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on Jared Leto and the blackface thing

I've been thinking about something I've seen come up a few places in the wake of the Oscars: that much as we see blackface as a rather ugly form of racism, it's deeply immoral to cast, let alone honor, a cis-male actor playing a transgender character. For those not active in LGBT issues or otherwise familiar with the term, the way I understand it, a cis-gendered person is someone who currently identifies as the same gender they were assigned at birth. Usually, it's just someone who's not transgendered.

Basically, Jared Leto won an Oscar for his role playing a transgendered character in Dallas Buyers Club. I haven't seen the movie or read the book myself. I'm not sure I've seen anything with Jared Leto in it, certainly nothing I could place as his work. I really have no stake in whether this particular movie is praised or criticized, and I certainly don't want to defend it against something I suspect, at some level at least, is a valid point. I mean, actors do play characters with roles very different from their RL selves. Irene Bedard, one of my favorite Native American actresses (she's Inuit, if I recall) has played characters from not only a wide variety of Native American peoples but also quite a few Hispanic roles. More personally, I've played a variety of roles in school productions - men, women, tree nymphs, whatever was needed. Being transgendered seems a little different, though. I mean, it's a fairly unique experience I'm not sure people who haven't transitioned can fully relate to.

Still, the blackface connection really bothers me because it seems to skim over why blackface is so objectionable. It's not just that you had a white person playing a black character. Blackface was about a white person playing a farce of a black character, building on some really racist ideas that black people were always happy, always singing and dancing around and generally not having the emotional maturity of white characters.

If you want a parallel, one example that springs to mind is John Travolta's character, Edna Turnblad, in the 2007 remake of Hairspray. You had a cis-male wearing a fat suit and fake breasts, parading around as a woman but as a really bad parody of a transgendered woman. She's not actually described as transgendered (she's just a really masculine woman character), and when I saw the movie I found myself thinking a lot of people might make that connection. Not all of them in a good way. And you may can think of other examples where a certain character is put out there as a walking stereotype of some particular group. The Jack character on "Will & Grace" comes to mind for homosexuality, to give another example. Rocky in Rocky Horror Picture Show is probably an even better example for what we might call trans-face. But you get the point. Blackface wasn't just a problem because it was a white man playing the parrt.

Maybe I'm more bothered by this than a lot of people because I'm Southern. I don't know. I do seem a bit sensitive to these subtle points. And I'm not blind to why people would be bothered by the Jared Leto thing, really. But if the Dallas Buyer's Club is a problem, it's not because it's doing what blackface did back in the day (and, sadly, today). That doesn't make the Jared Leto thing okay; I guess I'm just upset over forgetting there were other things going into why blackface is so wrong.

And yes, I really am a big enough of a geek that that bothered me enough to write out 600 words on this on a Friday night. Don't pretend like that's a surprise. :-)

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
shirebound
Mar. 8th, 2014 03:10 pm (UTC)
Blackface was about a white person playing a *farce* of a black character, building on some really racist ideas that black people were always happy, always singing and dancing around and generally not having the emotional maturity of white characters.

That's how I think of it, too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
marta_bee
Mar. 8th, 2014 09:37 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. It actually helps me to work these things out in my head and then pin them down on paper. I think I'm actually very hobbitish that way: I like having boks of well-organized facts and claims and ideas. Thanks for reading.
azalaisdep
Mar. 8th, 2014 07:51 pm (UTC)
My immediate reaction to the idea that a non-transgendered person can't play a transgender character was "but, but, that's what acting is..." so thank you for putting your finger very quickly on why the idea of blacking up isn't a fair comparison. After all, if that were true, wouldn't it make the converse true as well - how would a transgender actor be able to play a cisgender character? Surely the whole point of a great actor is that s/he can imagine themselves into the head of someone on the fact of it utterly unlike them?

There are similar arguments rehearsed here from time to time about non-disabled actors playing disabled people too - though often one of the arguments adduced there is that the range of roles open to physically disabled actors is narrower to begin with, so it's particularly unfortunate to put an able-bodied actor in such a role; and of course physical disability is visually signalled to the audience all the time in a way that someone's cis/transgender status isn't.

There was an interesting debate, IIRC, the first few times the Royal Shakespeare Company cast black actors in major roles in the history plays where the character in question would unquestionably originally have been Caucasian. (Leading various people to point out just how often in the past non-black actors had played Othello...)

Mind you Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in the 19th century, and Fiona Shaw more recently played Richard II - but of course gender-bending casting is about as authentically Shakespearean as you can get. And theatre is maybe seen as requiring more active suspension of disbelief than cinema to begin with?
marta_bee
Mar. 8th, 2014 08:53 pm (UTC)
I keep going back and forth on this. On the one hand, I've particularly enjoyed situations where I knew an actor or actress was really coming from the same place as that character. It made it feel more authentic, I guess. Then again, Renee Zellweger, proud Texan, pulled off Bridget Jones, and both Frodo and Sam were Americans as well. So... yeah. With enough talent and expert help from production consultants, a good actor can pull off a good approximation and if you don't know their background you probably couldn't tell the difference. No question.

That said, I think what really bothers me is this idea that blackface is just about white people pretending to be black. So I guess I'm prone to bend over backwards and say even if you're right, even if a cis actor playing a trans character is wrong, there's still a problem calling this the new blackface. After so many years in philosophy grad school, conceding a point for the sake of the argument is pretty second nature by now. :-)

I do love a good gender- or race-swap, and once suggested that Avery Brooks (Ben Sisko from DS9) would make an absolutely fabulous Henry V. I still think he would, at least at the age he was in that show. But that really is something else entirely, isn't it? I do think you have a point, though, about disabled actors, for the practical points you raise. There, it really is a lost opportunity I'd think.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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