I identify as an activist. I do what I can to change what I can. I believe the world can be a better, safer, kinder, more open and accepting place. I believe art is a great and successful way to do this. I am also a film fan, a screenwriter, a film student and an amateur filmmaker. To me, this is a good combination. It will, I hope, put out some more great pro-equality etc. films. But it is also problematic. I so often can’t fully enjoy a film because it has hints of racism or sexism or other prejudices and backward mindsets. It can be really hard to separate films into the ‘enjoyment/entertainment’ and ‘technically good’ two-way thinking that I have now developed. I can look past my issues with a film and analyse it, or even appreciate its successful parts and the film solely as a piece art, but many people can’t do this. Often stuff is misunderstood, which leads to people slandering film and filmmakers for things such as not having equal and fair race or sexuality representation. These are the two things I notice most, after gender representation. But that itself, talking about women in film and their roles… Oh man, would that be too long to include in this post. So I just want to get a few things sorted out as far as race/religion/sexuality equality goes in films. As always though, these are just my opinions and the comment section is open for debate. Sidenote: this piece sort of applies to TV as well, but I am more educated in film. Also, I use the word ‘stereotype’ a lot in this, and I’m sorry, but it doesn’t exactly have a bunch of perfect synonyms…
Something often complained about (and I include myself in this) is the fact that so often minorities are the antagonist. Whether it’s Scar from The Lion King being coded as gay employing the classic and very outdated flamboyant male villain trope, or whether it’s just the typical POC bad guy, it’s so common. There’s also the lovely not-at-all-offensive stereotype of bad guys cross-dressing or being a ‘man in drag’. These things suck. Let’s say that, to begin with. They’re stupid, outdated, just plain dumb and unimaginative. Yet they’re still happening. It’s similar to how a female villain is either really, caricature-ly ugly and can never get a man (which is obviously often the reason she’s evil), or is over sexualised and uses that to get what she wants (and is therefore a ‘slut’). These stereotypes just need to stop. Come up with something new! I’m not saying stop altogether because it’s impossible to have a new kind of villain in every film, but we should at least try sometimes. It nearly goes without saying that these roles and characterisation harms the already insulting stereotypes that are out there and just adds to them.
Secondly, we need to talk about when people say ‘there’s not enough ___ people in this’. Whatever minority it is, we’ve all probably said that as some point, especially if you are in that minority group yourself. And that’s fine. That’s is 100% totally normal and okay. Of course we want to see ourselves represented in films! Just a few days ago in my girl/girl musicians post I said how I prefer books, films, TV and music which are by or about lesbians (or bisexual women), simply because I can identify with it better. It’s not that I can’t identify with straight romance or characters, it’s just that I prefer doing it with someone like me. And that, again, is totally normal and okay. There is even a mass communications theory by Blumler and Katz that explains how we actively seek out media we can identify with, and we get gratification from being able to identify with it. So trust me, it’s okay to want more characters like you in films.
The problem comes, however, when you start claiming that a lack of those characters is ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’ or whatever else. I’m not saying it never is, I’m saying there are some constraints we’ve got to take into consideration. I didn’t even realise this until recently, but it so often isn’t the writer/director/producer/anyone’s fault if a film lacks say, a decent representation of POC characters. A screenwriter can include however many POC characters they want, but when it comes to casting, the filmmakers may simply be unable to find a decent actor to fill that role. ‘But why? There are loads of POC who are actors!’ Yeah, there are. But choosing an actor for a project isn’t always that simple. Not including suiting the role and ability to act, we need to consider what the makers can afford to pay, where they are filming, when/where the film is set, how publicised the audition is etc. etc. For example, I’m a student and I make films with other students. We don’t have the budget to employ professional actors, so we’re going to take whoever volunteers! Now obviously it’s different for major cinematic productions, but the same constraints can apply. You might say ‘but surely they can just be determined to include a good POC character?’ and yes, that’s true, and they should be…
But it’s not that simple sadly. It’s very complicated for me as a writer and filmmaker, because if I write say an African-American character into something, and I’m insistent that they are played by an African-American then aren’t I saying that the character is just their race? That that is the most important thing about them? Sure, sometimes it does and that is crucial to the character, but most of the time that would just lead to offending people. It can also be that if I’m writing something, sometimes you just get the character creating themselves in your head and you have the vision of them – completely without you consciously creating it – so on occasion it just so happens that the three main characters are all caucasian. And then if I add in a POC, aren’t they just the ‘token black character’? And surely that’s no better than having none at all? You could argue that that happens because subconsciously I’m bias or racist, but sometimes it happens that the main characters are all POC – you cannot control true inspiration and creativity. Obviously though, this is not always the case, and I truly believe and recommend that when possible, you try to make your characters as diverse as can be.
As far as this issue goes with LGBT+ characters, it is simpler. Anyone can play LGBT+ (if they’re willing), so there isn’t much reasoning to not include a non-hetero character unless it is for example a film set in the past (when people were less openly LGBT+). Though even then you could make a character gay and have them either in the closet or battling their sexuality etc., it’s just not as simple as a modern story. It is also important to have characters subtextually LGBT+. It’s similar to the race thing where if you ensure a character is openly and obviously gay, you’re saying that is the most important part of them; that their sexuality defines them. Sometimes this may be useful and a solid part of the characterisation, but often it’s unnecessary. You can simply have an LGBT+ character who happens to be gay/pan/bi/whatever and it’s not mentioned at all, or it is conveyed subtly e.g. when at a bar they check out a member of the same gender.
This is important because 1/10 people are gay. So even if the character isn’t in-your-face super obvious gay, or it’s not a huge part of their narrative arc, you should have a gay character. If you film has more than ten characters (which pretty much all films do; background and one-scene characters apply), one of them – at least – should be coded or shown to be gay. The same goes with POC. Sure, it may just so happen that you don’t have a main character who is a POC, but that doesn’t mean you have an entirely-white cast. Because unless you are say a student or independent filmmaker who can’t afford more than a few actors, you can definitely find a few POC to include, even as the cashier in that scene or the girl she hits on at a bar. It is normal to interact with or see POC and LGBT+ people in real life, so it is normal for them to be in the film.
I also want to say that, as much as sometimes it makes me uncomfortable and angry, it is okay to have offensive language and actions in a film. Now, I don’t mean you can go about making a film where some guy on a joyride murders a bunch of gay people for no reason or for ‘comedy’. I mean that I think we should treat offensive, sensitive subjects in film (as for example the BBFC does on some of its guidelines) as: it’s okay to show something sensitive, or have someone use an offensive term or slur… but it is absolutely crucial that it’s shown to be wrong. Whether it’s another character calling them out on it, or it’s that the character is a villain and has been shown to have questionable morals; it needs to be shown as a bad, negative, not-normal way of thinking/acting. We cannot have film glamorising or even making it seem slightly okay to be rude, violent or prejudice against minority groups.
Lastly can we just… stop throwing words like ‘racist’ or ‘homophobe’ around without proof. As an amateur filmmaker, I know I’m going to receive a lot of criticism already, and that goes for everyone involved with making a film. Critics and audiences alike are incredibly harsh and as with all online media, say things they wouldn’t say to the person’s face. So I cannot imagine releasing a film and then being labelled as something I despise. Yes, sadly a lot of (directors, mostly) do display prejudices and it is fine to call them out on it, but let’s not attack a filmmaker simply because their latest film’s lead isn’t a strong gay POC (although don’t get me wrong that would be hella rad and should happen more often!) Although the world of film has a long way to go before it’s all fair and positive as far as representations go (I even wrote my latest university piece on LGBT+ representation in Disney), it is slowly getting better. I really hope I can be a part of that and that we can all, as an audience and critics, appreciate the efforts made and support and encourage that.