Merit or diversity? That loaded question seems to be at the heart of a few recent controversies involving the entertainment biz.
At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Virtuosos Award tribute honoring Jared Leto, among others, an unidentified woman heckled the actor over his portrayal of Rayon, an HIV-positive transgender woman in The Dallas Buyers Club. Leto, frontrunner to win a best supporting actor Oscar, had already picked up the Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards.
These accolades didn’t impress the woman who shouted, “Trans-misogyny does not deserve an award,” to which Leto replied, “What do you mean by that?” The heckler answered, “You don’t deserve an award for portraying a trans-woman, because you’re a man.”
“Because I’m a man, I don’t deserve to play that part?” Leto retorted. “So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian – they can’t play a straight part?” Acting, after all, is about inhabiting other personae. That’s why they call it “acting.”
Undeterred by logic, the woman repeated her complaint that transgendered characters are always portrayed by straight people (portrayed positively, I might add), who then get awards for it (and then get accused of “trans-misogyny” for it). Leto again responded that by her reasoning, only straight actors can play straight roles.
“You’ve made sure people that are gay, people that aren’t straight, people like the Rayons of the world would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts of that art,” Leto said to appreciative applause from the audience. Leto and the heckler reportedly had a “cordial conversation” about it afterward, but the heckler had accomplished her goal, which was to bring media attention to Hollywood’s apparent dearth of trans-diversity.
On the racial diversity front, Jerry Seinfeld was irked by an interview question about the predominance of white males in his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee web series. “People think it’s the census or something,” he responded. “This has gotta represent the actual pie chart of America? Who cares?” Seinfeld expressed little patience for “PC nonsense”: “I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that.” For him, it’s all about, “Are you making us laugh or not?” and it’s “anti-comedy” to focus on any other factor. A Gawker writer claimed that Seinfeld was suggesting that “any comedian who is not a white male is also not funny,” which is simply race-baiting nonsense. Seinfeld said nothing of the sort, but the Diversity Police are always alert for opportunities to smear people.
This came on the heels of another showbiz hubbub, over Saturday Night Live’s six-year absence of black comediennes among its cast, a drought which was resolved with a hurried hire that, considering the public pressure on SNL, felt like a rush to fill a quota.
And there’s the rub: as always with affirmative action or even the appearance of it, everyone loses. No one, including the beneficiary of it, can ever be sure that the position was earned. It spurs resentment on all sides and undermines the fairness that it purports to impose. A gender- and colorblind meritocracy should be the goal – easier said than done, but it’s the only way in which everyone wins.
Besides, the Diversity Police are never satisfied. Early in her career, when she was cast as Selena in a biopic of the popular singer, Jennifer Lopez took tremendous heat because she is Puerto Rican, not Mexican (even though Selena herself was only half-Mexican and born in Texas). Some took this as an horrendous affront, unbelievably. It didn’t matter to the protesters that: 1) Selena’s story was being brought to the big screen, with an all-Latino cast; 2) J-Lo, an actress who could sing and dance and easily resemble Selena, was perfectly qualified for the role; and 3) she’s Latina. It wasn’t like the producers tried to cast Meg Ryan.
Acting and comedy are most compelling when they unite, not divide; when they find the universality in our experience. But a very vocal minority, obsessed with viewing everything through the distorting prisms of gender and race, ends up rigidly stereotyping and limiting everyone, and enforcing a carefully monitored “census,” as Seinfeld put it, at the expense of our shared humanity.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/11/14)