Way to go, Disney? Progress: yay or nay?

Open Letters

The debates continue. Disney has announced a queer character (he will be effeminate and campy) in their upcoming film Jungle Cruise.

This has caused controversy and not just because Disney is expected to be a sexless, sanitized and heterocentric monolith that repackages stories for young folks, and the young at heart, in ways that make us all feel good about things like gender roles (damsels in distress), colonialism (Pocahontas) and racial stereotypes (Lion King‘s hyenas, not to mention Scar’s effeminate villainy). This new Disney film’s gay character will be played by a straight actor.

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British comedian Jack Whitehall – Screenshot from Comedy Central

Much to the chagrin of the blogosphere… people are upset, while others are upset that people are upset. Are we taking it too far? “They are ACTING” or “this is getting ridiculous,” people say. The comment section of a Refinery29 article about the casting choice is chock full of dissent, both for and against the casting.

These debates are going on amongst liberal people who agree that there should be gay characters and people of colour represented, but some seem miffed that these same communities have opinions about the manner in which their community is represented – and the oblique messages sent through these casting decisions.

While I agree that acting is acting (you can play a murderer without being one, thank goodness), people are missing the key issue:

Many talented queer actors and POC are overlooked, shut out and/or marginalized in mainstream roles, then when a perfect opportunity to be cast, believably, in a role arises, it’s given to someone who already has access to the roles these marginal actors may be barred from. Having a person of colour play a role written specifically for that identity is one side of the coin; we should have Asian actors staring in Crazy Rich Asians… this is progress. I cannot wait to see this wild, salacious book come to life on the big screen.

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The cast of Crazy Rich Asians at the premiere on August 7, 2018. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

And there is something to be said for actors who make the call to sidestep a project because they feel that the issues of representation are problematic; famously Amandla Stenberg stepped away from Black Panther because (according to her) she didn’t want to take up space that provides needed opportunity for darker skinned black actors and would jeopardize the authenticity of representing African identity, for and by African and African American actors and citizens.

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Getty Images

Amandla talked about shadeism and why she didn’t feel comfortable occupying space that doesn’t belong to her. It was refreshing. Seeing her speak on this subject at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto last year was such a breath of fresh air.

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(Shauna Mazenes/Her Campus Ryerson).

However, many queer and trans performers don’t have access to ‘straight’ roles (the bulk of the roles available) but are then also excluded when their own identity is up for grabs. It’s a double loss for them. And while representation and visibility are important, it’s difficult to be told that your community is being represented… just not by people within it.

Yes, straight actors can play queer, and Hollywood can do what it pleases, but the same opportunity is not given – in as broad a way – to those who identify within a minority and being told to ‘be happy with what we get’ is not the same as listening to voices from within that community.

This is a case of the people having spoken… and continuing to speak. It is a much-needed dialogue where those with the most prevalent voices might need to sit down and let those within their own communities do a little more of the talking, at least until it’s clear that the stories we are telling must reflect more than just a narrow view of what it’s like to take up space in this world.

 

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