The need for new roles (and role models!) in Hollywood

Last week, Lucy Liu spoke with Net-a-Porter’s Graphic Issue about her experiences as an Asian woman working in Hollywood. In particular, she addresses how her race has affected the rather stereotypical roles she has received:

“I wish people wouldn’t just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me. You add race to it, and it became, ‘Well, she’s too Asian’, or, ‘She’s too American’. I kind of got pushed out of both categories. It’s a very strange place to be. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.”

Liu has played her fair share of Dragon Lady and martial-arts action roles. As this article on XO Jane puts it:

What she’s not often cast as is a woman who happens to be Chinese-American, a role where her race could be acknowledged and wrapped into the plot, without turning her into a total stereotype.

In short, the way she looks filters the work she is offered, which is not unlike the experience of most “otherly” women in film, television, and fashion. Liu is certainly not the first woman of color to talk about Hollywood’s preference for white actors.

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Recently, Kerry Washington discussed her leading role in the hit television show Scandal–she’s the first black woman to be cast as the main character in a network drama since 1974. The show has an estimated 8 million weekly viewers.

Washington, who also starred in the Oscar-nominated Django Unchained, just scored her first magazine cover, the June issue of Elle. Her image is a refreshing one: In magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue, women of color still appear infrequently.

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But why, exactly? Is this a matter of active racism or more, a matter of few writers creating diverse, non-stereotypical roles for women of “unconventional” colors, shapes, and sizes?

In the big picture, this is not just an issue for non-white women. Smart roles for white women also seem to be dwindling, especially for women over 40.

Women’s lack of representation on the screen is directly related to their lack of presence in the writing rooms. Until Shonda Rhimes, the powerhouse behind Shondaland Productions, entered the picture with Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Private Practice, television shows revolved around white ensembles–think FriendsSex and the City, How I Met Your Mother, even Mad Men. 

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Rhimes’ characters “happen” to be non-white; they are not defined by their race or gender, nor are these particularities important to the plot, which is important to her:

“When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah,’ ” she says. “That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”

Rhimes’ develops characters that women of any race could play. And she doesn’t particularly like to talk about it: “It’s 2013. Somebody else needs to get their act together. And, oh, by the way, it works. Ratings-wise, it works.”

Let’s hope that Rhimes’ example–not to mention success–will influence more writers and producers to think about race and roles in the same way.

“American Novelists” means male novelists, of course.

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Amanda Filipacchi wrote about something strange going on over at Wikipedia. Apparently, editors are moving the names of women novelists from the category “American Novelists,” and putting them in a new category: “American Women Novelists.” Men’s names, of course, remain only in “American Novelists.”

According to Filipacchi,

 “It appears that many female novelists, like Harper Lee, Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt and some 300 others, have been relegated to the ranks of “American Women Novelists” only, and no longer appear in the category “American Novelists.” If you look back in the “history” of these women’s pages, you can see that they used to appear in the category “American Novelists,” but that they were recently bumped down. Male novelists on Wikipedia, however—no matter how small or obscure they are—all get to be in the category “American Novelists.”

Since Filipacchi’s piece, other writers have reported on it as well, and if you visit the Wikipedia pages it seems that they’ve halted this nonsense–for now. It would be one thing if Wikipedia created separate categories for both men and women. This might make sense in regards to simpler searching for a particular author.  But to create a “women’s” list and remove those names from the master list of novelists suggests that women writers are a derivative from the “normal” (read: male) category of writers.

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Joyce Carol Oates

So why is this happening in the first place? According to Deanna Zandt in an article for Forbes Woman (which is another interesting derivation–is this happening everywhere?),

“Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but over 80% of Wikipedia’s editors are young, white, child-free men, which means that their perspective is what largely dominates how information is organized, framed and written. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a young, white, child-free man’s perspective, of course– it’s just that there are tons of other perspectives in the world that should influence how a story gets told.”

If Wikipedia truly wants to provide users with neutral, unbiased information, it’s going to need more women editors. Duh. If “male” is the norm–the original category from which all others deviate–then sexism is also the norm. It’s subtle, and for that reason, it’s pervasive. It’s the status quo. And it’s not just up to Wikipedia to fix it. It’s up to us, too.

In the words of Zandt:

“[I]t’s not enough that we create an open system and say that everyone has the opportunity to work on it– we need to make intentional interventions into the status quo that involve raising the voices of those who are not heard as often.”

The truth of the matter? As long as we allow “the norm” to speak for us and to structure how we think about the world, we can always expect to be described in adjectives that reference our “otherness.” And right now, we’re allowing ourselves to be defined in terms of that difference.

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The “worthiness” of women’s writings

Michelle Dean wrote an article for New York Magazine this week titled “How to Win at the Women’s Memoir Game.” It examines the critical reception of women’s memoirs, work often reviewed as “oversharing.” For some reason, women’s memoirs are commonly dismissed as attempts to tell silly, sensationalized, or simply much too personal stories.

In regards to personal or “confessional” writing, Dean writes:

“The ‘confessional’ impulse has actually never been strictly a Woman Thing — just look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up or Robert Lowell’s poetry, for starters. But the accusation that a writer has taken it to extremes, beyond art into sensationalism, usually is leveled at us alone.”

She cites Lena Dunham and Cat Marnell as two women who have recently scored book deals for their memoirs–works anticipated to be highly personal tell-alls.  The confessional nature of their books, however, makes them targets for criticism, especially in conversations about “serious literature.”

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Lena Dunham

More seasoned memoirists such as Joan Didion, Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert, however, have managed to escape some of this criticism. Why? Perhaps, Deen muses, because in their books “the sex is less prominent and the focus tends to be on personal tragedies that are more sympathetic to a wider audience.” In other words, in the eyes of critics, they’re not telling stories defined by their gender, or so clearly written for a female audience.

She concludes the discussion of their success with the observation that “there are, actually, degrees of craft involved in writing yourself, as Nora Ephron put it, as the heroine of your own life.”

Deen’s conversation about the type of critical response that women’s “confessional” or “oversharing” memoirs receive reminds me of the impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people do not feel like they deserve their success.  It’s a common experience among women, and it causes us to question the worthiness of our work and achievements.

The experience of feeling unworthy or untalented doesn’t come out nowhere, though. Women writers are especially scrutinized, and their work often taken less seriously than men’s. For this to change, women’s writing must be evaluated as writing first. And on that note, perhaps we should stop classifying anything created by a woman as “women’s” altogether.

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