Casts, Molds, and Breaks

So… Since I was asked elsewhere what the issue is…

Production companies constantly make the mistake of casting people of a hegemonic majority while ignoring qualified (or overqualified) people of the minority of the role being cast. White people cast as Asians. Or blacks. Het people cast as queer. Cis folk cast as trans folk. It’s important to admit up front that this isn’t an outright fault, but a contextual one. One that if it was addressed would cease to be a context, and casting reversals could actually be a healthy thing. Let me explain the context.

First of all, in an industry where career performers have a tough time as it is, the fact that straight folk (or, possibly, closeted folk), and white folk, and cis folk, have had not just the majority of roles but nearly all of the compensated roles that are cast in the US is still quite the shutout. There are careers that have never been allowed to happen because of this. If you think back to the way sports leagues were officially segregated in the US, and how minority leagues paid their players compared to the “major” leagues — there’s a defacto situation enforced by production timidity.

Secondly, by not casting minority professionals in these rols, at a time when too many writers, directors, and producers do not have a good grasp on when they are or are not creating a scene that will play as offensive to the minority that is being portrayed — they’re losing an opportunity to have a first-hand witness to living as that minority serve as a catch against it. “No, I don’t think that will play well, here’s why… Here’s what might be more realistic… Here’s what won’t risk a public media backlash once this is in front of an audience.”

We’re still stuck in a mode of portrayal where production timidity steers minority roles into tragedy or stereotyped mocking. In both cases, the specific timidity I’m talking about is the inclusion of a minority as a role but then seeking to minimize the threat of that role. Either the portrayal is made to be inappropriately humorous, mocking the role, or the portrayal is made to be tragic, which while attempting to pull empathy from some of the audience also serves to reinforce attitudes in some who proclaim, “that’s what they deserve.” It’s approaching the point of the horror movie that is laughable in spite of its every attempt to be taken seriously and emotionally, and the joke that is anything but funny.

Moreover, production timidity isn’t limited to casting, but also to decisions about creative staff that isn’t in front of the audience. Artists that set the scene or the costume and makeup can influence the outcome. Writers, directors, and producers certainly influence the outcome. Anyone who takes part in editing especially influences the outcome, they have the decision of veto, and anything that was produced before might be subject to last minute timidity.

Being timid in a production might feel like being safe with audiences, but it’s itself a gamble. It’s gambling that the audience will also want to be safe and comfortable with their existing prejudices. But that only plays to a very small portion of the audience. Much smaller than your fears, in reality.

The mold hasn’t merely been set, it’s set in. It’s flooded the performance arena, it reeks, and it’s toxic. It needs remediation.

That said, let me round back to what I first admitted. If we arrived at a point where the performance industries routinely were even in giving out performance and staff roles to all groups, where the performance industries were not merely portraying minorities but actually soliciting their participation for the sake of better entertainment. More poignant and more amusing and — amazingly — not confusing the two in offensive ways. When the performance industry is actually healthy in this way, novel cross-casting and re-casting of people outside of their experience is professionally healthy, expanding professional empathy and range of performance if successful. But we aren’t there. We won’t be there for quite some time, unfortunately. Because, unfortunately, when it’s this one-sided it starts to look a lot like a more polite version of the days when coating one’s face with a thick color of paint passed for a minority role. Just because the shellac isn’t all over one’s face doesn’t mean it isn’t apparent in the final production.


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