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.

I’m waiting for Wonder Woman

For the last few years, movies about superheros have dominated the big screen. Spiderman, Batman, Thor, Ironman…the list goes on. Classic Marvel and DC comic-book figures have been transformed into larger than life fan obsessions. This summer, the trend continues with new movies about Superman (Man of Steel) and Wolverine (The Wolverine). The trailers look good, and I’m looking forward to seeing them. Still, I have to wonder: When are we going to see an awesome movie about a superheroine?

So far, superheroines have appeared as side acts in otherwise all-male ensembles. Think of Storm in X-Men or Natasha Romanoff in The Avengers.  A little ironically, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz had more screen time, character development, and dialogue in the Charlie’s Angels trilogy than either of Halle Berry’s or Scarlett Johansson’s roles. And then there was Berry’s Catwoman…sigh. I’m tired of seeing superheorines as an afterthought or even worse, as a joke.

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Last year I wrote an article about the fantastic PBS documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. It traces the history of Wonder Woman, the Amazonian Princess Diana, since her creation in the 1940’s. The documentary is most moving in its exploration of what Wonder Woman actually means to young women. She stands for compassion, justice, even love. She is strong yet kind.  She is powerful yet fair. And most importantly, she “keeps going,” no matter what. She’s a superheroine, but the best, most admirable parts of her character feel real.

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Done right, a Wonder Woman epic could mean the next superhero/ine blockbuster for the the film industry. But for women it would mean much more.