In Which I Ponder a Lily-White Les Miserables Movie

I’ve been a fan of Les Misérables since the 90′s.

Like, a big fan.  When I was a kid I had 5, count ‘em, 5 different cast recordings.

As long as I’ve been a fan, every production that’s striven to be a definitive cast has included people of color.  The Tenth Anniversary Dream Cast (meant to be the best of the best) included Lea Salonga as Eponine.  The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Concert included not only Salonga as Fantine, but Norm Lewis (whom we all love in Scandal) as Javert and Iranian-Canadian Ramin Karimloo as Enjolras.  The Complete Symphonic Recording, which strove to be international as well as definitive, cast Kaho Shimada from the Japanese production as Eponine.  Les Mis has been around for a long time; it’s been performed in a huge number of countries; and more than many other musical theatre productions it’s understood to be about content and story instead of about people’s skin color.

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Character Versus Narrative: Arrow’s Diggle

(spoilers for the CW’s Arrow ahead)

I’ve been watching and enjoying Arrow lately.  And one character, Green Arrow’s bodyguard / partner / sidekick John Diggle, has made me think a lot about the way characters are presented in-universe versus their actual role in the narrative.  Specifically, I started thinking about this in regard to race.

And getting mad.

In a lot of ways, I love how they present Diggle.  But then I look at that presentation from outside the show, and I hesitate:

How the show presents him: He’s black and Oliver Queen / Green Arrow’s not only white, but a white rich kid son of a billinaire whom Diggle is initially hired to protect . . . and this doesn’t go unmentioned.  Diggle’s sister-in-law specifically asks him about following a couple of rich white boys around, in a conversation that clearly places these people as central to their own lives, and not characters who look for white employers to attach themselves to.  Which I like!
Except: In the show, his character does work for the Queens, and he is a secondary, supporting character to the rich, white Oliver Queen, who is the protagonist of the show.

How the show presents him: He’s a military veteran who cares deeply about his country.  When Oliver compares the two of them, Diggle has nothing but contempt: he tells Oliver that no matter what happened when Oliver was shipwrecked, he’s NOT a soldier, and will NEVER know what it means to be one.
Except: Oliver’s the one who starts the social crusade first, and is portrayed as the one who figured out how to make a difference and from whom Diggle needed guidance to do the same.  After his initial resistance, Diggle joins Oliver on his crusade, implicitly granting credence to the idea that Oliver has found the right way to make the world better.

How the show presents him: Diggle explicitly tells Oliver when he joins him that he’s not there to be a sidekick.
Except: On the show, Oliver is, again, the protagonist, and Diggle is supporting, so his role in the show is as sidekick.  Oliver’s the one who founded the whole operation and has been the one spearheading the plans and dictating the way they operate.  He invites Diggle to join him like he’s favorably rewarding a good puppy, and shuts down his suggestions because this is “his” operation.  Also, Oliver’s the one who kills the man who murdered Diggle’s brother (without any acknowledgement thereof), taking a good chunk of Diggle’s agency away from one of his own storylines.

How the show presents him: Diggle emphasized again in the latest episode that he’s there to work with Oliver, not for him.
Except: Diggle doesn’t actually join Oliver for any of the action in the episode; Green Arrow always goes in alone.  Also, Diggle has to push and manipulate Oliver into taking the case, which Oliver only starts to care about after it intersects with his own goals . . . and only then does he become invested.  As always, the narrative does not punish Oliver for this behavior.

How the show presents him: Diggle served in Iraq, is a personal bodyguard, and can kick every type of motherlovin’ ass.
Except: Because he’s the hero, Oliver always has to be shown as being better at kicking ass.  Not only does Green Arrow get more amazing action sequences, but Oliver beats up Diggle every time they go head to head (before they team up, and later while sparring) with a physical superiority that borders on humiliating.

I feel like I see this a lot in media.  The female character is vocal about being able to take care of herself, but the narrative still puts her in a position from which she needs to be rescued.  The minority characters might be shown to be just as competent as the white characters, but they still somehow end up dying first.  The character of color calls the white lead out on being selfish and thinking the world is All About Him, but because he’s the lead, the show is All About Him.

Just look at the African-American Police Chief trope—in all of those shows, the black guy/gal has done better and advanced farther than the white protagonist in universe, but still isn’t allowed to be the hero.  Gah!

As much as I do want writers to make women and characters of color equal through characterization, it’s lip service when the plot and narrative still put those characters in second place to the white men.

Can You Have a Grey Area if You’re Whitewashing?

So lately we’ve been talking about fiction and especially fantasy/science fiction and race, and I just finished Malinda Lo’s Ash, which was so incisively reviewed by Raz. I found it an interesting read in light of what the author has to say about race in the novel, and how she leaves it open for every reader to construct race individually as they read:

I think that sometimes readers tend to give too much credence to an author’s thoughts about her own work. Every reader brings his or her background to a book, and a book’s meaning is always a negotiation between the reader (and her experiences) and the story itself.

This is a nice theory, but it begs the question: why is race left up to the reader, when queerness is built into the structure of the novel?

One of the nicest parts about reading Ash is the way characters can dance and flirt and fall in love with characters of either gender. It’s no big thing, and that’s really, really awesome. (I could read an entire book of just the queer fairy tales that get narrated at various parts of the book.) And there’s definitely such a thing as too much physical description of characters in romance (as always, Smart Bitches has all the evidence). But when she says her characters can’t be Asian because in the world of the novel there’s no Asia, it’s really hard not to respond that there are ways of describing an Asian body without using the word “Asian” and nothing else. In light of the discussions in comments about writers of color whitewashing their own fantasy novels, this reticence feels troubling. If I hadn’t read her blog about this issue, I never would have known how she viewed the characters.

Which is okay. Malinda Lo can write her books however she wants. But I do feel a little betrayed — worse, I feel like a bad reader — when I go to her blog and find I’ve missed a large chunk of the context she had in mind as she wrote the book. Not excluding the possibility that the protagonist is a person of color is not quite the same as including a protagonist who is a person of color. It’s not precisely whitewashing — but it feels kinda close.

And today I found this item about the upcoming film version of The Hunger Games:

The debate over Katniss’s on-screen ethnicity (or lack thereof) has raged in the Hunger Games fan community ever since a film adaptation was announced, owing to author Collins’ seemingly specific descriptions of the young heroine’s ethnicity. Described as having dark hair, olive skin, and gray eyes (in contrast to her fair-haired mother and sister), Katniss is thought by some readers to be of Mediterranean, Latin, Asian, or mixed descent.

By the same token [note: HA HA HA SOB], Katniss’s colorings could also suggest a brunette Caucasian girl, as in the novel’s official marketing materials (above). Either way, it’s fair to say that Collins’ ambiguity was purposeful in this regard. So the question isn’t, “Is Katniss white?” but “Could Katniss possibly be anything other than white?”

In casting only for Caucasian performers, the filmmakers seem to close the door on that possibility.

So because race was considered an ambiguous aspect of Katniss’ identity in the book, it is considered unimportant to the people casting the (probably white) actress to play her in the movie. This is not Suzanne Collins’ fault — it is the classic White People Are The Only Real Protagonists problem in Hollywood films.

And the only antidote for that particular poison is more protagonists of color.

But if you make skin color and race a strong part of your character’s identity, you become Niche Art. And the mainstream — who are of course all white people, it goes without saying — feels like they can comfortably ignore you.

It gets worse, though:

The candidate must be between the ages of 15-20, be Caucasian, appear “underfed but strong,” and be “naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.”

Now, the point of the whole entire series — which I’ve only read snippets of, because hot damn that is some good dystopia, by which I mean thoroughly and unrelentingly depressing and so I’ll save it for summer when I’m not already halfway down Dreary Lane — is that Katniss and her family are starving. So yeah, she’s gonna be malnourished. But there’s something creepy and unpleasant in the use of the term “underfed” when you’re using it to describe 1600 actual teenage girls — 1600 is the number of unsolicited resumes received in the open casting call. (Not to mention the thought that putting “underfed” next to “pretty” in this instance only works for a given value of pretty.)

So the author’s description of the character is unimportant when considering race, but significant when considering weight.

And it all just plays to me as so terribly convenient — I don’t have to think about race in Ash because it’s up to me in my own head. I don’t have to worry about Katniss and the idealization of thinness because she’s starving, so obvs she’s not gonna be, like, fat. (Because Hollywood, they really care about realism and plausibility above all else, you guys.)

This is what it looks like when privilege reinforces itself.

Open discussion: Tulpa, or Anne&Me

I want to do something a little different with this post. Instead of presenting my own ideas and hoping you respond, let’s have an open discussion.

As most of you probably already know, I’ve written a play entitled Tulpa, or Anne&Me. I’ve recently done massive rewrites that better capture the way I imagine the story. You can find the most recent version of it on my LiveJournal, but there are ways to get your own personal copy*. For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is the basic premise:

When Anne Hathaway crawls out of your television, what do you do? When the topic of conversation is race, how would you navigate the truth of your experience and the human need to make connections?

Through a series of connected visitations from the tulpa of the famous movie star, “Tulpa, or Anne&Me” blends reality and fantasy to explore what is usually hidden in the way we talk about race. Taking the vantage point of a Black lesbian with an overactive imagination, “Tulpa, or Anne&&Me” explores the effects of racism on the human psyche. Will she find a way to express and fulfill her desire for a meaningful connection? Or will the weight of history and pain of the present sever ties before they can be made?

What do you think?