanding that takes priority or the nuanced version that requires the input of someone in that In-Group? Let’s face it – an awful lot of people don’t have the first clue what it means to be anyone other then themselves. Otherwise we wouldn’t have concepts like mansplaining, microaggressions or even stereotypes. Humanity is not good at getting what it’s like to Not Be Them easily and needs to study in order to get it right. Look at how many writers can’t go to a rural area for a story without it turning into a Cletus Safari with them playing David Attenborough; it becomes an exercise in condescension instead of documenting the story so people get angry at how they are being represented instead of what’s actually being said.
The point of an actor is to act – to be who they are not. The point of a writer is to convey thoughts and ideas clearly so another can perceive what the author intends. If you do your homework, listen to people trying to tell you that you are making a mistake or being offensive and try to walk in another’s shoes, you can successfully portray what life is like for the Other as best you can. It takes effort and care. Most don’t do that and get mad when called out for it, thus the bitterness that “only X can do X”.
All too often, minority or disabled characters are defined, in the yes of the public, by their identity as minorities or disabled.
When Marlee Matlin won an Oscar for her performance in Children of a Lesser God, I recall reading two editorials complaining it was no big feat for a deaf actor to play a deaf character, and thus the award was undeserved.
What they miss is that Matlin wasn’t playing a deaf character, but a particular character with a back story and circumstances that are not those of the actor herself, just like every other actor does in every role.
Authenticity in the theater is created, manipulated, and fake. When the creators of the work and the actors do a good job, our critical faculties are lulled and we are transported into the world of their creation. For a while, we believe that radioactive monsters can awaken in Tokyo harbor and destroy the city, that Harry Callahan never misses, and that Harrison Ford can pilot an interstellar vessel even though in real life he crashed an airplane. Can Helen Mirren play Golda Meir? The obvious problem is that the young Mirren was stunningly good looking while Golda wasn’t; these early life experiences surely shape us. Does Mirren have the skills to overcome this? I vote for giving her a chance.
When I was a kid I read a Piers Anthony book about an apocalypse. I think it might have been called “Rings of Ice” or something like that. The book had a, let’s say Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) character in it. This character is portrayed as a straight up crazy person based solely on their GNC status. As a kid, it was another reminder to me that I was defective.
Until very recently Trans people were basically excluded from telling our own stories. Our history is continually erased and sanitized to make White Straight people feel better about themselves. When our actors were allowed to play Trans characters they were treated as a joke or abused.
I grew up being constantly shown that my life options were:
1. Disgusting joke (thanks Maury!)
2. Awful freak show
3. Murdered prostitute.
I never saw I could be anything more than an abomination and it messed me up. Getting to see Trans people actually be something other than objects of misery has been so amazing.
What a lot of this seems to me is the dominant cultural groups want to continuing to tell our stories in a way that is palatable and comforting to them.
@Beth: Hope you’re doing better today!
You know, I think that if you zoom back, the issues are not so much about actors as they pertain to the decision making process about who gets hired to play what, and for what reason.
But the hiring people tend to stay out of the spotlight.
And the issue is not so much that there’s a problem with this role or that (though there could be a problem there) but that we just don’t see a lot of Asian actors or black actors except in “black” parts. And so on.
And the decision process has a lot to do with who do white people feel comfortable with, and who do they relate to, and who will they go to see. The people making the decisions are trying to make money off a market.
All people like to see someone “like them” on the screen. This is known as “affinity bias” in psychological literature. And in this country, white people don’t see black people a priori as being “like them”. (If you get to know a black person or two, your mind might change about them very quickly).
I’m taking Black Americans here as an example, but it works with other groups.
However, seeing people on the screen is a good way to “get to know” them. Who doesn’t relate to Anthony Mackey, for instance. He’s so likeable. And so we push for representation.
And this poses another problem for someone who wants to advocate for change. The problem is less about any one decision as it is about the statistics. But movies come out one at a time, so the activist strategy is to protest every single example of “you could have cast X in that part”.
The argument, in itself, is not that great. Art works via imitation. For instance, in music, people listen, they process, then they play, or write. That’s how it works.
The other level of complaint is “appropriation”, which is hard to make an operational definition of. But it means roughly that an artist has used elements of a culture that isn’t theirs without a proper understanding or commitment to it. Nobody I’m aware of accuses Bill Evans (a white guy) of appropriating jazz. (Bill played on Miles’ Kind of Blue. I think that’s kind of a seal of approval.)
Anyway, “lived experience” in this context is a bit of a red herring. It doesn’t address itself particularly well to the substantive issue. It’s a very blunt instrument used to protest a real substantive problem.
@Beth: Yeah, Beth. Here’s my hopes that your home and feeling well.
I think it was Joseph Heller (Catch-22) who maintained that it was better to write about what you don’t know. This makes sense to me, since the act of bringing an outsider’s gaze to a subject can create something profound. I remember listening to a Ghanaian call-in talk show on the short wave many years ago when I was in the Peace Corps and hearing a caller and the host discuss why Peace Corps volunteers were so dirty. The caller pointed out that we only bathed once a day, no matter how hot or dusty the day was. And the host commented on how, when we were just amongst ourselves, we seldom washed our hands before eating. It was a revelation, and it is the type of insight you get when you are hearing from someone out-of-group. Am I arguing that in-group observation is inferior? Of course not. Just that significant observations can come from anywhere.
BTW, I’ve never looked at fast food restaurants in the same way since. All morning long we drive around, holding a steering wheel, get out, open doors, blow our nose into a Kleenex, shake hands… and then walk into a MacDonalds and buy hot greasy food and put our hands all over it before putting it in our mouths.
I am a straight, white male. I have still, to this date, written more books as a woman than I have as a man, and can you guess how many times someone has said, “Oh my God, this reads like it was written by a man?” Zero times. Gay characters? Yep. Trans character? Yep. Black, brown, Asian characters? No problem.
For me the solution is very simple: I write what I can write, and I don’t write what I can’t write. Can I write a literary novel entirely from the POV of a Black transgender character that was a deep dive on that life? Meh. I could fake it, I could get it up to say a B minus, but I couldn’t crush it. So if I were to write a Black trans character I’d write a Black trans character I could write.
Can any decent mechanic work on a Lamborghini? Sure. He can certainly do an oil change or rotate the tires. Can he handle more delicate work tuning the engine? Maybe not, maybe for that you need a certified Lambo mechanic. If I write a character, I write a character I can write. And let me add: duh.
Sticking with my fictional Lambo, could I explain its construction? Only in the vaguest terms. But could I use a Lamborghini in an action scene? Sure. Why not? I don’t need to be intimately familiar with the transmission, I just need it to go fast.
Here’s something to think about. If for some inexplicable reason @wr and @EddieinCA wanted to get together and make a movie of my life, Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad) would be a fair stand-in looks-wise. So let’s have a casting session where there are just two people up for the role of me: Mr. Banks, and me. Mr. Banks obviously cannot begin to equal my experience of being me – I know everything there is to know about being me. So who should get the gig? Mr. Banks, obviously because unlike me, he’s an actor, he understands the job, he has the talent and I don’t. Also, because he’s not me, he can see me in a way I can’t, and thus potentially bring more depth to being me than I can.
The funny thing is that I’ve never had a problem writing White, Brown, Black, Asian, gay, straight, old, young, etc. What I have a much harder time writing is characters who are a bit dumb. It’s very constricting given my style and voice. Doesn’t matter if they’re White or Black stupid, or gay or straight stupid, it’s the stupid I have a hard time with, not the color or sexual preferences of the stupid.
Personally I’m a fan of color blind casting. So it seems is Shonda Rhimes who has no issue with using Black actors to play the extra whiteness of high society in Regency England in Bridgerton. It works because Ms. Rhimes did not set out to recreate history, she set out to have a little fun with history. Now, if this were Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell, would it be odd if Cardinal Wolsey were Chinese? Yeah, because that show was looking to recreate actual history as accurately as possible.
The rule of thumb is pretty basic: do what works. (Adding one more: duh.)
But he certainly played Gandhi; and got an Oscar for it IIRC.
@Jay L Gischer:
Nobody I’m aware of accuses Bill Evans (a white guy) of appropriating jazz. (Bill played on Miles’ Kind of Blue. I think that’s kind of a seal of approval.
I think he had to struggle to prove himself, and Miles fought hard for him to play on the album. I don’t think this was particularly shocking. He didn’t want to be Dave Brubeck, for example, who was not a ‘real’ jazz musician.
I honestly believe that a huge number of the white people just discovered the idea of the authentic roughly four years ago and now they’re all terrified about appropriation or angry that the authentic exists.
It’s complete bollocks other than the narrow application of changing ethnicity of a character from “non-white european’ to “white european” (or black(etc) facing a european/european descended person) in film or TV. As a visual medium or mediums, having a tolerable visual correspondence between subject/character portrayed and the actor is entirely reasonable, but after that, it’s nonsense.
That is too blasé. It isn’t just not being lazy. It is *really* hard work doing such research and truly understanding it. And most of the time, even with really talented writers and actors, what comes through is a reframing of the character/location/situation through their vantage point.
Again, it isn’t impossible and I’m certainly not saying it should never be attempted but I’m pointing out that it isn’t easy and if you are going to commit to doing it, you should be prepared for a lot of work – or well-deserved criticism. There is a reason the basic advice to writers if to write about what they know.
I’ve read enough to spot the difference between when the author has done their research and then dropped the research in the book vs when the author knows their s–t. Math and engineering, for example, can be info-dumped. Or you have Thomas Pynchon, who built weapons for Boeing, doing the long sequence about the V-2 through Franz Pokler in Gravity’s Rainbow. These are two different distinct things.
I think you can apply the same logic to characters. If you have to info-dump to create real characters, you are doing it wrong. That said, not every character is intended to be real. Tearing into a formulaic character is like criticizing the inaccuracy of Star Wars’ physics.
That’s obviously awful. But Anthony was born in 1934 and was writing at a time when the prevailing belief was just that.
I see these as two distinct issues. First, there’s a gatekeeper issue. Second, there’s a marketing issue. But, in both cases, the Powers That Be weren’t interested in telling the story of marginalized people in a way that would be offputting to the masses.
I’m sure! But this is a function of the larger society—and especially the subset of it that makes art—changing.
I’m sure there’s some of that going on here. Pamela Paul’s column does sort of read as “Now that I finally got a column I feel like I’m no longer allowed to write about what I want.” But I think there’s more going on here than just that.
The single greatest act of cultural appropriation is called The Holy Bible. It’s a book (actually a series of books) written entirely by Jews ( an authentic oppressed people) for Jews, which has been hijacked by Christians and then, quite frequently, used as a pretext to murder the people who were the book’s intended audience.
As a bona fide Hebrew, I should probably be getting a piece of the Holy Bible IP and its many applications in literature, art, architecture, etc. I’ll just go wait by my mailbox for the check I’m sure is coming.
Cultural appropriation is a stupid idea put forward by ignoramuses with no understanding of how culture works. If you removed works inspired by that appropriated Jewish Bible from the Louvre, all you’d have left would be the works derived from the appropriation of Greek culture.
@Jay L Gischer:
This is the crux of it. And casting against expectations in where you get the keenest observations and performances.
“Mythic Quest” is a great show full of Uber-geeks and nerds, gamers and cosplayers. You know, exactly the type of character that South Asians get cast as. So casting Danny Pudi, an absolutely brilliant character actor, as the amoral (immoral? Hmm… Yes, fascinatingly immoral) finance guy was brilliant. And the character is very funny but very nuanced and complex.
It is not material to the show, at least so far, that the character is South Asian. But if it were, could Danny Pudi be well cast as a South Asian character? Well, he would definitely have to come up with an accent (he is a Chicagoan (yay!) and is of half Polish descent and grew up speaking Polish at home). And of course, just as he does now, he would have to figure out how to represent being a top level finance guy despite having little to no familiarity with it but, on top of that, he would have to develop an understanding of how the rest of the finance community would react to a South Asian. So in the end, if “authenticity” is the name of the game then Danny Pudi definitely can not be authentic in the role of an immigrant South Asian high level finance guy in the gaming industry.
Cultural appropriation is a stupid idea put forward by ignoramuses with no understanding of how culture works. If you removed works inspired by that appropriated Jewish Bible from the Louvre, all you’d have left would be the works derived from the appropriation of Greek culture.
This is just common sense. Artists develop their own style through a series of influences. Or they do not develop their own style and they look bad. The reason people get angry about insinuations of cultural appropriation now is because implies they enjoy bad art. Which is true. In hip-hop nobody cares about Eminem, because he did his own thing. The Beastie Boys are gods, because they did their own thing. What people do not like (and what is glaringly obvious) are kitsch and banal middlebrow exploitation.
Meh. Sometimes hard work, sometimes no work at all. Guess how much hard work I had to do to pass myself off as a woman writer. Literally none. Never gave it a thought. Same amount of hard work went into writing a gay Hispanic character or a Black lesbian character. You know what was hard work? I was going to write a character in a wheelchair – that took some effort, enough that I finally abandoned the attempt because I couldn’t make it work in the context of the book I was writing. The old saw was ‘write what you know,’ which was nonsense, better would be, ‘write what you can write.’
Agreed, and I’ll take it a bit farther. Even in works where enormous efforts are put into historical accuracy, much, much is deliberately left out. Bad teeth is the famous example, but so is, pox scars and huge goiters, the constant slapping and hitting of everyone’s class inferior, the poor people, men and women, casually peeing in the filthy, muddy streets. I hope that in fifty years, no one will think twice about casting the equivalent of Denzel Washington or Donald Glover in a meticulous “historically accurate” English period drama.
@Jay L Gischer:
Sadly, I actually come across commentary from time to time about how white musicians “appropriated” Jazz from black musicians. In another genre, I hear it about Elvis Presley all the time.
How many movies and TV shows have been about Vikings? How many have shown even a fraction of the monstrous violence, the rape and torture, that were the Danes’ stock in trade? Not one. Not even the ones supposedly striving for accuracy and enjoying a degree of gore, because if anyone actually showed what the Vikings actually did – gang-raping nuns and burning priests alive – it’d be the last Viking movie, at least from the Danish POV. Ragnar Lothbrok and Uhtred son of Uhtred will totally chop off a dude’s head, but will we see him raping twelve year-olds? No, we won’t.
I’m going to appropriate that…
@Michael Reynolds: Individual experience will clearly vary and not every author can be as brilliant or natural as you. Writing or portraying someone who you have little or no experience with has to be harder if you want to portray them accurately in a way that will resonate with others.
Those of us in the audience can often tell when a character didn’t come naturally to the writer/actor. When aspects of the dominant culture for the writer/actor get used in place of something more authentic. And when we have a shared identity with the character or topic at issue, it can be upsetting.
Really? People seem to really like it. It seems to me that most books, movies, tv shows, video games, and music are inferior attempts to capitalize on the “new thing”. Sometimes, rarely, they are superior attempts. But, almost by definition, true innovators are rare, and successful true innovators are astoundingly so.
I’m not just picking nits here. Most fictional media is created in the business world and must meet budget, be marketable, and yield profit. Demanding a moderately successful writer who is making the majority of their income from a teaching position at a mid-level midwestern state university to put together a focus group for every minority character in their books, is a sure way to insure they will never put such characters in their books.
I had never heard of Pamela Paul. All I find quickly online is that she was previously book review editor at the Times. I find her introductory column inauspicious.
Margaret Sullivan, who had the thankless job of Public Editor at NYT for a few years, had a column at WAPO expressing hope that the new top editor, Joe Kahn, would fix what’s wrong with FTFNYT. Evidence to support her hope seemed thin. She notes WAPO’s last three top editors were hired from outside, NYT has promoted from within. So Kahn is deeply steeped in the Times’ culture. I mention this because a) I like bitching about NYT and b) a commenter, who seemed knowledgeable, said the worst thing in the Times was the book reviews. Perhaps Ms. Paul is being failed upward.
I have to admit, this may be the first time I have ever run across the term “Jewface.”
It’s a deeply weird concept to me. First of all, the long history of anti-Semitism notwithstanding, there isn’t much of a history in Hollywood of Gentile actors doing offensive caricatures of Jews, the way white actors have done of nonwhites for over a century. Second, there isn’t exactly a problem of underrepresentation of Jewish actors in Hollywood. Part of the argument against casting a white actor to play a nonwhite character is that it’s taking away a role that could have gone to a nonwhite actor.
Reducing the argument against cross-racial casting to “lived experience” seems to me a bit of a strawman, since from what I’ve seen that’s the least frequent argument offered against such casting.
@Michael Reynolds: There is a bit in one of Neal Stephenson’s series (Cryptomicron?) that I had heard was based on a true incident from a South Pacific indigenous tribe, wherein one tribe sold a mentally deficient child to another so an adolescent could fulfill their obligation to kill someone before being considered an adult. The description of the confused child not understanding what was happening as the other adolescent plunged a knife in him was brutal. But it was brief. The whole series, though, is an object lesson in the unending sh*t storm of human cruelty since the dawn of time.
I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about how often we have been able to create the very concept of fairness and justice and bring it into reality in a natural world that does not in any way support such ideals.
This kinda conflates separate issues. In the gay community, the anger towards straight actors playing gay roles isn’t primarily about straight guys lacking the “lived experience” to do justice. The anger is more about straight actors getting nearly all the plum roles, straight and gay. Leaving gay actors with table scraps.
The argument is: since Hollywood typically refuses to cast out gay actors in major straight roles, couldn’t they at least reserve major gay parts for gays?
It’s a question of fairness, not of turf. Gay actors would prefer all actors be considered equally for any role. But Hollywood instead gives straight actors first dibs at all the good parts, insisting out gay actors — even masculine-presenting — are not bankable. Which, of course, is self-reinforcing, since you cannot become bankable when never given a fair shot.
@Michael Reynolds: Point taken. But, to be fair, Ragnar and Uhtred were the “good guys” in that show. I do remember at least one episode of a burning priest and there certainly was a lot of raping going on. Saxons were no slouch in the killing, raping, and pillaging game either.
There was so much death depicted I kept wondering whether there was negative population growth going on.
This is what I’m referencing. If it’s “let actors act” then the sword needs to cut both ways, gay and straight. The upset is because that’s not how Hollywood has worked, it’s just been straight actors hogging all the best parts.
Is it really fair for Hollywood to refuse to cast out gay actors in A-list straight roles, and then also give the best gay parts to straight actors too?
Matt Bomer is the textbook out gay actor who had everything necessary to develop into a A-list romantic lead, yet whose career was limited by casting homophobia. Hence the widespread phenomenon of actors with known gay backgrounds (I will not name names) staying closeted lest their careers suffer.
Note: very gay, very out Neil Patrick Harris played a womanizer for years on the hugely successful sitcom How I Met Your Mother. He was convincing and beloved in the role. It turned out to be the exception that proves the rule: despite his success, he’s not really gotten another crack at anything similarly big, and neither do most other out gay actors.
Okay but where’s the lie tho lol
And I love Elvis.
@Kathy: I assume this was a typo and you meant the eyes of the public, but let me say that I absolutely love the places “in the yes of the public” took me in thinking about your comment.
Neil Patrick Harris
That’s just off the top of my head. All gay. All have played major straight characters.
I’ll correct myself. It’s been straight (or closeted) actors hogging all the best parts. Specifically, major A-list romantic/action leads.
Ryan Murphy is a one-man shop trying to carve out careers for talented gay actors, but even he isn’t writing the romantic star turns that create Hollywood legends.
On HIMYM, he was #5 on the call sheet. Which means he was a secondary character. He did a great job, but he was #5. Since then, he’s worked non-stop, and has hosted the Oscars. His most recent role was as #3 on the call sheet for the newest Matrix movie. Mr. Harris is quite happy with his career, I can assure you.
She’s already better than Maureen Dowd.
It’s upsetting when they do a shoddy job. There was apparently a big uproar with Spielburg being chosen to direct The Color Purple instead of a black director.
Nobody is complaining now, because his work was brilliant. Within the black community, the movie is considered an essential masterpiece. If he’d phoned it in and produced a piece of crap, well…
I’ve heard quite a few people incensed that a white man! played Ghandi.
Kingsley is half Indian, an was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji.
Yes, that is why I said as much.
He did wear dark face makeup for the role, though. It’s kind of like the way Rita Moreno, who is actually Puerto Rican (though partially of Spanish descent), wore brownface for the original West Side Story.
I’ve vague memories of an old movie seen on TV at age 10 or so, where Alec Guinness played a retired Japanese naval officer.
Bad writing is gonna be bad writing regardless of representation. And by the way, should be criticized as bad writing. I wrote an autistic kid character and took some grief for it because I was facile and superficial. When reproached I said, “Yep, that was not my best work, if it’s ever adapted I’ll fix it.” Neither sturm nor drang required.
How far down did you have to dig to set that bar? And while you were digging did you happen to see Tom Friedman’s cab driver?
Don’t forget Rock Hudson, Randolph Scott and Raymond Burr, all gay actors ‘taking’ roles that could have been played by Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne.
As a minor point, no one is authentic. Everyone presents a version of themselves that is to one degree or another, fictional. Look at the yawning gap between autobiography and biography. Who do you trust to tell you the authentic story of Donald Trump? Trump? Or just about anyone else?
While your point is taken, I’d quibble that Mahoney never spoke openly about his sexuality, and in interviews played up the “I’m too much of a ladies man to stay in a relationship long” thing.
Considering his age in relation to most of the rest of your list, it shows how far Hollywood/society has come. Mahoney *did* have to hide his sexuality; the others on your list are finding success living their true selves.
@Kylopod: Wait, you mean actors wear makeup?!
It’s probably better to get someone with the lived experience, as they know the source better, but it’s definitely not necessary. Actors act. A great actor can do a lot of roles that are far from who they are — they may have to do more work to understand their character, but that’s what they do.
A less great actor, and you run more risk of something offensive. We all love Keneau Reeves, but he would make a poor choice to play anything other than a white man of unimportant ethnic background.
Pamela Paul will probably have to do a little work if she wants to write something about what Black grandmothers living in Latino neighborhoods have on their minds. She might even screw it up.
The creators of Star Trek: Voyager were committed to making Chakotay a well fleshed out Native American character who wasn’t a pile of weird stereotypes, and hired a consultant to help guide them. The consultant turned out to be a complete fraud, of course, which is why Chakotay is generally not a particularly beloved character.
I’m suddenly reminded that the “Crying Indian” from the anti-littering TV ads in the 70’s was actually Italian.
I noted above @gVOR08: that I’d found very little on Ms. Paul. Thanks to Atrios I’ve learned a little more. He extensively quotes a paywalled article in Women’s Wear Daily. Holy spit. I’d idly wondered if she was connected, perhaps related to Rand Paul. It’s worse. She wrote a book on her brief “starter marriage” to Bret Stephens, . This is the root of WTF is wrong with FTFNYT. They’re the home town paper for connected New Yorkers. Atrios concludes,
Y’all are making a category error by discussing the “content” of her column.
@Michael Reynolds: “Cultural appropriation is a stupid idea put forward by ignoramuses with no understanding of how culture works.”
I do believe there is such a thing as cultural appropriation — but to me it’s the guys who owned record labels in the 40s, 50s and 60s who would take songs recorded by Black artists and then hire white artists to create soundalikes, which would then be released to the general market, making money for everyone except the ones who were really responsible for the success.
Which to my mind is entirely different than a bunch of English kids falling in love with blues music and trying to do it themselves. That’s influence — it’s how art works…
IMO, I care more that the portrayal of trans characters be accurate and not malicious, rather than what type of actor plays such characters.
My concern is that an insistence that trans actors play trans characters, will close the door to trans actors playing cis roles.
@Modulo Myself: Ok, here is a conundrum: Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Roy Clark perform Take The A Train on Hee Haw. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1nyR3si7lg
Brown is the only black guy performing. The players use their normal country idiom to play a Duke Ellington pillar. And they do it well. Clarence is calling the shots by the end. This is, to my mind, great stuff.
This is what I think of when I think of appropriation, because I never, ever want to rule stuff like this out. I am an integrationist. I believe in listening to each other, processing, mixing in yourself and producing art or life or whatever.
Now it starts with listening. I don’t lecture black people or Asian Americans about this. It’s pretty much forced on them. I’m talking to other white people. Listen to people who aren’t like you more. What are they saying? You’ll learn stuff.
@MarkedMan: “Even in works where enormous efforts are put into historical accuracy, much, much is deliberately left out. ”
Just watch any movie that has been acclaimed for its historical accuracy ten years after its release and what you’ll see is a bunch of haircuts clearly demonstrating exactly when it was made…
@DK: “Matt Bomer is the textbook out gay actor who had everything necessary to develop into a A-list romantic lead, yet whose career was limited by casting homophobia”
Glancing at his IMDB page I see an actor who hasn’t stopped working since 2003, who has had the lead or co-lead in multiple TV shows, and has a series in post and a miniseries and a movie in pre-production. That doesn’t read like “casting homophobia” to me.
That he hasn’t developed into a A-list romantic lead — it’s not like getting knocked off the partner track in a law firm when the straight guys are all getting ahead. Becoming a huge star is a freak thing, a matter of the right actor getting the right part at the right time and the project hitting. There are so many fine actors — even ones as good looking as Mr. Bomer — who never become A-list romantic stars.
@Jay L Gischer:
I don’t see the conundrum at all. These guys love playing and they love Duke Ellington. Musicians do covers and hillbilly music is pretty connected to blues and jazz. When people talk about appropriation in music, it’s more like Balinese tonalities being used by American death metal. And that’s not even bad. I think John Zorn’s work is amazing and he does this all the time. But I also have albums where a bunch of Americans are into Balkan music or something that upon a relisten 10 years later sounds not good. That’s the way it always is. For every Bartok studying folk music and producing a string quartet there are a dozen non-Bartoks who sound like they were desperate for material.
@EddieInCA: “despite his success, he’s not really gotten another crack at anything similarly big, and neither do most other out gay actors.”
Strongly suggest you spend a little time checking out characters with popular supporting roles on TV shows. You’ll discover that NPH is indeed the exception — for the opposite of the reason you’re suggesting. He is a star name and a star personality. Most actors in his position struggle to find another home at all…
Note — this is not actually addressed to Eddie, but to the person he was responding to!
@Gustopher: “The consultant turned out to be a complete fraud, of course, which is why Chakotay is generally not a particularly beloved character.”
I thought it was because he was as boring as everyone on that show besides the doctor…
Zing! You hear that Robert Duncan McNeil AKA Lt. Tom Paris?! Your three most interesting character traits were your receding hairline, your bizarre love of 70s muscle cars the writers of a 90s Star Trek show were too poor to buy themselves, and your middle name.
(Eugene. As in “Gene.” As in Rodenberry.)
I’ve said round these parts before: “white”, like most racial categorizations, is very blurred at the edges.
Traditionally, European ethnographers counted the populations of North Africa and the Middle East, ie Arabs, Berbers, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Iranians etc as “white”.
And this was sometimes extended to the Hindic populations of northern India.
And on a more pragmatic basis, it would be a very acute observer who could readily distinguish a Balkan European from an Anatolian Asian.
The default American definitions of “white” versus “people of colour” often make little sense in some other parts of the world.
Neither of the two authors who created the most meaningful representation for me as a young gay man trying to escape a narrow impoverished (both money and culture) life in the late 80s / early 90s were women:
Mercedes Lackey, whose Last Herald-Mage trilogy was the first time I saw a positive representation of romantic gay male relationships in a work of fiction.
Dorothy Allison, whose collections Trash and Skin, and autobiography Bastard out of Carolina helped me to process and understand my own experience of being a too-smart-for-their-own-good queer kid growing up in abuse and poverty in rural America, and how to interpret my experiences as a young adult.
While I’ve got a good degree of intersectionality with Allison, I have much less with Lackey. Yet I saw myself and learned about myself through both of their works.
Allison writes what she knows. Lackey writes what she imagines. And both of them wrote what I needed.
@Modulo Myself: Great.
Here’s another one, a more of a problem one now, from The Mikado.
Michael used the words “facile and superficial” to describe failure. Is that the issue here? I kind of think there’s more.
I love The Mikado. I think it’s funny and has some great music, very cleverly composed. Some of the best musical comedy ever made. AND, it has a giant heaping helping of appropriation in it. We make fun of British society using the vehicle of a caricature of Japanese society. (“Off with his head” was kind of a nineteenth-century mockery of cancel culture, I think). But the caricature itself is a problem, as it reinterprets all the elements it uses in, uh, a facile and superficial way.
You don’t need a focus group. You just need to listen to others and read other writers. The stance of someone like Pamela Paul is that of a tourist. If someone says it’s impossible you can capture the experience of this identity, you should at least take that seriously enough if you are writing about that identity. She displays the same curiosity that somebody on a cruise ship displays for a place they are stopping over.
I notice that this discussion has largely sidestepped an issue. If white folk shouldn’t do blackface, should black folk do whiteface? Should “black” folk do blackface? (If you don’t think that is happening you haven’t looked at the makeup closely enough.)
My mom’s family was a show biz family and my maternal grandfather was proud that he had never done blackface. He considered it a low form. My maternal grandmother’s great-uncle on the other hand made a headliner’s career of doing blackface.
Also, Michael touched on something I think is important: “authenticity” isn’t the only thing that’s important. Talent is important, too. A skilled actor will bring things to a role that an unskilled actor will not however authentic.
@Gromitt Gunn: Argh. I meant to write that neither were gay men. My kingdom for a copy editor!
My wife’s hobby is make-up and studying historical styles. This is something that she calls out all the time. Like hair, make-up is rarely if ever actually true to the period (in part because it would take you out of the story).
@Jay L Gischer:
Yeah, the Mikado is a pleasure, and it was never intended to be about Japan. The staging is more ‘problematic’, I guess. But it’s also pretty much sounds like everything else Gilbert and Sullivan did. At least to me. Incidentally, have you ever seen Topsy-Turvy? Here’s a great scene. I
There’s a Suzan Lori-Parks called Topdog/Underdog. One of the two characters has a job at a carnival where he puts on whiteface and dresses up as Abraham Lincoln. Everyone gets a chance to shoot him. Then he goes home and hangs out with brother, who is trying to learn 3-card monte. One brother is named Lincoln, the other Booth.
Anyone who would be offended is an idiot.
@Jay L Gischer:
As this thread demonstrates, a unicorn.
Now admittedly my entire knowledge of painting forgeries comes from Daniel DeSilva novels so take this with a grain of salt…. According to his detective, forgeries that were considered very good in their day can seem obviously out of date 50 or 100 years later. I can easily believe this as, strolling through various art museums
I’ve seen many studies and works by artists mimicking more ancient pieces that seem obviously done in the Greek revival period rather than being actually Greek.
You assume correctly.
A simple typo can render a message meaningless. Unfortunately, the spell checker still doesn’t understand it’s supposed to help me say what I mean to say 🙂
Was discussing a similar(ish) issue with my research group today — it came up as part of a broader discussion. My lab does a fair amount of work on/with/for marginalized communities. As such, we deal a lot with issues involving representation, community participation, language, framing, etc. wrt science.
One parallel to the current discussion is “mesearch” (eg, a Black American scientist studying racialized disparities in infant mortality). And in particular, how consumers of science appraise such work.
In fact, there is research (me-mesearch?) on this very thing. And the general pattern is that such work is appraised less highly (ie, it is seen as less rigorous, important, etc) than comparable work that is “strictly*” research.
I wonder what the patterns would look like in a similar study of art.
Another parallel is the issue of positionality statements in scientific manuscripts. Should they be required? Do they empower or risk further marginalizing people from already marginalized communities? What about omissions (eg, if only one co-author lists their queer identity, will readers assume that all other co-authors are het)?
Difficult, complex issues. The individual scientist/artist is ill-equipped to grapple with these on their own. Requires humility, openness, and curiosity. And cultural immersion. Recurring.
*Of course, the whole notion that the conduct of science is orthogonal to the identities and characteristics — ahem, lived experience — of the scientists is folly.
Cultural appropriation very much is a thing, it’s just whether it is good or bad is not nearly as clear cut as some people want to make it out.
Blackface minstrel shows were clearly cultural appropriation, and so influential that basically no black person touched a banjo for close to a hundred years after the minstrel shows were popular. The banjo was an African instrument. That seems … bad?
Using someone else’s religion or culture as fashion is also generally bad — particularly if they are a minority and the meaning of the items will be transformed. A classic example would be the Nazis ruining the Swastika for everyone.
That said, Korean-Mexican fusion is delicious, and a lot of cultural appropriation is great. Elvis brought Black music to white audiences in a form they could accept (lots of other issues there, but he was clearly very respectful about what he borrowed). Etc.
@wr:..Just watch any movie that has been acclaimed for its historical accuracy ten years after its release and what you’ll see is a bunch of haircuts clearly demonstrating exactly when it was made…
Setting aside the hair and makeup, I always found it amusing that Old Testament folks in the movies always looked like they had just come from an appointment with the dentist having their teeth cleaned.
Looks like Terry Jones gets the kudos for an accurate portrayal of Biblical choppers.
There was that too, of course.
But most of the characters had their fans somewhere. Somewhere there is a small group of people pleased that Vulcans can be Black, and other group delighted that Romulans can be Irish, and a larger group ecstatic that a woman can be captain, but there’s none of that for Chakotay.
Also, they weren’t all boring — Neelix was tedious. There is a difference, and it can be evidenced by when Harry Kim is on screen you never notice, but while Neelix is on screen all you can do is notice.
(Poor Garett Wang, a dude of Chinese descent playing a Korean ensign, who the writers put so little thought into they didn’t realize was Korean rather than Chinese — I’m not saying it would have been better if the writers had thought about the character, just that if there was any potential, it was completely wasted)
@Dave Schuler: There are two separate issues that intersect in your scenario. One is representation, the other is ability.
Clearly, just because some white actor can hypothetically do a good job at portraying a black person, doing so doesn’t address the representation issue, like, at all.
And we have a long history of appropriating black identities for the purpose of mockery, and that is still a painful memory for many, which would interfere with any other artistic aims.
We might one day get to the point where portraying important black figures with white people would be interesting and insightful, but it is not this day.
@Jay L Gischer: It’s possible that the Mikado would benefit from a new setting and race-blind casting, just to try to distance it from the outdated stereotypes.
Space Mikado! Where everyone is dressed like a Klingon!
And even less if you ascribe validity to Malcolm X’s anecdote about the black man who would put something resembling a turban on his head and ask for tables at segregated restaurants claiming to be Nigerian and, having heard of the restaurant’s fame, wanting to try the famous cuisine. (Yes, it seems that he was seldom, if ever, refused.)
@Kathy: I’m reminded of the test a group of us ran on the spelling/grammar testing program that was on the computers in the School of Education at my graduate school. Compiling our results, we concluded that the program either mismarked or ignored errors roughly 60% of the time. And when the errors were correctly identified, the program provided a useful correction in just slightly about 50% of cases. It WAS better at spelling than grammar, though. Not by much, but some.
@Mimai: “*Of course, the whole notion that the conduct of science is orthogonal to the identities and characteristics — ahem, lived experience — of the scientists is folly.”
It may well be (certainly is) folly, but I’m confident that a measurable number of readers of research will ascribe bias/agenda in the situation you just described. (Pesky human nature. 🙁 )
What a weird first column for the new NYT writer. Basically, “I’m not a racist but…”. Sounds like an harbinger of things to come. My reaction is merely to turn off this kind of nonsense.
@Just nutha ignint cracker: No doubt! People digest science like they digest the socio-political topic of the day: “Can I” vs. “Must I” believe this.
Demanding that only marginalized people play marginalized parts is probably misguided, but demanding more roles for marginalized actors is a good idea.
The best example of this is Peter Dinklage, whose breakout role was Tyrion in GoT.
Although the role was written specifically for a dwarf, he’s appeared in several movies since where dwarfism had nothing to do with the character, and played the hell out of them.
One of the most unexamined lies in Hollywood is that a marginalized person can only be considered for a role if it was specifically written for them; Like, all roles are white men men of average height, so Dinklage could not be considered for the role in The Station Agent, or 3 Billboards. Or that Hamlet must be a white male, so Denzel Washington could not be considered for the role (and he was excellent in it!)
Sorry Chip. Peter Dinklage has been doing amazing work since 1995 in “Living in Oblivion”, and was lead in a GREAT film from the early augts called “The Station Agent” (which you mention). By the time GoT came around, he already had 15 years of non-stop acting credits – on everything from “As the World Turns” to “Elf” to “Threshold”, “Nip-Tuck” to “30 Rock” and “Pete Smalls is dead.”
It’s took Dinklage a while to become a real star, but let’s hope it sticks. His Cyrano was underrated by audiences.
@gVOR08: Honestly, I think this criticism is unfair. She went to Brown, a prestige school, but her parents weren’t famous or particularly connected (her father was a construction contractor and her mother was an advertising copywriter and later, the editor of Retail Ad World). She married Stephens around the time he was moving from Commentary to the Journal. And she’s managed to publish eight books and spend years as editor of the most prestigious book review in the country.
@Gustopher: “Also, they weren’t all boring — Neelix was tedious. There is a difference, and it can be evidenced by when Harry Kim is on screen you never notice, but while Neelix is on screen all you can do is notice.”
I will bow to your greater knowledge. As I recall, I made it all of three episodes into the series before I bailed out forever…
@wr: That’s what really dates 2001 more than anything else–the hairstyles and makeup on the stewardesses.
Anyone who wants to claim that I, as a pasty-white female of Slavic descent, can’t eat sushi because of “appropriation” is going to have to pull it from my cold, dead hands….
(Why do we allow appropriation of food but not of other things? Heck, if I ever get into a position where I need to epater les Wokites I’m going to wear my tomosode kimono and blow their tiny little skulls. You’d think that a decade of living in Japan should count for at least something.)
How many on that list are truly A-listers and bankable stars? Half are just members of Ryan Murphy’s company no shade.
Saying “But what about Maria Bello?!” in response to gays arguing for a better shot at *A-list romantic/action leads* is the equivalent of “You forgot Poland.” Argumentative for the sake of being argumentative.
@Michael Reynolds: Yup. Rock Hudson was notably out, openly gay, and competing for roles with John Wayne.