Thoughts on Actors Portraying Minorities

I have seen a few posts on Twitter and elsewhere as well as articles on various websites complaining about actors portraying members of minority groups on the stage and screen. It seems that people object to able bodied actors playing characters with disabilities, cis-gender actors playing transgender characters and so forth.

It is not immediately clear to me where this is coming from. The whole point of being an actor is that you have empathy, you research a role, you understand the character and then  you portray that character to the best of your ability. Different actors have different approaches and of course some are better than others. Whether portraying fictional characters or real life people the actor needs to be rigorous in his or her approach and do a good job of portraying the character. The actor needs to understand what motivates the character, feel what the character is feeling and give the audience a sense that this is a real person they are watching. Of course the audience needs to play its part too by ‘suspending disbelief’ momentarily. The litmus test is was the character believable? If so, then the actor has succeeded. If not then they have failed.

A good actor will be sensitive to the character they are portraying. Almost always this involves being sensitive to the character’s background as well. I am therefore unable to understand why an able bodied actor is unable to portray a character with a disability, why a straight actor cannot portray a gay character or indeed why a cis-gender actor cannot portray a transgender character or indeed why it is ‘wrong’ for them to do so. I think this video clip of Sir Ian McKellen explains this concept rather nicely. An actor ‘becomes’ the character in the scene and is then themselves again. You do not need to be gay to play a gay character, but you do need to understand the character.

I am of the belief that a good actor who portrays a character sensitively, with empathy and well is better than one who does a bad job even if they are themselves a member of the demographic being portrayed. A bad actor is a bad actor regardless of their background etc. Furthermore getting the best person for the job at hand is surely better than appointing someone simply because they fit the right demographic? If we only appointed people we thought  were ‘right for the job’ based on demographics, we may still exclude women and minorities from certain jobs simply because society (erroneously) believed they were somehow less able than white men because of some imagined inherent superiority.

The argument could be extended to race. There has been some comment regarding the casting of a black actor to play the role of Hermione in a stage production of Harry Potter. I have not read the books and I have not seen all the movies but I do not believe that Hermione’s race is in any way relevant to the story. Yes she was portrayed as white in the movies, but was her race ever relevant? I do not think so. Therefore if the black actor is best suited to the role, let her play Hermione. It is not important. This is in stark contrast to say Othello, where Othello being black is crucial to the plot. He needs to be the ‘other’. If you wanted to cast a white Othello I suppose you could but then all the other characters would have to be obviously different somehow. If not, the story would make a lot less sense.

It gets a bit more complicated when black characters are played by white actors who then ‘black up’ for the role. In earlier times white actors sometimes parodied black people in an insulting way by ‘blacking up’. This has (rightfully) become unacceptable and in an effort to avoid giving offense such activities are now avoided. I am not aware of any formal process whereby cisgender people donning female attire in an attempt to parody transgender people. Transgender people are certainly sometimes victims of other forms of abuse but I am not aware of this happening. I therefore do not think that the two examples are comparable. If anything women could have a case against the transgender community in this regard. Some elements of drag are quite clearly parodies of women and can be quite insulting to women. So, if anything women could object to transwomen portraying female characters (as, for example, Caroline Cossey did in James Bond) . Fortunately, most women seem to not worry too much about this as they probably rightly realise that whilst some drag may be offensive to them, not all drag is and furthermore a transgender actor playing a female role is demonstrably different to a drag artist.

Perhaps the real concern behind the call for actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities and for transgender characters to be played by transgender actors is because of the limited amounts of work open to these actors. This is a separate issue and should be dealt with appropriately. It should not be conflated under a fallacious claim that only a transgender person can play a transgender character. If there is systematic discrimination against actors from a certain demographic ensuring that they get fewer castings then that should be dealt with appropriately. If too few roles for actors with disabilities are being written then perhaps there should be more movies, plays and television programmes written, with interesting plot lines, involving characters with disabilities.

We should deal with real issues effectively, not try and fix things through the back door which could potentially make things worse. I realise that their is discrimination in the world. I realise that transgender people are often victims of discrimination I believe that we need to tackle that discrimination appropriately and not try and deal with the problem through some sort of counter-discriminatory discrimination. I do not see what is wrong with a transgender actor playing a cisgender character. The day that happens we will all rightfully claim it as a victory. Lets work towards that not some dubious goal of reserving roles for people based on demographics.

 

Please accept my apologies if the terms ‘able bodied’ and ‘disabled’ cause offense. I am not sure what the current correct usage is. I have done my best to be sensitive here.

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entertainment, gender

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  1. Me and wife have talked a out this recently. In particular the fact that Doctor Who could one day be played by a lady. If the right actress did it it could be awesome and I’m in no doubt the team could pull it off. A couple of years ago one of the main recurring villians in the series who has been male for 40 odd years was successfully portrayed by a formidable female actress (actually formidable doesn’t do her justice) and that proved it could be done. I do hope I’ve not slipped into irrelevancy as I did notice the title of the post, I promise 😄 I totally agree with you!

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  2. A very well constructed blog and I can only agree which much of what you say here. This really boils down to being over sensitive with a very large chip on the shoulder for those who would protest. Too many look for problems where there are no problems. If the role is correctly played what is the issue?.

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  3. I do have something of a problem with cis men playing trans women. I know they’re only acting and so on, but I think that every time a producer casts a cis male actor as a trans woman, that producer is reinforcing the erroneous but widespread myth that trans woman are just men in dresses. They are women and should be played by women, be that trans or cis. So I have no problem with Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, or Vanessa Redgrave in Second Serve. If anyone ever claims that a male actor is required for pre-transition scenes just point them at Vanessa Redgrave astonishing turn in this film. But casting men like Jared Leto and most recently Eddie Redmayne to play women, well it makes no sense to me and it says that the producers of those movies view trans women as essentially male.

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    • But does it, or is that how we see it because f our particular fears, filters and backgounds?

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      • It does. I don’t think there’s any doubt. I also think that the rationale of “It’s just acting” is a red herring. If anyone could play any role because “it’s just acting” then it would be ok to cast a white actor in black face to play a black person, but it’s not ok is it? Well it’s not ok to cast men to play women either.

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        • Well I don’t know about that… It is not ok for white people to play black actors because of a very specific artistic/theatrical form that was used to mock and denigrate black people. It presented them as stupid animalistic and limited. No such similar form (as far as I am aware) exists elsewhere. I don’t think Daniel Day Lewis presented disabled people insensitively in My Left Foot,nor did he insult parody or otherwise denigrate aboriginal Americans in the Last of the Mohicans in any way other than the script MAY have called upon (let’s not forget the text is 250 years old and may have underlying issues). Why is it impossible for a man to play a woman’s character? Or vice versa? It would be VERY hard to do well, no doubt, but impossible? Insulting? Wrong? I am not sure…
          What about portraying Romeo as a butch lesbian (transman)? This could really work… Or Juliette as a femboi or perhaps a transwoman? What does the gender/sex of the actor matter? I don’t think it does.

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          • Conversley Breakfast at Tiffany’s has a terrible and insulting depiction of a Japanese (?) portrayed by a white actor. This was insulting not because the actor isn’t Japanese, but because it was done insensitively and by parody in an otherwise serious movie. Just plain wrong… But that has more to with the execution than the fundamental casting.

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          • There are two artistic/theatrical forms (panto dames and drag acts) that are used to present men dressing as women to be intrinsically comedic. I do have an issue with both as I find them not transphobic but sexist, mocking women and exaggerating our characteristics for the purpose of ridicule. In the popular imagination a man dressing as a woman is a drag act, a thing of ridicule, so you put a man dressing as a woman in your movie, it will understandably be interpreted as another drag act and if the audience is told that this is what being transsexual means, then being TS will be equated with being in drag.
            My problem is with the producers making these casting decisions, not with the actors themselves. Eddie Redmayne certainly has said all the right things in interviews, Jared Leto less so.
            Disabled characters are a different matter as depending upon the profundity of the disability being portrayed, a person with that disability may not have the capacity to perform the role – reciting lines, emotional range etc. No such limitation exists in trans or cis women, or people of colour for that matter.
            I definitely think Daniel Day Lewis should not have been cast as a native American, there’s no justification for that. It’s just Hollywood airbrushing, like having a person of white European playing the middle eastern man Jesus.

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          • But blacking up to ridicule is different to eg Caroline Cossey playing a cisgender women. I agree (to an extent) re the sexism on display in some drag acts. I have never seen a pantomime so I can’t comment on that art form. As I pointed out though I think most women see a distinct difference between transgender people and drag queens. Different things really and my point is that this is different to the blacking up that was done to denigrate. Thanks for opening the other side of the debate.

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  4. I have not seen the movie. As I understand it the movie tells of the first Human to undergo SRS. In this case the ‘transition” of a Human male gender to a Human female gender. It’s a movie requiring actors. I don’t know what the hub bub is about. It is not as if this is fiction. Personally, I like the actor. From what trailers for the movie I have seen, it looks to be visually pleasing as well. It is entertainment. It is a dramatization of the historical record. It is also pretty good marketing genius and timing. I wonder, why complain about an actor? Why not complain about people exploiting the entire transgender community just to make a buck? Or is it the realization that at this moment in time, being offended is the order of the day. If I were in marketing I’d exploit that to the max. When it comes to the “$” all publicity is good publicity. I suspect the professionals responsible for the marketing of “The Danish Girl” are well aware of this concept. We know just how far the information age has tunneled into the back of our craniums. A movie comes out that deals with a topic currently rampant in social media, the news, and politics. Imagine that. When do we hear the complaints about calling it “The Danish GIrl” instead of the “Danish Woman”, I mean come on, think of the children! 🙂 see how I did that? In any case, they could have called this movie “tempest in a tea pot” since it represents a single, prototypical individual that shows us, science can sometimes do magic! 🙂 That people are amazing. That the essence of our Humanity has nothing to do with it’s wrapper. But I want to see the movie. I just adore her hair!

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  5. As long as it’s believable and tasteful, I don’t care who plays the part. I think some cis men could play a trans woman well, and some could not. I will not exclude anyone purely based on a gender expectation… that seems almost hypocritical to me. I suppose the same logic applies with disabled persons, just do it well. And what would you do with a character that becomes disabled mid-story like Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump? Switch to a truly disabled actor??
    -ValS

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