If there’s one good thing pop culture has provided for us in 2013, it’s an increasing awareness of identity politics within the larger cultural conversation. Sure, part of this has been fueled by online media’s inability to let cultural events die quickly the way they used to; just think back at how we spent a week — a week! — discussing Miley Cyrus’ Video Music Awards performance. But despite the fatigue, isn’t it slightly inspiring that culture has influenced such lively, albeit at times exhausting, debate about race, gender, and cultural appropriation? Take a moment to savor that, because it’s the last time in this essay that I’ll mention it in a positive light.
Mainstream media and pop culture have, in recent years, made great strides in depicting characters whose experiences closely resemble those of individuals within marginalized communities. Film, in particular, has become much more visibly diverse. But while we may see a broader range of experiences and images on screen, have the narratives in which we place these characters and stories evolved at all? Have we, as a collective culture, encouraged anything more ambitious than the mere recognition and representation of marginalized individuals on film?
As we enter awards season, you’ll no doubt be hearing many people talk about the popularity of “race-themed” films in 2013, with one title standing out in particular: Steve McQueen’s epic drama 12 Years a Slave. Compared to last year’s critical and box-office success, Django Unchained, it’s the more stoic, serious take on the same woeful chapter in American history. That it depicts the same form of brutality in a more conventional (read: less cartoonish and more historically accurate) way is no surprise, because it is a serious film about race that, thankfully, was helmed by a black director. Two other serious “race-themed” films this year include Fruitvale Station, a feature by black director Ryan Coogler that tells the true story of transit police senselessly killing a black man in San Francisco (a film that struck a chord as its release followed the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case), and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a somewhat bloated, Forrest Gump-type story featuring Forest Whitaker as the titular White House butler interacting with decades’ worth of historical figures played by recognizable A-list actors. These three films teach tolerance by playing to our emotions. They elicit specific responses from their audiences: empathy, compassion, and disturbance.
Another major film featuring African-American characters this year was The Best Man Holiday, and its success (earning over $70 million since its release mid-November) seemingly took critics and box office wonks by surprise. This was a comedy-drama featuring an all-black cast, and one that was not just holiday-themed but also a sequel. Not many critics took it seriously, and when it opened to much fanfare from audiences, they had to explain why. But perhaps it’s more telling that no one bothered to raise their expectations in the first place: because it was not a movie with a persecution narrative. Despite the way a USA Today writer stupidly described it, it was not a “race-themed” film. How can we explain, then, how The Best Man Holiday managed to gain not just a large black audience, but a broader audience of people from all ethnic backgrounds? Is it possible that The Best Man Holiday actually appealed, despite its all-black cast, to those who did not physically resemble its stars?
It’s plain to see, after so many years, that major studios assume white people want to see movies starring white people and black people want to see movies starring black people. Men like movies about men, particularly those in which there are also explosions; women, on the other hand, like romance. A good way to satisfy a broader audience, however, is to make a serious film and release it toward the end of the year. But that movie must also have a message, one that involves using a central character to sow the seeds of guilt in viewers. These are rarely films helmed by directors whose personal experience is anything like that of their protagonists; these are films like The Color Purple, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain, and The Help. Mainstream audiences, for the most part, probably don’t find these films very relatable, either, but this is the rare case in which that doesn’t matter. The message, you see, is what is important — that’s what’s clear.
Obviously, only two of the cases mentioned above are “race-themed films” — which, if you haven’t caught on yet, is a euphemistic white person’s way of saying “movies about black people.” But African American isn’t the sole identity that Hollywood only seems able to portray within the context of a persecution narrative. Dallas Buyers Club was a critical favorite this year, with Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Ron Woodruff, an HIV-positive cowboy whose illness teaches him to accept others despite their sexual orientation or gender identity, getting plenty of applause. It also featured a rarely seen move for the awards-bait category: a cross-dressing role, with Jared Leto playing a trans woman who also suffers from the disease. This was the only awards contender this year to heavily feature a non-heteronormative character, and — true to Hollywood form — it was in a movie about AIDS.
A couple of years ago, I had dinner with a friend who was working on a book, and he complained to me about his editor, who told him that the subject matter of his project — gay men in New York City — meant it would never sell well, because straight people don’t buy books about gay men. “They can’t relate,” he was told, especially given the fact that his book did not take place during the height of the AIDS crisis. When his book came out this year, I was not surprised that there was no mention on the cover or in the marketing materials of what it was actually about: the whole thing was vague, as if “GAY” would have been a red flag that would turn off non-homosexual people who buy books. This year also saw the cancellation of nearly every show to feature an openly gay major character, the lone outlier being Modern Family, a sitcom that is, well, what’s the opposite of “modern”?
The only time Hollywood is willing to risk taking on projects about marginalized individuals is when the potential audience can feel sorry for them. White, straight, and often male audiences are seen as the status quo, the normal demographic. If they don’t see themselves in the main characters, they must at least be moved to feel pity for them. They must learn a lesson. It’s why any major film with a queer protagonist must see that character suffer and nearly die; it’s why movies about Civil Rights issues are more likely to get funding and attention than films featuring African Americans doing, I don’t know, anything other than facing obvious discrimination or oppression. And this trend isn’t stopping: Roots is coming back, after all, because we have learned, from Django and 12 Years, that slavery is big again! Perhaps that’s a cynical worldview, but there’s a lot of truth hiding under the statement that slavery is, again, big business.
If you attempt to write a character who deviates from the norm, you’re damned no matter how you choose to portray them. Does your character represent the whole? Is that even possible? I believe it isn’t, but after years of under-representation, those of us who feel marginalized by our culture and the art that reflects it are now desperate to see ourselves on screen, and when those portrayals aren’t exactly right, we get angry. But they’ll never be exactly right, and that’s a point we miss as often as the studios do: we’re not all the same. Within each community, we have varied interests and ideals and dreams and what have you, and it’s impossible for a character or a performer to accurately represent an entire group of people.
Intertwined with the sensitivity we’ve apparently discovered this year, we’ve also gotten hostile, quick to judge, and, of course, repeated all of the cycles over and over again. As a nation, within our individual communities, and especially on the Internet, we’ve become both more sensitized to and sensitive of others, and we’re now at the point where every cultural item can be picked apart in a way that doesn’t actually change what we’re seeing — it just provides fodder for us to talk about what is “problematic” without coming up with any solutions. Will this change in the new year? It’s unlikely. But considering how exhausting this year has been, why not make it our collective New Year’s resolution to see these cultural events in context and from different perspectives?