Articles Examining Racism and Transphobia in Movies
September 28, 2017 7:20 PM   Subscribe

Please help me have a productive dialogue with my dad about racism in comedies and trans rights in all movies.

My dad just mentioned he got a few Peter Sellers movies from Amazon today: “The Party”, in which Sellers does brownface, “Murder by Death”, in which Sellers does yellowface, and “Dr. Fu Manchu”, in which Sellers does yellowface again. I replied that those movies made me sad, because those comedies are deeply offensive and harmful.

My dad countered that when Sellers plays Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, he’s playing off of potentially offensive French stereotypes for laughs, and that he wonders if any French people are really all that insulted by it. I replied that pretending to be French while white and pretending to be Indian or Asian while white aren’t the same thing. He then asked, well, what about Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl”? Is that in the same bad zone as brownface, etc? I said yes, and now I think I am in a position where I can share some articles and written pieces about this practice in media to help him think more deeply about the movies and things he reads. He is still in the, “The ignorance of the times”, space, but I know he cares enough to hear me out, so I want to give him good stuff to read.

If you were me, and you had a papa who is a good, learned man with a really bizarre blindspot about such things, what articles would you send him to help him see the perspective of those harmed and marginalized by these tropes? He takes a while to process stuff. I know that learning more will make him sad because so many of the movies my family and I watched while I was growing up are racist. I am sad about them, too. But I know he wants to do the learning, so where should we start?
posted by Hermione Granger to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, in case it helps, my dad is very pro LGBT and especially trans rights. He just doesn’t know a lot about it all but I know he’ll want to understand the nuances and (I hope) embrace intersectionalism in time, too. He loves “La Cage Aux Folles”, “To Wong Foo With Love”, and “The Danish Girl” a lot. He also loves “Blazing Saddles”, “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, and the aforementioned Peter Sellers stuff.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:30 PM on September 28, 2017

I think the first thing I ever read on this topic was "I want the black one: Is there a place for Afro-American culture in commodity culture?" by Susan Willis (New Formations, no. 10, 1990). It's an awkward starting point that addresses minstrelsy only in the second half, but it steps through several examples/arguments about the frustrations of consuming popular culture that is largely produced and owned by white people--examples that are still relevant, even if the specific referents are old now. Something more recent that comes to mind is "Who’s Afraid Of The Big, Bad Trans Woman? On Horror and Transfemininity" by Mey Rude (Autostraddle, 2013), which makes very sympathetic points about how transphobia in media translates into legitimate fear for the people being represented.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:07 PM on September 28, 2017

Honestly? I think follow up articles are good for later discussion, but for right now...

Ask him to think about it a little deeper in terms of his own feelings on LGBT and gender and racial equity. And make a date to check in with him about it. Give him some time to roll it around in his mind. He'll get it.

I'd like to recommend the podcast Pod Save the People with Deray Mckesson for race issues. I'd like to recommend the Honest Trailers on Star Trek Next Generation for gender issues (blurb in the middle for when they make fun of Troi for liking chocolate cake, also the way Riker takes a chair.) No, but really, the way Pod Save the People presents conversation on social equity, generally, just covers ALL the thinking on these issues. Take the demeanor presented there and apply at will, you won't be wrong.

He already knows, his brain just needs the right way to articulate these ideas. Deray Mckesson will get him there.
posted by jbenben at 12:07 AM on September 29, 2017

I'd like to add that it's a funny thing being old, even if you're somewhat "woke." There's always some weird shit from your youth you took for granted that today makes you say, "Oh, shit! That was so fucked up!"
posted by jbenben at 12:09 AM on September 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

I stumbled across this article on the Danish Girl, which I think is a nice description of the problem there. Because it's not really "don't cast cis people to play trans people", it's "don't cast cis people of the wrong gender to play trans people, traffic in a load of stereotypes, and then go around expecting people to fawn over how progressive you are", which is what's going on with things like the Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club. The actual radical thing would have been to cast a trans woman in a big budget film.

That said, even though I think it's theoretically possible, I don't think I know of a film with a cis person playing a trans woman that actually works (oh wait, when we cast cis people as trans women, we mysteriously only cast men, aside from Transamerica anyway, dunno what could be transphobic about that /s). Romeos has a cis man playing a trans man and is basically the only media portrayal of a queer trans man anyone knows of. It largely works, but part of me thinks that's due to the invisibility of trans men generally--the lazy option of using transmisogyny as this language with which to communicate with your audience isn't there, so you have to do this radical thing of maybe actually talking to trans people before making your film.
posted by hoyland at 4:49 AM on September 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't have time right now to link specific articles, but the (very prolific!) trans writer Julia Serano is my go-to for explaining trans issues in cis-accessible, respectable, mainstream-liberal terms, and I know media representation is something she's written a lot about.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:50 AM on September 29, 2017

This is a tweet thread annoyingly formatted into an article, but (trans) actor Jen Richards concisely explains the problem of casting cis men to play trans women.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a prominent trans writer who wrote this Op-Ed in the NYT about the issues with the show Transparent and other media.

The two articles boil down to 1. trans actors cannot find work if they are passed over in favor of cis actors; 2. when cis people play trans characters, it furthers the myth that trans people are really not what they say they are; 3. trans characters are usually only used for joke fodder or as stereotypes, e.g. sex workers, and rarely shown as full humans.

From the transmasculine side, Fox Fisher wrote an article for HuffPo, hitting the same basic points as above. This article is specifically about the movie "3 Generations" (called "About Ray" at the time) and explains how the cis writer and director inaccurately and offensively portrays a boy's transition. (The boy is, of course, portrayed by a cis woman.)

Finally, here are a list of examples of cis actors playing trans people, without much editorializing.
posted by AFABulous at 7:20 AM on September 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

Here's an article by Julia Serano, whom nebulawindphone mentioned.
posted by AFABulous at 7:27 AM on September 29, 2017

I found a lot of really good discussions of this when Cloud Atlas was around. Since then we've seen a few actors notably talking about racial prejudice in tv and movies, notably Ed Skrein's recent decision to not be in Hellboy (more discussion).

Also if it were me, and only since you asked, I'd be working more from a Your Fave is Problematic perspective and talk about how it's not that we necessarily feel that a tv/movie/entertainment business that is a product of a racist/sexist/transphobic/homophobic society is ever going to be able to give us totally unproblematic content, but that it's important to understand this as we watch and learn and learn how to do better ourselves and help society be better. So it's not so much "Don't like what you like" or "Don't watch that, it's garbage" but "Don't be uncritical about the things you like and their role within a society that, like all societies, has issues"
posted by jessamyn at 9:03 AM on September 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

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