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Dear Hollywood: Address Gender and racial equality

| Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Recently I came across Empire Magazine’s online list of “The 100 Greatest Movie Characters.” As a self-proclaimed film appreciator, I was pleased to find a good range of performances from a good range of genres in the last 50-plus years, from classically trained theatre giants like Ian McKellen to young(ish) whippersnappers like Brad Pitt. But I noticed that despite the varying ages, a lot of these “Greatest Movie Characters” looked kind of similar. Reading it again, I realized why. Out of 100 characters, 88 were men and 94 of the actors were white.

Just 12 female characters made the list. (14 female actors were listed; two women voiced E.T.) All were white. None of the characters were over 50, and most were younger than 35. Half fell in the bottom quarter of the list.

Of the male characters, only six were non-white (five portrayed by black actors and one by an Asian actor). The majority were in their thirties or older, though there was a wide representation of younger men as well.

I naturally question a list that places “Fight Club’s” Tyler Durden over icons like Darth Vader, Don Corleone and the Joker, but the message is clear: When we think of the performances and characters that have become cultural touchstones, we do not think of women and we rarely think of minorities, but not because we are all misogynist racists and certainly not because there is not a deep pool of non-white-male talent. Empire’s list does not show a failed grading scale so much as a greater systemic failure: the persistent imbalance of representation for women and non-white men in theatre and film.

There is a scarcity of meaty, award-winning writing for actors in these demographics, especially for women of color and women over forty. And there is a hesitation to give plum roles to the thousands of talented, trained actors who do not fit the traditional image that Hollywood and Broadway hold dear. Women and people of color don’t fill these “Greatest” lists because the roles in which they are cast are rarely given the attention or stage/screen time to compare.

Moreover, positions backstage and behind the camera – the writers and directors who create the work and the casting agents who hunt for the right “look” – also remain largely white and male.

What’s a girl to do? As a writer and actor myself, I am trying to resist shaking my head in discouragement and to view this as a challenge instead. As our generation of artists enters the workforce seeking niches of our own, we may have found a few in lists like these. And with ND’s involvement in the arts – from the Film, Television and Theatre Department to ND’s Shakespeare Festival – many of us can begin right here.

Directors: find plays written by women and people of color, starring women and people of color. Consider gender and colorblind casting.

Actors: pick monologues that showcase you as a performer, not you as a “look” or a stereotype.

Writers: consider whether your leads really need to be men, or young or Caucasian. Yes, we need to “honor the story,” but we also need to admit that “the story” is informed by those who write it and, therefore, by the subtle prejudices and predispositions that lurk in our instincts and thoughts. Not that these make us bad or racist or sexist, but they arise from some bad and racist and sexist aspects of our culture that teach us to only value women during their peak reproductive years and to see white people as protagonists with the occasional “token minority” friend.

So as artists, always priding ourselves as pushing boundaries, we must investigate how we can include and reach a much wider group. All of us – including white men – can take these steps. And as consumers of art – which we all are – we must open our eyes to these realities and make conscious decisions forthwith.

“Fantastic Four” features a black actor as the Human Torch; focus on his outstanding performance rather than gawking at the idea of a black superhero, and make sure there are more to follow. See movies that showcase female leads with three-dimensional strengths and flaws, and keep your eyes sharp for imbedded stereotypes like sassy black woman or manic pixie dream girl. Support films that choose not to cast white actors as non-white characters (ex: not Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in the upcoming “Pan”). During awards season, find out who the directors and screenwriters are and become familiar with names like Kathryn Bigelow and Julie Taymor along with the Nolans and Tarantinos.

Be an informed audience and let your money tell Hollywood and Broadway what you value. For those of us privileged enough to not encounter double standards every day, the first step to making a difference is acknowledging it.

Jennifer Vosters is a senior currently living in Le Mans Hall. She is an English major with minors in Theatre and Italian. She can be reached at jvoste01@saintmarys.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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