Equality: Are We Chasing a Unicorn?
Is equality in the entertainment industry really obtainable?
Equality; the state of being equal, especially in status, rights or opportunities. It can be hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Every individual has their own set of struggles as we try to do the best we can with our lives. As we get older, more struggles and obstacles become apparent after the ones we manage to overcome—but not everyone was put at the same starting position. Some were given a head start; they were born with a little extra status or wealth and while the security of their future is not guaranteed, if they play their cards right that head start will lead them on a path to success. Others were put at the back of the pack, unable to obtain the same opportunities as others merely through the circumstances of their birth. Perhaps their hard work will pay off later in life, perhaps they’ll get lucky, or maybe they’ll get left behind in the dust. We don’t know what the future holds for every individual, but surely we should be doing all that we can to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot in the beginning?
Many of you will agree with that statement. Some won’t, and no doubt at least 50% of the ones that disagree have already stopped reading. That’s a shame, because I’m sure the next statement applies to them completely; when it comes to film and television, the person who is best for the role should be chosen, regardless of race, gender or sexuality. This is a fair statement, right? Stay with me, we’re about to explore how this statement can really be put into practice.
“The person who is best for the role should be chosen, regardless of race, gender or sexuality.” I hear this statement most often when a female or a person of colour has been cast in a role. As equal rights' lobbyists drew more and more attention to how unfairly many groups of people are treated, companies clamoured to try and show that they are forward-thinking. Whilst their practises may be an entirely different story, what they show on the outside is (for the most part) an attempt to promote equality. This is no different in the entertainment industry, and we began to see people of colour cast in roles other than ‘sassy comedic relief’ or ‘token minority.’ This was too much ‘equality’ too fast for some people, who see the rise of ‘non-white,’ female, and openly homosexual actors and characters on screen as nothing more than an attempt by film and television executives to gain ‘brownie points’ in those communities.
Let me repeat the cliché statement again. “The person who is best for the role should be chosen, regardless of race, gender or sexuality.” It is no exaggeration to say that 99.9% of filmgoers were not on the casting team for the film or show they’re watching. Rather than think, ‘Oh, this actress is really good in this role,’ or, ‘Hey, that actor can really sing,’ the immediate thought is, ‘Oh look, that supposedly powerful superhero is a woman. Must be feminists,’ or, ‘That person was cast because they’re black, a good white actor must have lost out because of political correctness.’ So, instead of casting an actor who happens to be Chinese because he has the singing voice of an angel, would the advocates of the above statement rather see a white person cast to avoid pandering to political correctness? Unless you’re on the casting team, you won’t know for sure why someone was chosen. Perhaps try not to assume the worst and, instead, think, ‘Oh, a film where they cast a human being. This could be good.’
Another thing I’ve heard often is, ‘There would be hell if [insert character who is not white] were played by a white person.’ Putting aside the fact that this was the case for many decades, yes. Yes, there would be a problem. Let’s look at the Disney princesses. There are technically 14 Disney Princesses if we count Anna and Elsa. They are; Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Anna, Elsa and Moana.
Of those 14, seven are white. Some will no doubt say, 'That’s 50/50, that’s fair.' Is it? One is Arabian. One is Native American. One is Chinese. One is black. One is Polynesian. The world is not made up of 50% ‘white people,’ 50% ‘other.’ If someone asks who your favourite white princess is, you have a choice of seven. If someone asks for your favourite black princess, it’s Tiana or nobody and, by the way, The Princess and the Frog came out 72 years after the first ever Disney princess film.
Of those 14, two are based on people who existed in real life. So yes, casting Pocahontas or Mulan as a white woman would be racially insensitive, especially as there is no shortage of talented Native American and Chinese actresses who are overlooked for other roles anyway. Ariel, however, is a mermaid. Belle is from a fairytale, which has several different versions across Europe.
Let’s get back on topic. Scarlett Johansson is quoted as saying, ‘As an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job.’ In an ideal world, this would be a fair statement. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Not yet. Johansson was raised in New York, was lucky enough to get her first film role in 1994 at the age of 10, and had won a BAFTA by age of 20. Please don’t misunderstand, she has certainly earned her achievements; however, when you’ve had a steady career for almost 25 years and haven’t been turned away from a role because of your skin colour, it’s pretty easy to say you should be allowed to play a role of any race. Or tree.
‘Politics and political correctness should be left out of entertainment.’ If equality is a matter of politics, society is truly doomed. However, let’s treat this statement as though it should be taken notice of. Ok, politics should be left out. Entertainment should be a medium to get away from the real world, to relax and enjoy at one's leisure. So, let people who aren’t white or straight have entertainment that they can connect to. Let there be Indian heroines and gay princes, let there be a Polish secret agent or a cool female scientist. Let entertainment be entertainment, because by saying person A shouldn’t have been cast over person B because of their gender or race, you’re the one bringing ‘politics’ into it. If you’re angry that a character who was straight in a TV show is homosexual in the remake, that’s your cross to bear; the TV show is just adding different storylines. But somewhere, while you’re typing out angry reviews about [TV show] having a struggling gay teenager, there is a struggling gay teenager thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s just like me.’ While you’re telling people that the little mermaid shouldn’t be black because she was white in the animated film, there’s a little black girl saying, ‘Look, mummy, I look just like Ariel.’
In the end, there is only one thing you need to know about equality. Helping another person achieve equal rights does not mean you will lose your rights. Read that again. Say it out loud. Write it down for later. You have nothing to lose by advocating equality. Equality is not about politics. It’s not about ‘political correctness.’ Equality is about treating another human being as though they have as much right to walk on this earth as you do. Entertainment is for everyone and, finally, the casting choices are beginning to reflect that. Those actors and actresses are being cast because they’re good at what they do. Just like you wanted. “The person who is best for the role should be chosen, regardless of race, gender or sexuality,” remember?