Over the last nine posts I’ve been pondering the topic of Who Can Play Who when it comes to adaptations of existing works. To wrap things up, and because ten is a magic number to us humans, it seems reasonable to try to boil it all down to something coherent. If that’s even possible.
I find myself conflicted sometimes between what I’ll call a stage play sensibility that allows huge latitude in casting actors versus my sensibilities about live-action adaptations of well-established existing properties.
I think that changes the equation.
Women, in most societies, have long suffered as second-class citizens. In the beginning it was due to biology, but modern cultures generally erase those differences. Paradoxically, women have historically also held a revered position (“Women and children first!”). Art, literature, and social practice, all elevate them above men, albeit selectively.
Ironically, elevation is also a problem. In at least two ways. Putting anyone on a pedestal is never a good idea. That’s a topic for another time. There is also the zero-sum version of elevation: glorifying one group while disparaging, even attacking, another. That also is never a good idea.
As it applies to movie and TV roles, it’s the topic I want to discuss here.
Recently I’ve been thinking (and posting) about acting roles in adaptations of existing works, especially of comics and animations. A few months ago, I ventured down the YouTube rabbit hole of fan media commentary channels where the topic is a common one. Fans naturally have strong opinions about their favorite characters.
I’ve long said sexual differences make social gender issues more challenging than social race issues (because race is a social construct). The issue of gender swapping is likewise more challenging than that of race swapping.
Here be dragons of objectification, exploitation, and the Male Gaze.
I seem to have a penchant for trilogy posts. It wasn’t intentional this time, but I ended up writing a trilogy of posts [1, 2, 3] about the Netflix adaptation of The Sandman (1989-1996), the much-loved graphic novel authored by Neil Gaiman (and drawn by various artists).
The Netflix adaptation offers some good examples of actor swapping, which has been my theme lately. Ultimately, I think the real problem is realistic live-action adaptations of singularly and visually well-defined drawn or animated characters. For instance: Superman, Homer Simpson, and Mickey Mouse.
When real people portray them, race and gender come into play.
Last time I asked, when it comes to actors playing roles, Who Can Play Who? To what degree do characters, particularly fictional ones, have fixed race or gender? How much latitude exists in adaptations of existing stories? Is there an acceptable spectrum from faithful retelling to jazz riff to based on to inspired by and finally to all but unrecognizable? If not, why not?
Last time I focused on race. This time I’ll focus on the gender side of the equation. Sexual differences and sexual attraction add a large and complex additional dimension. The question expands beyond matters of representation and actor swapping.
For instance, there is the additional notion of the Strong Female Character (SFC).
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.
As someone whose high school and college education focused on writing and storytelling (through stage, film, and video), I’ve long been askance at how much culture reveres actors while not paying as much attention to the writers who provide their words or the directors who control much of what they do.
I do not at all mean to suggest actors aren’t also artists who bring important skills to the table. In college, I had to find people willing to act (for free!) in my productions — I couldn’t tell my stories without them — so I’m well acquainted with their importance and skills.
My point is only that the stories we love owe as much, if not more, to the writers and directors who create them in the first place.
As I watch nearly everyone in the country simultaneously succumb to the seasonal short bout of red carpet fever, I’m trying to remember the last time I actually watched “The Oscars” — the Academy Awards, Hollywood’s incestuous night of indulgent and opulent self-congratulation.
I’m pretty sure the last time I watched was back in the 1990s. It’s possible it’s even back in the 1980s. For sure, I can’t recall watching them this century. But I can say for sure when is the last time I cared about the Oscars. Because that one is easy. Because that one is: never!
For the record, here’s why…