On Power

A lot of my learning about systemic racism and cultural appropriation has revolved around the understanding of power dynamics in cultures. A racist system is one that favors the race that is IN POWER. If you see a “system” (like college admissions or job hirings) in a culture that favors people of color, that is not an example of systemic racism because white people have the power in our country and so a system that might favor people of color could – AT MOST – dismantle that power system that white people have. Whereas a system that favors white people (think housing loans before the fair housing act) simply ADDS to the power that white people hold and therefore INCREASES that unfair power balance.

This is the same with cultural appropriation. If your culture has the power in a country, then any other culture using it is not going to create a power imbalance. A black immigrant from Senegal suddenly singing country music is not unfairly taking the power away from white culture. Also, since white people have power in our country, it’s safe to assume people hear country music and understand it’s roots in Southern white culture because the people in power have their stories and their origins naturally amplified across the culture. On the other hand, a white girl from the suburbs raps and she is taking the power from a culture that might not have as much as she has. So, if she’s presenting it without acknowledgement of it’s origins her fans might not even know the cultural source so she ends up taking the power AND the story with it.

These are both overly-simplified examples of power v/s system racism or power v/s cultural appropriation but I wanted to build a simple foundation before I carried the topic further. These are just basic examples so we get our brains thinking about power balances.

Scarlett Johansson was recently cast (and has since withdrawn) as a transgender male in a movie and there was a lot of uproar with great discussions about how damaging it is to cast the wrong gendered person in a transgender role. It reinforces the broken idea that transgender people are “faking” their gender and are not “really” the gender they identify. One article I read said how casting a transgender male would have been perfect, but a person who identified as male would have been sufficient because at least then it helps convey the message the trans community is so desperate for: THINK OF ME AS THE GENDER I CLAIM, NOT AS THE ONE I WAS ASSIGNED AT BIRTH. If she had kept the roll and done a press junket for the roll it just reinforces the cultural picture that transgender people are “really” the gender they’re assigned at birth and we really need to be looking at it in the opposite way.

But the smaller conversation, and the one I’d like to think about today, is about the power of stories. When we tell stories in art or on stage or in film, especially if those stories are about marginalized members of our society, we are giving those people power. There is power given to a person of color if they are a character in a story being told, there is power given to a gay person or a transgender person as they play a part in a story on the big screen. So, if we take that power of that position in that story and give it to someone who ALREADY HAS THE POWER in the society, then we are reinforcing the power balance. So, having Neil Patrick Harris play the part of a raging heterosexual on How I Met Your Mother is not hurting straight men by taking away their power because they have all of the power. Or non-Christians in our country using Christian iconography in art, or in costume, can not hurt the Christian church which has all of the power in our culture.

However, casting Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer – neither whom identify as queer – in both roles of Call Me By Your Name, takes the power of a story of gay men and puts it in the hands of straight men. And while their stories being told does still help give power to the STORY, it sure would be nice if we could have the vehicles for those stories match the marginalized communities as well.

I’m not saying we should rage at any casting of performers NOT part of the marginalized communities they represent, but I’m saying we should always be thinking about the power balances that art challenges. If a piece of Japanese manga/anime is green-lit for a live action feature film and Hollywood casts the lead role with Scarlett Johansson, then we have taken the small power that could have been given to a minority figure and a piece of Japanese culture and handed it over to the power-weilding race in our society.

I remember when I discovered this slideshow of examples of whitewashing and I was blown away by how many of the stories I didn’t even know had been whitewashed. I mean, some of them were obvious. I didn’t know anything about the story behind the movie The Great Wall but I was pretty sure it was a safe bet after I saw the trailer that the Matt Damon character was not supposed to be a white man. But Ben Affleck playing a real-life hispanic character in Argo? So that’s a REAL PERSON that just got whitewashed? Think of the abuse of power in THAT story.

I like to step back and think of a person in a culture of origin of a story. Let’s say you hear about a movie being made from your favorite Mexican folktale that your Mexican grandmother used to tell and then you find out the lead was given to a white American woman who doesn’t even have brown hair. Or if you are gay and TV show was being made about two gay men and they cast it with a heterosexual. Or if your favorite R&B producer’s life story as a black man is getting told in a broadway play and they cast the lead as a white person who just happens to be kinda tan. Imagine if the story or the art or the history came from YOUR culture and that the power of the story telling was given to someone from the culture or the group with the power in the society you life.

I just think it’s something anyone with the advantage of power in a community – if you are in our country the power is given to someone who is cisgender, or straight, or white, or male – needs to think about. What are we doing to support that power imbalance? What are we trying to do to actually dismantle it? In a perfect world, we try to do things that DISRUPT that power balance. We try to financially support businesses owned and run by minorities, we try to signal boost stories and art from marginalized communities, we publicly voice our distaste in whitewashing or cultural appropriation.

There will be the inevitable gray areas. With culture and art a lot of the interpretation is left in the person ingesting the art and so we want to be careful to not take away from that personal experience. So there’s not always an easy answer as to what is and is not shifting the balance of power in art or cultural appropriation. But if it’s something we allow ourselves to think about when we see castings that sit wrong with us or the appropriating of one culture by the one that holds the power, then we start to spread the ripple of awareness so that it becomes something we are ALL aware of and then the casting of Scarlett Johansson never happens in the first place.

2 Comments

  • Tommy

    I’m not sure it’s possible to cast the wrong gendered person into a transgender role. That is to say that acting itself is an exercise, a highly technical exercise, developed over a number of years, in creating a person who can consistently identify with stories in such a powerful way that the illusion that someone is indeed not who we know them likely to be is nearly seamless. Was it wrong to cast Scarlett Johansson? I’ve no idea. I do know that when 300 million people see a movie, the possibility of influencing the changing of perspective of an audience member increases. I want to be clear in telling you Kim that I agree with everything you said in your post. All points made were clear and in my view accurate descriptions. I wonder though. The fact that you are a spongelike consumer of entertainment information might have you thinking that we all are. I’m sooooo not and am not going to be and therefore I know nothing of the fact that an actor, in real life, is gay or straight, or even transgender. Generally, I’ve no interest in knowing. And besides, I’m not sure it matters. Is Neal Patrick Harris able to play a gay character any better than Alec Baldwin? I’m thinking not. He may, but not necessarily.
    It seems to me that the importance of casting someone who is really good at conveying the character and who can also put butts in seats is what it’s all about. Should it be? Probably not, but it is.
    Now the whitewashing thing can absolutely change and should. Much of the history in this regard is ridiculous. And often comical. There have been studio justifications in the past but none hold water now. A black guy is not a white guy. A brown guy is not a white guy. I seems so obvious so as to be absurd. We know that.

    All this to say that maybe the entertainment industry should do better. They know better but are not acting on what they know. It’s a brutal business with no clearly delineated paths to success. In a profession where ‘no’ is the answer at almost every turn, and actors are so vulnerable to the whims of those who hire and fire, it is difficult, for most actors, to watch others be marginalized when in fact, actors themselves are marginalized. In saying this I recognize that Scarlett Johansson is a multimillionaire and its absurd to say she has no power, but for the most part, actors have no power at any level.

    Now, how white people abscond with the creative entertainment ideas and methods of black people and make them their own and make zillions of dollars for generations? The power dynamic you and others describe are absolute and inarguable. The cognitive acknowledgement of this fact by all of us is what provides impetus for change. To that end, you are certainly doing your part and assisting us in doing ours.

  • Beth Edwards

    Going to throw something out here. One of the reasons movies are made is to call attention to the issues of a minority group. The better it is produced , acted and directed, the more attention the issue will get. It would be best to have the characters cast by actors that are part of that minority. Since the group is in a minority in the country and therefore there may not be enough actors that try for the roles. Is it better to cast a member of that group, lets say a gay man, or is it better to cast someone with name recognition that will draw attention to the movie and the issues The ideal is that a very capable actor that is part of that group would be available for that role . I recently watched A kid like Jake. I was wondering where they were able to find a boy that would be agreeable to wearing princess costumes, having long hair, etc. 5 year olds can be disagreeable when it comes to anything. The answer, The young boy that played the roll is gender fluid or completely identifies as a girl. One of the websites identifies him as transgender, but at 5 , unless the child clearly states that they are a girl, I would say that it is difficult to say they are trans. Many little boys dress up in girls clothing. Many times those kids are hetero , many there times it is the first obvious indication they are gay