Who’s Triggered Here? The Jellies and Tyler, The Creator

A few days ago a friend tagged me in the below video.

The Jellies! SDCC Panel

She asked. Tyler the Creator answered. The Jellies! coming soon to Adult Swim.

Posted by Adult Swim on Tuesday, July 25, 2017

 

This video is from a Comic-Con panel for “The Jellies”, an upcoming adult swim show that Tyler, The Creator is producing and starring in as Cornell, a human adopted by jellyfish. “The Jellies” was previously featured on Tyler’s “Golf Media” app, but will now see its debut on television later this year. The original app version of the show featured a white Cornell, and a fan asks (on behalf of her boyfriend) why Cornell is black in the adult swim show.

 

I do have some of Tyler’s songs on my phone, but can’t say that I am a huge fan by any means. These words aren’t the words of a fanboy. These are the words of someone surprised by how calm and articulate Tyler The Creator was in his response. He first challenges the fan to provide him with the names of five main black cartoon characters from shows that are currently airing. No sidekicks, no comic relief. Just black main characters on mainstream television. The fan can’t do it, and I am pretty sure her boyfriend wouldn’t be able to either. From what I understand, Cornell being white was not an important part of his identity in the show. As long as he is human, Cornell’s story, personality and struggles will be the same. The character is not ruined by changing his race. In Cornell, Tyler saw a chance to create a black main character who was not an athlete, a sidekick or comic relief.

Tyler’s response is perfect and also helps to illustrate the double standard concerning race-change that I have talked about repeatedly in my Youtube videos and on this blog. If a character is white-washed, regardless of how important their ethnicity was in the source material, then people argue that we should focus on talent or story, and not race. Anyone who disagrees is labelled a “libtard,” “race-baiter” or the more popular term, “social justice warrior”. If a character is “blackwashed”, then people are no longer “colour-blind”.  The real issue is that people just have a problem seeing more colour on screen. In America, white is considered universal. It often becomes the default.

When you read a novel, what race do you assume the character is? Obviously the author’s race might give you a preconception, especially if the author is known for writing characters of a certain race, or if the publishing house focuses on characters of a certain demographic etc.

Let’s pretend the author is unknown. You don’t know their name or race, and have no indication of what these things could be. The book uses generic descriptions for the character. It does not tell you the character’s name, doesn’t describe their hairstyle, skin tone, nationality, etc. You know the protagonist lives in a multicultural city, that is mostly white, but that is the closest indicator you get to race. You know the protagonist is tall and thin, that is it. What race do you assume?

For many people in America (or Canada in my case), the default is white. In China, the default would likely be to assume the character is Chinese. Even though I am black, I have found myself assuming the character is white unless there is some hint provided they are likely not, such as a description of dark skin or the reveal that they are of Chinese descent. My most recent example was “American Gods”, where I assumed the main character, Shadow, was white until a prison guard asked him if he “had nigger blood in him”. Shadow’s skin is also described as “brown” later in the book.  This made it clear the character might not be black, but likely wasn’t white either.

Like me, many other people do this as well. My point? When white becomes a default, it is easier to view anything else as subversive, “forced” or “politically correct”.

If the Facebook comments are any indication, people will be quick to rattle off a list of black characters and actors in an attempt to shut down Tyler’s argument. Many of these examples will list characters that are not main characters, or list shows that are cancelled or currently not on the air. This makes it clear that people’s comprehension skills are poor or that they likely rushed to the comments before finishing the video.

Even if people manage to list five characters they don’t realize the larger point Tyler is making. They don’t realize what a small percentage all these figures account for. Blacks are over 10% of the population in America, and their representation (especially positive representation) in American film and tv comes nowhere close to reflecting this. As I’ve discussed before, this is also not due to a shortage of talented or aspiring black actors.  More obscure actors aren’t coming out of nowhere for productions like Luke Cage, Black Panther, Straight Outta Compton and The Get Down. They have been waiting for their chance to get a good role. They have been waiting for their chance for the representation that triggers the people who preach about being colour-blind.

The Unwhitewashing of Geek Culture

“The title of this post is in reference to this blog post I came across a few days ago. The post examines recent and upcoming instances of white comic book characters, such as Iris West on The Flash, being cast with people of colour (poc).

iriswest

The blog post has a very optimistic mindset, arguing that those who focus on instances of whitewashing are ignoring the progress being made. I disagree with the writer, but unlike some of my other posts, I don’t aim to vilify her. The idea for this blog post actually came out of our pleasant exchanges in the comment section.

Some successes do not overweigh failures in Hollywood’s casting decisions. Of course, I am happy for these successes but I believe that we can’t rely on the mindset that “things are so much better” to avoid pushing for things to be right. Of course, some progress is being made in terms of diversity in Hollywood and I am happy to see it. The author is right to say that we have come a long way but I don’t think complaints of whitewashing overshadow the positives, I think the positives overshadow the continuing legacy of whitewashing. The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report showed that 17% of lead roles in Hollywood films go to a minority. This is despite the fact that minorities nearly make up 40% of the US population. Some may be quick to argue that there must be a shortage of actors from people of other races, but I don’t think I even have to dignify that argument with precise statistics. If there was a severe shortage of aspiring poc actors, we wouldn’t be able to make productions like The Get Down, Luke Cage and Straight Outta Compton. Not to mention a slew of diverse or minority dominated indie films like Dope. These indie films have numerous poc who wish to be on the big screen someday.

the-get-down

Some may also argue that poc just aren’t as talented, but doesn’t their talent become a moot point if they are denied a role because their race isn’t viewed as marketable enough? Let’s use Ridley Scott’s Mohammad so-and-so comment to illustrate. Ridley Scott originally argued that Exodus featured a white cast since Ancient Egypt was a “confluence of cultures”. He later admitted he just couldn’t cast Mohammad so-and-so to get a film financed.  Very few people will deny that Hollywood favours white people for roles. They just find ways to defend it: “best actor for the part, race doesn’t matter” “It’s not about race, it’s about being relatable and marketable”. Yet if a character that is supposed to white is played by a poc then it is “reverse racism” “political correctness” or a “liberal agenda”. I have already discussed this blatant double standard in depth in two articles.

With those two arguments out of the way, I wanted to discuss the part of my conversation with the blogger that interested me most. I do enjoy my ongoing discussion with the blogger so yet again, this isn’t meant to vilify her. However, our discussion brought up a very important misconception about America that fuels Hollywood’s casting decisions, and is also created by them. The blogger used the oft-cited argument that whitewashing is about “relatability”- creating characters people can identify with. Firstly, this argument assumes that someone must be of the same race for you to relate to them. It is possible to relate to someone’s motivations, upbringing, struggles etc. if you are not of the same race. Why does Hollywood and members of its audience think that people can care about robots and talking animals, but not care about poc? Next, you don’t have to be able to relate to a character to care about them. Also, poc are meant to care about characters that are a different race and would likely be considered racist if they skipped out on a movie because it had too many white people. Main point: Hollywood creates the idea that whiteness is universal. Everyone will go to see white people, but only blacks will see blacks, Asians will see Asians etc.

untitled

If someone needs to look like you to be “relatable” or marketable why was this movie so successful?

Once I responded with these facts, the blogger then brought up the misconception. When I referred to movies with mostly poc casts, she assumed I meant foreign ones; arguing that their lack of popularity is more related to the influence of their respective industries, which will likely pale in comparison to Hollywood. I was talking about American productions, like the ones I mentioned above. Hollywood has, for the most part, presented a very white America. Obviously there are prominent poc actors, but compare their numbers to the prominent white ones. Although people always deny the societal impact of films, films are shown to have a significant impact on how people view a certain city, region, country etc.

https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/mediarace/portrayal.htm

“Considerable public concern has arisen over the issue of media diversity, as it is generally accepted that mass media has strong social and psychological effects on viewers. Film and television, for example, provide many children with their first exposure to people of other races, ethnicities, religions and cultures. What they see onscreen, therefore, can impact their attitudes about the treatment of others. One study found, for instance, that two years of viewing Sesame Street by European-American preschoolers was associated with more positive attitudes toward African and Latino Americans. Another study found that white children exposed to a negative television portrayal of African-Americans had a negative change in attitude toward blacks. (Diversity in film and television: MediaScope)”

People may be quick to argue that they are much less impressionable than children but ask yourself honestly: Has the depiction of a certain area on tv or in a movie, ever affected your perception of the area, whether it be the demographics or crime of that region? I have heard plenty of friends complain of a region being depicted as too diverse, too crime-ridden and so on. People do notice these things and I don’t believe it is a stretch to say that someone who is unfamiliar with an area can form an impression of it from films. This blogger is likely American and also is not white, so she likely knows what America looks like. Yet years of Hollywood films disproportionately dominated by white people still creates the assumption that a mostly poc cast is the work of foreigners. Such a thing does not exist in America. The blogger has not responded to my most recent post where I pointed this assumption out, so we will see what other insights come from this. Either way, I thought it was a great example of how the impact of films.

 

Update: My last comment to the poster appears to have been deleted. I am assuming that the blogger is the only one who is allowed to do this, so it appears she didn’t take kindly to me calling her out on her assumption.

Straight Outta Compton and Minorities in Lead Roles

If you have been watching my Twitter or Facebook feed you know I can’t stop talking about how awesome Straight Outta Compton was. The film wasn’t perfect by any means, it dragged slightly at points and was also brought down by O’Shea Jackson Jr, who may resemble his father well but was one of the stiffest actors in the film. With that said, Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) and Corey Hawkings (Dr. Dre) and Paul Giamatti (Jerry Heller) anchor the film.

I was considering doing a review and I may do one on YouTube but this piece won’t be a review. I simply want to comment on how well the film is doing, especially in a time where studios and audiences continue to justify whitewashing and disproportionate casting of whites in Hollywood films. Paul Giamatti may be a great actor, but I do not believe he is considered a highly marketable actor. This biopic became the highest August opening for an R-Rated film due to the popularity of the figures it portrayed and a great marketing campaign. Despite the popularity of the real-life figures it would not surprise me if there were people who believed the film would flop financially due to its mostly black cast: Even though the film has relatively small budget of less than $30 million. Straight Outta Compton also had the fortune of being funded partially by figures such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, which probably helped to assuage studio worries of financial loss.

What I am hoping is that the success of Straight Outta Compton goes far beyond biopics. I hope studios can realize that the set in stone rule of black (and minority actors as a whole) not being marketable is a myth and a self-fulfilling prophecy. How are new minority actors supposed to become marketable if they are not given the appropriate chances to prove themselves? With 1 in 10 roles going to minorities in 2015, it is obvious that Hollywood’s practices of whitewashing and restricting casting calls to white actors severely impacts minority representation in films. Stars such as Will Smith and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson were fortunate to have established careers that made them marketable prior to their first film. Will Smith had The Fresh Prince, while The Rock had the WWE. Although these careers did not mean that both actors were taken seriously as actors it did mean that studios didn’t view them as risky investments.

Hollywood’s casting practices have demonstrated that white actors generally do not need to worry about this stigma as much. Studios will cast untested leads like Armie Hammer and Kellan Lutz in huge budget films, while hesitating to cast minority actors in roles for less expensive films. As I have discussed in my piece on double standards, people will often defend whitewashing in large numbers, using excuses such as “it’s just a movie”, “best actor for the part” and “artistic interpretation”. When a white character is turned black/Hispanic/Asian, suddenly those same excuses are not valid. I want to see studios take more calculated risks with black actors, pointing to the success of Straight Outta Compton, instead of emphasizing the failure of Red Tails.