Cult Of Bigoted Meryl Streeps
By Jack O'Dwyer
And during the few moments that we have left, we want to talk, right down to earth, in a language that everybody here can easily understand...
I’ll never understand popular Hollywood’s obsessive fascination with conquering every marketable audience in existence. It’s like a ghostly bright cult of clones all trying to be the bigoted Meryl Streep of entertainment media. A jack-of-all-trades, but for different kinds of audacious discrimination. They’re almost oblivious to the fact that sometimes, no matter how hard you try to force it, you just can’t go fitting that same obnoxious square peg into every round hole. The new Rub & Tug controversy is just the latest face on an already existing pop culture tragedy: white and/or straight and/or ciswashing (*washing, for shorthand).
In the most efficiently explanatory way possible, *washing is when a minority character role is taken and either played by someone who isn’t of that demographic, or deliberate parts of that demographic’s culture are ignored/comically exaggerated. It’s blackface, only by a different name and almost less noticeable. Insidious -- producers can still claim a demographic is present without actually including them. Essentially, the core of this concept is you quite literally gut a character from the inside out and replace that key part with the same cookie cutter -- usually headline-worthy -- actor or actress who’s maybe met a person of that demographic once at a college party twelve years ago. Perhaps that’s the best case scenario, though. The worst is, of course, having your identity be the butt of every joke that is made meaninglessly at your expense. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?
Unfortunately, this happens pretty much all the time. It started in the 1830’s with blackface and yellowface theatrical productions that capitalized on racist stereotypes purely to be laughed at by white viewers. It’s from this where we derive the term “Jim Crow” as it was originally part of the name of a popular blackface performer. This continued well into the 1960’s and, in some particularly egregious cases, past that. In regards to straightwashing in particular, a case can be made to link it with bi-erasure by placing a character who is written to be nonheterosexual into that such category despite the source material. Again, ignoring a key aspect of a role that makes this person who they are often for the benefit or comfort of a cisgender/white/heteroseuxal audience.
Some of the most notable instances of this have happened just in the past few years. Argo, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2012, centered around Hispanic protagonist Tony Mendez who ended up being played by Ben Affleck -- who was the director and a producer for the film. Johnny Depp placed a Comanche character in Disney’s The Lone Ranger (2013). In 2014, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a Biblical drama set in Egypt, was released with a blizzard of a cast taking over most -- if not all -- of the significant leading roles. Netflix’s 2017 adaptation of the popular anime Death Note saw entirely American actors in its notable cast. Scarlett Johansson played Major in the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (2017), another anime. You know, anime, from Japan.
The adaptation of yet another prominent anime series, Dragonball Evolution (2009) found its lead in the Canadian actor Justin Chatwin. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), set in Persia, had the lead being played by Jake Gelatinous. 2015’s Pan had Rooney Mara cast as in the role of Tiger Lily, a Native American princess.
Mystique from the X-Men franchise is canonically bisexual, but only ever portrayed as straight. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) plans to completely ignore Dumbledore’s sexuality - or, rather, Rowling’s claims of his sexuality (yes, I’m one of those Ravenclaws). 2018’s golden child of diversity, Black Panther, removed a canonical lesbian romance between Ayo and Okoye. There was a single shot written that never made it into the film.
Also, when the fuck am I going to get to see Harley and Ivy smooching on the big screen? It’s driving me up the wall and back down again. I’m about to write the damn movie, myself.
I think my all time favorite example of this is the 2015 film Stonewall which attempted to tell the story of the Stonewall riots that took place in 1969. The writers decided to tell the story through the eyes of a cisgender white gay man as the hero, casting a cisgender white straight man -- James Irvine. This guy isn’t even American. I shouldn’t have to remind you all that Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLaverie would probably take issue with this.
Do I sound bitter? Salty? I sure as hell hope so, because I am. This is a topic I talk about so often I don’t even know where to begin to build my argument. Growing up, I had no idea women could be gay. I never saw it anywhere! It wasn’t in books, wasn’t in shows, and there was no way I would find it in film in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. It wasn’t until years later that I was introduced to media like Rent (2005), Lost Girl (2010), and now Orange is the New Black (2013). This is a hill I will die on. Lack of representation in the media is outstandingly harmful to the self-esteem and growing self-image of marginalized youth. It promotes depression, crushes aspirations, and encourages harmful discrimination in greater society. It’s bad and needs to improve.
Lucky for us, though, as much as we might not think so, we have power. After tons of pressure and outrage from her audience, Scarlett Johansson has stepped down from her role as Dante “Tex” Gill in the upcoming film Rub & Tug. This resignation comes amidst wholly legitimate criticism that ScarJo literally could not be any further from Mr. Gill if she tried. Really, it’s astounding. It’s like the casting directors took bets on which cisgender heterosexual actress would enrage LGBT+ folks the most. I would have loved to have been in that audition room, but I think my ears might have started ringing from all the bullshit.
I don’t think I’ll ever comprehensively understand it. I do, however, look forward to seeing an actual trans man in the role -- or, at the absolute very least, someone like Lea Delaria.