Hollywood in the Post-Weinstein Era: LGBT Opportunities, Minority Superheroes and the Problem of Originality

The American film industry has been violently shaken by the sex scandal surrounding production giant Harvey Weinstein, and it should indeed be seen as a watershed moment not only in the history of cinema, but also in that of social progress and in the fight to combat abuse in the workplace. The fact that it started in one of the highest-grossing and most powerful selection of enterprises in the world shows that not even the most powerful are immune to justice. This should serve as a rallying cry for abused persons all over the world and across all types of employment. In the beginning, and for the first few months since the beginning of the pandemonium, I truly believed in the message that movements like #MeToo and Time's Up were trying to convey and thought they would lead to change for the better. However, it is now my belief that we have partially reached a scenario where the abused have become the abuser, one which has given birth to a culture of fear that is akin to a tool of mass intimidation.

In all fairness, Hollywood is far from an innocent victim. In spite of the successes of various social and cultural movements, the industry is still plagued by an under-representation of numerous minority groups, including the LGBT community, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans. One way of explaining this lasting phenomenon is through the status of American film-making as a "dream factory". Said factory has been one of the most successful enterprises in the history of the United States. Behind its success there have been so-called "fixers" who have essentially stage-managed scores of celebrity romances and weddings in order to enhance the image of those stars that they propelled to fame, all of them being archetypically virtuous, good-natured, and, conspicuously heterosexual. Such is the way that the Americans during the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s wished to envisage their heroes and, by extension, themselves.

From an academically critical standpoint, the function of cinema is to satisfy viewers' scopophilia, that is, their pleasure-in-looking (Mulvey, 1989). Cinematic theorists, notably Laura Mulvey, have contended that the extreme contrast between the darkness in the viewing room, which also isolates the spectators from one another, and the succession of light and shade that appears on the screen helps to foment the illusion that the spectator is engaging in voyeurism. In other words, the cinema satiates the human primordial wish for pleasurable looking. Now, given the age-old sexual imbalance that exists in the world, it is no surprise that the cinema has been reinforcing said imbalance since its inception, with scopophilia being split between the active male and the passive female. Indeed, women in Hollywood have traditionally been attributed an exhibitionist role, their appearance being coded for strong visual and erotic impact, so as to delineate their to-be-looked-at-ness characteristic. The Golden Age of Hollywood was arguably the most blatant purveyor of this element, through actresses such as Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth and Audrey Hepburn.

Therefore, when the Weinstein scandal shook the world, I honestly thought that the #MeToo and Time's Up movements were going to turn the heteronormative scopophilia on its head. However, as recent studies have shown, not much in the way of positive change has been achieved. So yes, ethnic and sexual minorities are still being significantly underrepresented across all genres of films. My belief is that the reason for this is partly conscious and partly unconscious. I argue that there is an element of the latter, because, while people will not admit, the "dream factory'' has created certain stock characters, plot-lines and styles of film-making that people now see as a necessity and a norm; anything that attempts to subvert or distort said filmic archetypes are unconsciously met with negative reception. That is, a lot of people will not go and watch such pictures. Let us treat the following example as a case in point: the superhero genre

The beauty of cinema is that it has allowed for some of the most beloved comic book characters that people grew up with to appear on the big screen and immerse viewers and superhero fans in breath-taking experiences. While most are fascinated by their enhanced abilities, on a much deeper level, superheroes generally represent various psychological typologies that different generations can identify with. A perfect example is Spider-Man. Like most teenagers with whom I share the same personality, Spider-Man was my favourite superhero growing up because his very essence is defined by the troubles of a teenager in the midst of physical and psychological development. Many aspects of his personality, such as timidity, trying to fit in and striving for success while learning how to become a more responsible individual all resonate with my own experiences as a teenager and gradually morphing into a young adult. This psychological realism that is brought to the character is what I love about Spider-Man and why whenever I watched or read Spider-Man stories, I would see Peter Parker as a mirror image of myself. 

Consequently, while I am mostly indifferent to Marvel's decision to create a Spider-Man of colour through the character of Miles Morales, I feel that this rehashing was more of a publicity stunt, given that it coincided with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, but also it was a poor attempt of increasing the relevance of people of colour within the superhero realm; just because Peter Parker was envisaged as a white teenager, this doesn't mean that the character is not relevant to young people of colour in the West, for most go through the same challenges associated with growing up. Something I did indeed appreciate, and I feel should be appreciated by wider audiences was the introduction of the African superhero Black Panther into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A completely original character in his own right, Black Panther makes for a very compelling superhero that not only stands as an emblem for the strength of people of colour, but is very much a universal character, much like Spider-Man is for teenagers, despite being white. Henceforth, if Marvel were to produce a Spider-Man movie starring Miles Morales instead of Peter Parker, it would probably not attract as many viewers, not because they would be mulling over its political implications, but because it wouldn't be bringing anything "new"; simply changing the colour of a pre-existing character's skin does not make it a revolutionary move championing diversity. Comic book artists should instead create more and more superheroes based on numerous minorities that are original and that are not rehashes of previous iconic ones in order to advance their agenda.

A much more recent example is that of CW's decision to include Batwoman, marketed as "CW's LGBT hero", in its superhero TV universe, titled Arrowverse. My problem with this is not just that it is a move driven by the current, somewhat violent Hollywood lobbying to increase the pool of diversity on the big and small screen, but rather that it's not going to show true originality as an exponent of the LGBT cause because it is merely a shadow of Batman. In fact, aside from the sexual orientation, she basically is a discount Batman: a wealthy socialite determined to put her resources to good use and fight crime. Check. Have we not heard this story and been enthralled by it before? It may attract a greater number of viewers from the LGBT community, but culturally speaking, it won't be anything new in terms of strong minority characters. 

This last point brings me to discuss the present controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson's decision to back down from an LGBT role for the film Rub & Tug, due to be released the following year. Johansson would have gone on to play the role of Tex Gill, a real-life American mafioso who used his masage parlour in the 1970s an 1980s as a front for prostitution. While he was born a woman, Gill identified as a man. After being severely derided on social media, in newspaper editorials and videos for having accepted the role, Johansson backed out of the project. Had it not been for the blatant hypocrisy shown by the LGBT community over the past two weeks, I would not have had a problem with Johansson's refusal of the role. However, she is not the first heterosexual actor to accept a transgender role. In fact, I can list a few that have gone on to give tremendous performances in such roles and have either won or been nominated for prestigious awards. Eddie Redmayne was nominatefor the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2015 for his performance in The Danish Girl, Jeffery Tambor won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Comedy Series in 2015 for his performance in the TV series Transparent, and Jared Leto won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2012 for his performance as a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club. However, I didn't see those pertaining to the LGBT community vigorously critiquing the various awarding bodies for not taking into account the "lack of authenticity" of those roles, let alone the casting choices. Yet it seems to me most aberrant that Johansson would be bullied for merely accepting the role, when others have thrived off such a role in the past. This recent ordeal has made me think that those groups claiming to be striving for a more diversified representation are in fact riding on the coattails of the Weinstein scandal and the associated culture of fear that has permeated the motion-picture industry and which is perpetually forcing actors to cast doubt on the kinds of roles that they ought to accept for fear of incessantly violent backlash.

It is my honest belief that more films like Rub & Tug should be made, because they would be giving the LGBT community more exposure and, simultaneously, more opportunities for its actors. What do irk me, however, are the claims of integrity of those lobbyists and activists that are behind diversity initiatives. Waiting for a bubble as big as the Weinstein scandal to burst in order to shut down decisions such as Johansson's, in my opinion, shows signs of opportunism rather than passionate commitment. Seeing as Obama's presidency has done a lot to advance LGBT rights and give such communities a voice, the fact that the aforementioned three casting choices did not receive any criticism whatsoever or be used as a way to raise awareness of the lack of opportunities for minority actors in the motion picture industry is flabbergasting to say the least. What it does show is that the current haze in Hollywood is being taken advantage of in order to intimidate various "targets''. This is what the Weinstein effect has indeed affected: the creation of a tool of intimidation. On the same note, pressuring studios to shoehorn minority rehashes of flagship characters into their production schedules isn't a milestone; it's showing a lack of determination to foment the development of a plethora of original minority characters that could become cultural icons.


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