Acknowledging Whiteness

I understand the idea that we can’t ask celebrities and people of that ilk in the public eye to be representatives of political agendas. But it’s odd to say they’re wholly independent of them.

People and their artistic creations exist in a cultural context, and that cultural context exists within a continuum of social and political agendas. Sinking all your hopes on representation on a celebrity may be ill-founded—just look at the racist reactions by white actors to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. But claiming that means we shouldn’t expect artists who devote their lives and waking hours to contemplating bigger questions and honing their respective craft to have something to say on it is misguided.

Though I’m no fan of him, Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” shows that he is (and has been) contemplating his grander place in the context of hip hop music. The song itself isn’t much of a song, almost more of a personal essay than spoken word, but it’s a public proclamation of him falling in line with Black Lives Matters and at least beginning to acknowledge the privilege he benefits from in the world and the rap community. Whether it ultimately succeeds is another story. But the fact that it’s out there—and for once in Macklemore’s career speaking from his own lane to people within that lane—is something.

It’s no coincidence that two years running has seen Hollywood award exclusively white performances. In the Academy’s mind there’s a certain type of “Oscar worthy” performance. And when that comes to narratives of people of color it’s even more focused. It’s images of black bodies in pain, being rescued. Not proving themselves, whether in the face of the music industry, a multimillion dollar sports organization, or the shadow of their father’s legacy. It’s latinX people winning awards for trafficking drugs, not being enigmatic tech geniuses. It’s white men portraying trans women as tragic figures, not trans women of color playing themselves in a modern farce. It’s a problem that has roots deep in Hollywood, far beyond the Academy, about the stories we choose to tell when it’s not a cis, straight, white, able-bodied man.

And it may not be their job to speak out on these issues. But it seems clear that it’s their job to properly portray them.

Some of my best friends are white males

In my Twitter journeys this morning, I happened across an article from Todd VanDerWerff in which he recommends USA’s new show “Mr. Robot” as an alternative specifically to viewers who have put up with enough from “True Detective.”

“Men are forever defining themselves against some weird, hidden code of masculinity that supposedly their grandfathers had access to but they can’t seem to crack,” writes VanDerWerff. “So let me suggest something else: Literally everything fans say they want from True Detective is being done much better by a ridiculously titled show on the USA Network about a computer hacker: Mr. Robot. The show, which airs new episodes on Wednesdays and is available on Hulu, is one of the best in years about what it means to be a man in modern America.”

The article definitely got me on the hook to finally go watch “Mr. Robot” (though I didn’t read the whole thing because spoiler alert). But it also tapped into a concept that’s been crossing my mind lately: I am inherently more interested in “other” stories. And white male protagonists have to prove themselves to me.

I’m not trying to be here for tokenism, but I am tired of “unbelievability” being the basis for centering stories on white, male (and usually cis, straight, well-off, etc.). “Boyhood” won me over, but had its protagonist been a woman or a black kid coming up in Texas it would’ve been infinitely more interesting.

The double-edged sword is because stories from those who don’t see themselves reflect in the media are always inherently politicized. “Boyhood” had the comfort of not having a thesis; of meandering through its hero’s adolescent development. But a black kid? A woman? A trans person? Not so much. They’re victims of what I once heard described as the “Sailor Moon principle.”

Picture of Sailor Moon See the titular Sailor Moon, in her every day life as Usagi, is far from the elegant anime hero you’ve seen on backpacks and comics in the ’90s. She’s lazy, she loves eating, she’s unabashedly in love, and honestly? She’s kind of a ditz. If you dropped her character in an otherwise all-male cast, she would get dragged. No one wants her to be the representation of womanhood. But because her title is chock full of strong women, each their own individual with their own shortcomings and strengths, she’s a much more successful character.

In many ways I suppose this philosophy circles back a lot to my sincere belief that representation in the media matters. But it’s also just true that the inherent politicization extends far beyond the media we consume; if you don’t fit into a societal norm that area of your life is always more heavily politicized, whether you like it or not. It’s a pain to live with. But it’ll always add another degree to your story that will make it more interesting than it would’ve been with a run-of-the-mill white male protagonist. (One of my favorite Tumblr ideas I can’t find the link for is to swap out all white male protagonists for old Grandmas to make a story instantly more interesting. “Ocean’s 11,” “Goodfellas,” you name it)

Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Annette Brown/AMC“Friday Night Lights” won me over by the end. But “Friday Night Lights” with women in the lead roles? More lesbian subplots? Here for it. I’m currently watching through “Halt and Catch Fire,” and though I’ve loved Lee Pace for a while, this show is a lot more interesting to me since I found out it’s (spoiler alert) setting up a finale where Cameron and Donna start their own company. As I muck through the early episodes, I’m a lot more interested in the casual subversion of “Halt and Catch Fire” if it’s leading to leaving AMC’s classic anti-hero arc behind for greener, women-led pastures.

I’m still interested in the way our culture explores and builds masculinity. Like I said, VanDerWerff makes a compelling case for “Mr. Robot,” despite it being focused on yet another white male. But I’m not as interested in giving these stories an automatic greenlight anymore.

We should all be exploring diverse voices. Especially when women and people of color can’t even use theirs without being policed.