Saturday, 13 February 2016

Diversity in Film and Television - the White Man's Script.

A couple of things have prompted this post. Firstly, Idris Elba's fantastic speech on diversity, in which he referred to the issues of black characters in scripts, and the difficulties in being cast for other non-'black-specific' roles as a black actor. Secondly, Ross Putman's recent work in highlighting the dreadfully sexist way in which female characters get described in scripts. This set me off on a train of thought about some of the things that really irritate me in the way that films and television use (or, more particularly, fail to use!) characterisation and character in scripts, depending instead on sexual imagery (and/or pointlessly over-graphic and extended violence) that are more or less totally unnecessary and often do nothing to advance any kind of plot.

Let's start with sex, and get that out of the way. Yes, it is sometimes necessary in a story for characters to have relationships, fall in love, or even have sexual relations with one another. That's fine - it's part of life, and art should be able to reflect life. I am a heterosexual (and white) male, as it happens, and also an instinctive liberal - the concept of sex and nudity don't actually disturb me at all, but that doesn't mean that I need to see them graphically portrayed on screen constantly to get the idea that it is going on as part of the story. It just isn't necessary. I'm certainly not of the 'ban nudity on TV', censor everything, Mary Whitehouse-type brigade at all (quite the opposite in many ways), but many of the times it appears it really doesn't need to be there - it's nothing more than cheap and lazy writing and directing. Those involved with putting such things together should really be having a word with themselves, along the lines of  'what the heck am I doing here with this stuff?'. Most of the time it doesn't develop the plot, and it doesn't develop the characters - it just cheapens both by submerging them in a mire of irrelevant sweaty flesh. You are actually cheapening your own art by making it unnoticed among the breasts.

Of course, that then leads on to a consideration of whether 'art' is what they are trying to do, or whether it is all just, entirely cynically, about 'bums on seats', so to speak. If it is the latter, what does that say about society? Have we really become so desperately shallow as a society that our main form of 'escapism' is now nothing more than a constant desire for the kind of cheap titillation that we really ought to have grown out of after the raging hormones of adolescent years? Let's take a specific example - Game of Thrones. Now I'll hold my hands up and say that I am a huge fan and avid watcher - as a big life-long fan of the fantasy (and sci-fi) genre, I make no apologies for loving a bit of sword and sorcery, and a damned good yarn about kings and battles and dragons and the like. As a whole piece, it's generally a very well written example, with a great plot, and strong and developing characters (there are some apparent plot holes here and there, but then 'magic', so who cares!). Of course, there is the element of marriages and loves and all that, and there is some justification for some of the love scenes actually being plot-relevant. Not all of them, though - is it really necessary for me to be genuinely amazed if I haven't seen a naked breast within the first 30 seconds of an episode? It has reached the point where the constant 'oh, she's got her boobs out again' is actually distracting to what's going on - it's almost like they are using the Family Guy Chicken Fight approach - if we stick 5 minutes of utterly pointless nudity in here, and another 5 minutes there, that pads out the story we have to tell in this episode without us having to script anything else (and if we can do that with every episode we'll have more episodes to sell).

OK, so that's one 'sex' issue, but it's not the only one. It's not just 'think about the art' bit of pretentiousness either. It's an attitude towards sexualisation that creeps into the pores of every aspect of what films and TV are now very often doing. Ross Putnam has been rightly pointing out the issues of 'Jane' (the name to which he changes female characters in the script descriptions he tweets) often being described in terms of almost pure sexuality and attractiveness, and even casually so. It continues into the actual cinematography, too - how many times do we see a female character's first introductory moment on screen as some kind of close up and/or slow motion blatant sexualisation? To put it bluntly, how many female characters are introduced to the audience semi-naked and, for some reason or another, dripping wet? And heaven help us if we ever see a 'fat bird' on our screens, let along one over 30! Those kind of people are strictly for 'character roles' - specific roles deliberately written to be inherently 'attractiveness-neutral' (and there aren't so many of them, especially in the 'blockbusters'). And they always have to have the correct hair colour, of course - we all know that hair colour entirely dictates personality, and is therefore completely relevant to casting and costume considerations. It goes beyond even that, though - let's not pretend that this kind of stupid and pointless sexualisation is restricted to female characters. Apparently male 'action hero' types seem to spend a great deal of their time variously moist while they wait for something exciting to happen in their lives! Has the entertainment industry now reached the point where it is assumed that the audience can only identify sympathetically with a character is for their first impression (or a prominent later one, if not the first) to be entirely sexualised, and preferably damp?

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall Hamlet starting with the stage direction 'the Prince of Denmark (deeply and evenly tanned, young and well toned, with a hint of mischief in his eyes, but all man) stepped out of the shower, and lingered a moment before wrapping himself loosely in a towel'. And it's not just 'the classics' so beloved by the arty and pretentious - I don't remember Sir John Mills having to get half naked and sweaty unless he was actually lost in a desert somewhere, in which case it was entirely relevant to the plot (I'm not advocating a ban on sweat or anything!). The point is that most of the time this kind of sexualisation is completely irrelevant and unnecessary, and it is a part of the deeply ingrained mindset that prompts the kind of character descriptions in scripts that rely so much on sexual imagery. It's become so entrenched in the thinking that it seems like we can't have drama without it any more (Hint: The essence of drama is conflict, not sex). It's worse than that, though, because the attitudes so easily seep in to life beyond the screen, and send a message to people that it's somehow acceptable to view other people of all genders through that kind of prism. It doesn't justify objectifying the female characters in that way if you also add in a male character objectified and depicted in the same way 'for the ladies' - being casually and sexually sexist to one gender is not excused by being casually and sexually sexist towards another gender at the same time.

And this is where we get to the whole 'White Man's Script' thing (yes, that was a deliberately provocative phrase to title this post with). The issue has clearly arisen from an initial attitude towards women essentially as 'sex objects' to 'brighten up' the work for the male audience. Instead of solving that problem, they have simply extended it with 'sex objects' 'for the ladies' too. It's the same attitude, though, and the same old misogynistic view. And the same view applies to the issue of race, too - the idea that those main sympathetic 'hero' characters really ought to be white if an audience (assumed, possibly correctly, to be mostly white) is going to identify with it. It doesn't somehow make it OK if there's also a token 'black character' or two hanging around to 'balance it out'. I'm a white man. I can 'dramatically sympathise' with a black character, or a female character, or an asian character, or a transgender character, or a gay character, or any other kind of character - I don't actually have to be the same as them to do that. I can equally sympathise with a character played by a white actor, or a black actor, or a female actor, and so on. The clue is in the recurring word - it's about 'character', not about gender, colour or any other demographic issue (indeed ageism is another huge issue that is all part of the same thing). Yes, I get that sometimes characters do have to be 'demographically specific' in order for the story to work. I'd contend that Othello really doesn't work as a white man because of the story, and it's stretching the suspension of disbelief to case a black person as a white supremacist. That's fine - sometimes things have to be specific because of the specific plot. That certainly doesn't mean it always has to be thus, though - most of the time it really isn't relevant at all.

Which leads us back to the whole script and character description thing, and the ingrained attitudes that have become so deep as to create a level of unconscious bias that seeps through every pore of the industry and out into the wider world that it influences. And that's the thing - it's largely unconscious. It's not, I think, that people are generally wantonly racist and/or sexist, it's just that they really don't realise that they are viewing things through a 'white man' prism. It starts from the writers, and carries on through casting, and so on - the idea that 'this is a black character, and that is a white character, and we will cast them as such', and the idea that 'this is a young, central character, so must have a love interest, must be attractive in some way, and really ought to be first seen dank and slippery'.

We've now even seen this general kind of attitude begin to creep into something that was previously overtly as asexual as Doctor Who, even though diversity has been considered and represented with some strong black (and I suspect not necessarily written as being 'inherently black') and female characters, and openly gay characters. OK, there's been no nudity, and not so much drippy moisture, but it's all got a bit sexual in a way that it never used to be in its former incarnation. I'm not going to pretend that the old prism didn't exist in the old days, of course - who could forget a pair of barely covered breasts upstaging such a fine piece of regeneration-scene acting? There were skimpy costumes aplenty, and it was a time when 'strong female character' generally meant that she could probably read a little and be sarcastic sometimes as well as screaming. We shouldn't pretend that we have moved past that whole 'White Man's Script' prism altogether, though - it's just that the manifestation of it has changed somewhat, from 'girls should be at home in the kitchen' to 'girls should be sex objects' and ultimately to 'it's OK if girls are sex objects, as long as the guys are too'. I don't think that the sex element is necessary at all - it doesn't do anything to advance the plot in such a context, and it doesn't really fit with the concept of the show.

So what of the idea of a 'female Doctor', while we're on the subject? Well personally I'm not a fan - it seems like an unnecessary gesture of tokenism to transgender an established male character for no reason other than wanting to create a strong main character that happens to be female. Such a character can be introduced into the show anyway (indeed in Romana it already potentially exists, and there have been others). The idea of changing the main character's gender in that way just feels to me like the ultimate embodiment of male-prism tokenism, especially when there has not yet been a male actor cast as the Doctor who happens to be black (or asian, or whatever). We shouldn't be casting a 'Woman Doctor', or a 'Black Doctor', in my opinion - we should be casting the established character of the Doctor, as described (which is, and always has been male - although previously largely 'asexual' in an 'alien' way, it's often referred to, and part of the way the character has operated specifically within the plot-lines) as the best actor available for the kind of character that is required of that incarnation, regardless of their ethnic origin. (On a personal note, while there are many great actors around of various origins, if the next regeneration happened to involve something like having to draw on some random image from the Tardis data-banks to construct a new face for some reason, which then ended up looking exactly like Micky Smtih (actor Noel Clarke) I for one would be overjoyed!)

For me, 'tokenism' is as bad as any other kind of disregard for genuine diversity. We shouldn't be having scripts that describe characters sexually but do it 'both ways', and we shouldn't be making male characters female for no apparent plot-based reason (or for any contrived to make it doable plot-based reason), and we shouldn't be having characters described as 'black' for no real plot reason other than an attempt to not have an all-white cast. These all seem like 'White Man's Script' attempts to 'token' their way into not being seen as racist or sexist, no matter how well intentioned they may be. It's the underlying mindset that needs to change, in the entertainment industry as in wider society.

It all comes back to an idea that I have previously discussed - the idea of the concept of 'normality'. My point is this - the problem is that the whole thing is still all too often essentially being seen from the starting point of a 'white man' being 'normal', and a character with just a genuine character description of what that character is like, with anything else requiring additional description to specify which 'not normal' kind of character it is (and therefore which 'not normal' kind of person is required to play the role). It is the assumption in scripting that a black man has to be listed as 'black', and a woman has to be listed according to attractiveness attributes rather than actual characteristics of personality, and so on. Even when it is being 'reversed', as in the sexualisation of male characters, it all stems from the same basic root - the idea of the white male character being the assumed starting point, and everything else needing to be specified accordingly. That is what we have to get away from, because that creates the set of unconscious biases that see black actors only given specifically 'black roles', and women (and also then sometimes men by way of 'balance') being cast primarily according to their looks when they get out of the shower (note - none of the people in film and TV land ever seem to get wrinkly skin in water - strange that, innit!). It underpins the general set of attitudes that makes all that soaking and sex, and consequent casting for suitability for such scenes, seem somehow so essential to the presentation of plot. Much of the industry is getting equality and diversity wrong at the moment for much of the time - it's not about having 'black characters' or 'strong female characters', but about the underlying attitudes and assumptions that seem all too often to dictate how 'non-normal', 'non-white-men' are treated from the conception of the script through the casting process and into the final presentation on screen.

And so finally a thought about those all-white Oscars. Has that happened because the committee are actually consciously 'racist'? I would say almost certainly not. I would suggest it's a combination not only of their unconscious biases, but in the unconscious biases and attitudes of the whole industry, and the way in which non-white characters and actors are being used. Are the best actors really white, or are the best characters being cast with white actors, and being assumed to be white because they haven't specified otherwise. And I'm going to throw out one final thought about diversity in awards in general (as much as I think such awards are primarily a load of nonsense anyway, and no real indication of 'quality'). Why do we always need to have separate 'Best Male Actor' and 'Best Female Actor' awards? Are they not all just 'Actors'? Can they not compete with one another equally? If they can't, what does that really say about the underlying attitudes with which 'female characters' are being written and cast?

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