Who Can Play Who?

I was born in the Bronx and became a young man in Los Angeles, so I lived in racially mixed neighborhoods during my formative years. I’m aghast at the pain we cause over what are essentially paint jobs and accessories. It’s a vast and vital topic — a needed ongoing conversation. For now, suffice that “race” should never be the answer to any important question.

Such as the question of who can — as in “is allowed to” — have what acting roles in movies and TV shows. Specifically, the issue of “race swapping” in previously established roles. Complicating the matter is an asymmetry; swapping X for Y isn’t the same as swapping Y for X.

There is also the question of “gender swapping” and the “strong female character” in modern writing. We’ve forgotten Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor.

Sex and gender in modern society is another vast and vital topic, one arguably more fraught than race. That’s because race is largely a social fabrication — racial differences are genetically minor. In terms of race, people are generally fungible. Given two individuals with equal skills, their race is irrelevant. Or should be. Sexual differences, however, are more substantial.

I suspect we’ll solve racial issues before sex and gender issues. The issue of sexual attraction makes the latter so more complicated. Here I’ll focus mainly on acting roles and race, but there are gender elements I can’t ignore.

It should go without saying that blog posts like these are just the writer’s opinion, but here more than ever it’s important to keep in mind. I make no claims for expertise (maybe a mere modicum of experience), so take it with a grain of salt.

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I value books more than TV shows or movies, so the issue of who plays a role in a generally ephemeral artform hasn’t ranked high on my list of things to fret about.

I saw race as irrelevant to most acting roles. The exception being roles where the character’s race is an essential element. For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. In fact, most examples where race seems significant are depictions of real people from history. Respecting their race seems appropriate.

Things are less clear when it comes to well-established fictional characters. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson seem nearly historical. They’re well established as white Englishmen in the early 20th century. Realistic portrayal should respect that, but jazz riffs need not.

How about James Bond? Or Santa Claus? Or Superman and other famous superheroes? Their original fictional forms all have a depicted race. How fixed should traits of fictional characters be? How relevant is race to a character? Storytellers throughout history have refurbished and repurposed “original” (ha!) stories and characters. The question, perhaps, is how much an established character is altered. The make/break threshold is at least somewhat subjective.

[Case in point: I loved gender swapping Dr. Joan Watson for Dr. John Watson in Elementary (2012–2019), as well as the modern-day depiction, but hated making a relatively in-period realistic (again, ha!) Holmes and Watson into action heroes. There’s a lot of subjective “it depends” here.]

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So, my first take on race swapping was mostly “eh, whatever” except with regard to actual people. I have a theatre background that began in high school. Stage roles, especially in smaller theatres, are extremely flexible in terms of what actor can play what role. In high school, no one blinked an eye at our Black Horatio.

There have been casting instances that raised my eyebrows. (Scarlett Johansson playing Major Motoko Kusanagi? Um… really?) But a Black James Bond or a female Doctor Who? Sure, why not? What’s wrong with a little variety? After all, 007 is just a number that’s assigned to an agent, and actor swapping is baked into Doctor Who.

What’s disturbing lately is how both race and gender swapping have become weaponized across political borders. Another example of our polarized tribal social shitpit. One side wants to preserve well-established forms while another wants to deconstruct and rebuild them. Which, fine, have at it, but don’t be surprised when the first group objects. More importantly, don’t dismiss their objections as necessarily politically motivated.

Diving into the YouTube waters of social and fan commentary recently, I was drenched in Urgent Concerns about how beloved characters (or franchises) are treated and Angry Reactions that anyone dare to have, let alone express, a concern. Rarely does the intolerance for opposing opinions get so ugly.

Controversy over Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid detracts from serious questions about the value of these live-action remakes of animated features. Here the real offense is the dark muddy production design!

It got me revisiting the question. In the end, I decided, as always, the real problem is fans. Which is to say, as always, the real problem is people. (Yet another filing under “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things!”)

§ §

Consider the performance spectrum from radio or voice acting (or audio books) to stage plays to old-time TV shows (which were kinda like stage plays) and finally to modern TV shows and especially movies. It’s a spectrum of decreasing imagination on the viewer’s part. More and more of the story reality is fixed by more and more immersive media.

A voice actor’s race (and sometimes gender) is often irrelevant. It hardly matters whether it’s Robin Williams or Will Smith (although Williams was in a class of his own). Few would find reason to complain if Scarlett Johansson did the voice for an animated Motoko Kusanagi. (Generally speaking, English dubs are not done by Japanese actors.)

Plays have a pronounced sense of being staged, of unreality and storytelling. They’re sketched outlines requiring imagination from the audience. Sets are often merely suggestive, and characters likewise just masks almost any actor can wear. Unless race is crucial to the character, theatre roles are racially fluid. In many cases, gender fluid.

There is also that hundreds, if not thousands, of actors have played Hamlet or Sherlock Holmes on stage. Compare the myriad and varied stage roles with the smaller less broad number of movie and TV versions. There are enough media versions to make the roles fuzzy, but they are more well defined than their almost formless stage counterparts.

But with TV shows and movie franchises we get locked into specific representations. Frodo Baggins is forever fixed to millions as Elijah Wood. And to some extent, vice versa. (Again, the information age preserves the past. See yesterday’s post.)

Modern live-action media collapses fictional characters and settings to specific actors and story versions. In part, it’s the immersive (and ever increasing) realism of video media. In part, it’s the many hours of exposure to characters in long-running series and franchises. It’s possible to spend hundreds of hours with realistically imagined fictional people.

That’s gonna leave a mark.

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The result is a fixation on, and perceived ownership of, characters in serials or franchises. There’s a natural attachment, but it creates a tension. It keeps serials alive, but it’s also a trap.

Luke Skywalker can only be played by Mark Hamill. When he ages out, as humans do, he must be replaced by a new character. Which is doubly risky. Consider the reaction to Rey (a central figure in discussion about how modern writing implements female heroes). The new character is disliked, and the old character is treated poorly (compare to the many graceful exits of other beloved characters).

On the other hand, multiple actors have played James Bond without much controversy (mostly debates over which actor was best). The role is fungible enough that Roger Moore played him at age 57. Any plausible actor is a viable 007.

Of course, plausible is somewhat subjective. It seems reasonable that Bond be British, and since Britain is multiracial, there’s no obvious restriction on Bond’s race. Who can play Bond depends on the degree to which it’s an ongoing story about the same man. Is Bond strictly the literary character invented by Ian Flemming? I appreciate the view, but I think fiction is malleable. Society and culture are not fixed; neither are our stories (even despite best efforts).

But can Bond be female? I’m sympathetic to the argument Bond is a distinctly male character. It’s a question of whether the stories follow Agent 007 or James Bond. I like the idea of equally kickass female co-stars. Exhibit one: Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies. (And there are many not-Bond female spy stories going back to Mata Hari. I kinda had a thing for April Dancer. And Amanda King. And Lorraine Broughton. Et aliae!)

In contrast, on Doctor Who, an offspring of necessity turned out to be genius in casting. The body replacement business, originally to continue the series minus an aging actor, allowed it, in principle, to run indefinitely. It’s almost 60 years old now, and we’re about to experience the 14th official Doctor (and we’ve seen at least two other versions).

In terms of story, the role of The Doctor is explicitly gender and race neutral. Sadly, the fans don’t all see it that way, though. The debate about which actor was the best Doctor was always friendly, but the debate about the female Doctor (#13) got ugly. The internet gives the malicious unfortunate access and voice.

What’s especially sad in my eyes is how controversy becomes a force field against serious criticism about the writing, acting, or casting choices. It’s all but impossible to criticize the show without being accused of political motivation and thus casually dismissed.

§ §

There is a complicating asymmetry to all this. Many see casting a POC in a fictional role previously established as white as inclusion and progress. Why not a POC Superman or Santa Claus? It’s hard to argue against it without taking a racist stance. But we generally see casting a white person as a fictional character previously established as non-white as racist. For instance: blackface.

Likewise, many see gender swapping women into previously male roles as progressive, but those same people may object to swapping men into previously female roles.

But some asymmetry is necessary. If you are right-handed, your left arm is weaker from lack of use. To make your left as strong as your right, you exercise your left more than your right. The asymmetry is necessary to level the playing field.

There is also an asymmetry in that good roles for POC and women are a scarcer commodity than good roles for white men. That’s part of the unlevel playing field. It creates a whiff of appropriation, if not theft, when white actors take POC roles.

There are three ways to level a playing field: Raise what’s low to the highest level; this requires a lot of new stuff. Reduce what’s high to the lowest level; this requires losing a lot of stuff. Use the high to fill in the low; this levels by balancing the books.

What seems counterproductive, even hypocritical, to reversing the tilt. It comes off as revenge. Many fans are unhappy about Luke Skywalker’s modern depiction. Rightfully so. Han Solo didn’t fare much better. You can’t improve your weak arm by punishing your strong one.

Yet grant that women and POC have good cause, even a need, to vent some righteous steam and spleen. (For example, the portrayal of the British in RRR. Understandable and not, in my eyes, a problem.) The world is large enough these days to contain whatever someone wants to make. But, again, when you do, expect valid objections to the deconstruction, and perceived destruction, of beloved icons.

§ §

Our love of sequels and franchises is huge part of this. We fall in love with these fictions and want them to continue. Or at least endure. But it’s a trap for both the creators and the fans. Creating canon binds everyone into the spell, and growth or change become perilous, but the spell song needs new verses.

“It’s a trap! Get out while you still can!”

Maybe it’s my theatre background, maybe it’s the lack of investment in most franchises, but I have a hard time getting worked up about what actor plays what fictional role. It’s the quality of the storytelling that should matter.

Stay fluid, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

7 responses to “Who Can Play Who?

  • Matti Meikäläinen

    You serve up a lot to chew on my friend. This is a fascinating topic. I think the brouhaha over who plays what roles stems, in part, because we see ourselves and the world around us in narratives. Reality and truth, from the beginning, has been explained in myth and story first and foremost. And philosophical explanation has been secondary. So, it is quite easy to challenge one’s weltanshauung by fiddling with a beloved narrative. I remember the first Star Trek which even with cheap production values had great little moral tales told with an wonderfully diverse cast. That was quite an exciting break though. At about that same time the networks began to hire a small handful of POC to report the news. But it took years, however, for Roddenberry’s plan to have a woman star ship captain. The network producers obviously don’t want to lose sponsors by being too culturally radical—baby steps. What I see now is equally exciting and, predictably, distressing for some.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hey Matti, nice to see ya!

      “…in part, because we see ourselves and the world around us in narratives.”

      Funny you should say that. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much our reality is constructed through the stories we tell ourselves. And you’re exactly right this post’s huge topic is a subset of that even bigger fundamental aspect of humanity. (Some believe the evolution of language and storytelling are directly related.) One of my whiteboards has a list of phrases I’ve found choice in describing modern society. The oldest is “Lies & Illusions (Smoke & Mirrors)”, which calls out this very thing. So much of our daily reality is based on social lies and illusions. Narratives.

      I spent some time in YouTube social and fan groups lately (details in this post), and it made me very aware of how much we construct reality. No better example than fashion, about as artificial of a social construct as one could find. The interweb enables “microfashion” — trends with timescales of only months. Ultimately an industry driven by consumerism. Fashion is made up to create a demand for product, plus it becomes a weapon of social caste.

      Fandom adds a sense of ownership and attachment. Almost an opposite dynamic from fashion, now that I think about it. Fandom is about preserving and continuing narratives, but fashion is urgently about the next new different story. A constant search for new territory versus a desire to build castles on one patch of narrative. Ironically, good writing usually leans more towards the former. (This might be a bedrock reason franchise writing is so lackluster.) In any event, fandom is another example of a system victimized by its own success. A problem the human race suffers in general.

      Wow, yeah, Captain Janeway is a good illustration of how we’re more progressive with race than with gender. ST:TOS, late 1960s, on the heels of the Civil Rights movement, and some are already being inclusive with race and nationality. But second-wave feminism also began in the 1960s, but Voyager doesn’t come along until the late 1990s. (Arguably we’ve stalled, if not gone backwards, on race issues, but gay and trans rights have progressed, although our gender issues seem more a Gordian Knot than ever.)

      Voyager also had a good example of race swapping with Tuvok, the Black Vulcan. I don’t recall it being hugely controversial, but the interweb was in its infancy then. I do recall some questioning it. But why couldn’t there be a nation of Vulcans in a place with more sunlight and thus darker skin? That’s how it happened here, why not there? Ultimately, it’s sillier to think a worldwide long-dominant species wouldn’t have racial variation.

      I ramble (as usual), but as you say, it’s a lot to chew on.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Oh my. I tried my hand at theater in high school. I was better at baseball, or more rewarded?
    My favorite playwright = George Shaw = PYGMALION; & THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA.
    QUESTION: Why don’t POC tell their own stories?
    I think the most interesting “moment” in human history is when hairy apes evolved into naked apes. Tell that story! Make that movie! Full Stop! Batman is/was not black.
    And so on and so forth.
    Btw. I’ve got a huge issue with Sarah Connor. That series did some serious damage.
    cheers

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I guess I’m glad my blog is so unregarded and unfrequented. Topic like this usually brings out the haters and trolls, and I just don’t have time for that nonsense.

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