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“But she’s a talented actress!” (a case study)

April 9, 2011

While Jennifer Lawrence, the actress recently cast as The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen, does not physically resemble her character, the media and fans alike often defend her casting by pointing out, “but she’s a talented actress!” Both the media, director Gary Ross and author Suzanne Collins have attempted to portray concerns about potential whitewashing as easily solved by hair dye. Not only do these arguments miss the point, they also obscure the wider issues of opportunities and systematic discrimination in Hollywood .

The following case study attempts to make the connection between The Hunger Games film and the larger forces at work in our media.

But she's a talented actress!

But she's a talented actress!

 

This is Jennifer Lawrence: a talented but obscure actress who came to national attention after starring in an obscure movie and garnering a nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars. She is also white and (relatively) skinny.

But she's a talented actress!

But she's a talented actress!

 

This is Gabourey Sidibe: a talented but obscure actress who came to national attention after starring in an obscure movie and garnering a nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars. She is also black and plus-sized.

Because of her great talent and hard work, Jennifer Lawrence deserves to be a star. She is getting ample opportunity to become exactly that, with status-raising roles in big Hollywood movies-wannabe-trilogies like X-Men: First Class (as Raven Darkholme/Mystique) and The Hunger Games (as the main character, Katniss Everdeen). It has been about two months since Lawrence received her Best Actress nomination.

Because of her great talent and hard work, Gabourey Sidibe deserves to be a star. But is she getting the opportunity to become exactly that? Sidibe has had bit parts in movies and TV shows like The Big C. Her next role in a big Hollywood movie will be in Tower Heist. It has been about a year and one month since Sidibe received her Best Actress nomination.

Why the discrepancy in OPPORTUNITIES being offered to these wonderfully talented and hard-working actresses?

1) Because the number of roles written for white women far outstrip those written for women of color. (The cases of Jennifer Lawrence and Gabourey Sidibe are further exacerbated by the size difference.)
2) Because roles that are written for women of color or ethnically ambiguous women (like Katniss) often come with a “She should be Caucasian” note on the casting call, regardless. Because white women will be considered for roles written for women of color, but women of color are much more rarely considered for white roles.

Bottomline: For white actors like Jennifer Lawrence, “but she’s a talented actress!” is a pass (used here in the sense that a driver’s license gives you a pass to legally drive in a country, but wouldn’t automatically make you the best driver on the planet) that will gain her access to a wide range of roles. It means being given serious consideration, even for ethnically ambiguous and ethnic non-ambiguous roles like Katniss and Katara of The Last Airbender.

For actors of color like Gabourey Sidibe, “but she’s a talented actress!” is a reminder of a glass ceiling: an indirect, sometimes unconscious barrier she will never be talented enough to pass. Actresses like Sidibe have a small pool of roles to pick from, a pool made smaller by a Hollywood tradition that makes it ok for a white actor to play an ethnic role.

Just ask Vanity Fair. Could you even imagine Vanity Fair snubbing Lawrence for a spot on their “Young Hollywood” cover like they did Sidibe? (And indeed, one year later, there she is.)

Categories: blog, History and Concepts, The Hunger Games
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About the Author

Catherine B. is Racebending.com's Northwest Coordinator.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/jarronnelums Javan Nelums

    It’s a brain washing norm, besides the standard hollywood demographics are young white people. My take on it is that why films featuring POC (people of color) people are always star in stereotypical role (in this case a typical ghetto) and they get an oscar. I never seen POC act outside of the norm. I think that someone should stand up to Hollywood and it’s racist tactics.

    • Kaia

      Whoa…act outside of “the norm,” because obviously all black people hail from the ghetto and can thus relate to such tales?
      Egads.
      However, Sidibe didn’t get a nod because of the setting. She got a nod because of the depth and subtlety of her character. It was a beautiful and moving performance, and yet, despite her talent, she will forever be the fat, funny friend to the skinny white star, because that is the way hollywood works.
      While far less talented actresses will be scoring lead roles left and right, not because of their breathtaking talent but because Hollywood believes that white people want to see other white people, and they won’t make money otherwise.

      • http://profiles.google.com/jarronnelums Javan Nelums

        Well me and you are saying the samething…just that I everytime i see a black film is “real” (ghetto, urban, and family dramas) Where as with white actors the can be in anything the want. Don’t get me wrong Sidibe might of did a wonderful job in the movie..but as for me if i want to see drama I rather go outside and watch people walk by.

    • Thawhtet8

      The Story is about a black girl in Ghetto (written by a black woman)! You should know better than this.

      • Rand Ortega

         But those are the only roles women & men of color are offered. W/ the possible exception of Will Smith, Halle Berry (& it’s been years for her) & Denzel Washington, when was the last time a big budget, tentpole feature lead was a minority? The point here is unless a film is about racial stereotypes like “Precious” or “The Help”,  minority actors are largely relegated to supporting roles or ignored; even when the source material features them. See “The Last Airbender” or Angelina Jolie in the role of Fox in “Wanted” as proof.
        The reasons vary, but the core is there are very few minorities in the executive offices or above the line talent that make the decisions who is cast. Therefore the decision makers are people who have no point of reference besides their own wealthy, racially isolated perspective & believe their audiences share that attitude.

        • Pavel D

          The issue we’re discussing here is one of “Social momentum”. For ages, the world and pretty much all its aspects have been dominated by “The heterosexual white men”. We’re talking about thousands of years of ruling, leading, scientific discovery and entertainment. Then, within few decades or perhaps 1 century, (almost) all non-dominating groups (women, people of color, non-Christians…) become self-aware and demand fair treatment. However, “Heterosexual white men” did not dominate the world since whenever just because of their skin color (and in fact, Ancient Rome as well as medieval Jerusalem were not dominated by white people). It was the hard struggle of their ancestors and themselves that brought them to that position of dominance.

          Without struggle, there is no feeling of earning. Let’s imagine how world would look if in 1960, a Woman at the microphone would scream “Female rights should be equal to Men rights!” and the White men would say: “OK. Starting tomorrow, you have all the rights, equal opportunities etc.” What do you think would happen? The same thing that happens if parents spoil their only child by giving him unlimited funding, allowing him to lead any type of life and bail him out of any trouble — you get a horrible sociopath who does not value life, money, work or anything. It’s the ongoing struggle for Women’s rights that will ultimately allow women to VALUE what they gain. So far it seems they still don’t get it — Which of the following two sentences is more probable to be heard by a 7 year old girl from her mother: (a) “Go change your clothes, you have a dirt stain on them!” or (b) “Here’s a box of LEGO, I’d like you to try and build a toy house out of the bricks”?

          The reason for whitewashing is simple: For a black man, having an affair with a white woman is a strong fantasy, something that would boost his status in the community of his peers. Therefore, showing a white chick in a movie is attractive for both white and colored audience. Showing a colored chick – not so much.

          Yes, I do agree that there is discrepancy between number of movies with white stars and with colored stars, just as there is discrepancy between computer games with male heroes and female heroines. What I disagree with is the notion that there is some evil plan to “keep the blacks/women/gays subdued” by not showing them. The industry is merely aware that POC are willing to pay for both white AND colored meat, while for white people, that’s not the case (yes, we are racist monsters). If you stop paying for white meat, you’ll get the colored one.

          • ebonydiva06

            Become self-aware? What a nice way to explain enslavement, discrimination, Jim Crow Laws, black face, racism, and oppression. Dominating? What a nice way to explain genocide, colonization, outright murder and thief.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PHQNPHSL6EE6R422GQOM75ER6E Jon Brewer

    Yeah, talent is key to interpretation (What over at Gainax they call “syncing” with your character.), but still. Like, I liked At Play in the Fields of the Lord, but casting Tom Berenger to play Moon was a mistake, and it shows. (When he’s bathing, the bronze even washes off.)

    Of course, talented actors come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. And there is no reason not to appreciate all talent.

  • Wlancewalker

    I can see your point in this article, but how many obese white women who are so called talented actresses make their way into popular films? Even Niki Blonsky from “Hairspair” hasn’t been seen in much TV or cinema. The lead actress in Precious hasn’t been seen since the movie came out unless you’ve seen her on Showtime or whatever. I think this article would have been better to select a much more well know actress of color

    • http://twitter.com/BarbotRobot Matt Barbot

      The author mentions size as well, which is another trait that gets changed up a lot in adaptations. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/CJ-Cannon/100002769352982 CJ Cannon

        This reminds me of 

  • AA

    “Because white women will be considered for roles written for women of color, but women of color are much more rarely considered for white roles.”

    Take the gender issue away from this, then get back to me about Idris Elba being cast as a NOSE GOD.

    • Anon

       Not the word “rarely”, also the Norse gods in Thor are aliens

    • Anonymous

      You’ve got one example, we’re talking about HUNDREDS of examples going on a hundred years. Idris Elba is also an actor that established himself in the UK and US before this happened. Obscure white actors can take roles of color, only famous actors of color can take “white” roles.

      Also, side note, the Asgardians in the Marvel comics aren’t gods. The “Warriors Three” buddies of Thor in the movie don’t even exist in Norse Myth. They cast Idris to drive the point home that these aren’t “gods,” since they don’t conform to what they should look like in myth. In other words: “Token Minority”

    • Anonymous

      If you think blacks are constantly taking the roles made for whites, you’ve got to be naive or culturally blind.

      I bet you also believe men are equally sexually objectified as women in comic books too.

      • Jon

        Funny you should mention that. You’ll find people who believe all sorts of weird things. I mean, right now, the men’s rights people, who so protested the Violence Against Women Act for its unfair treatment of men (Basically, it assumed all relationship violence was male-on-female.), don’t like it being renewed, even though the renewed version fixes that. It’s a fine whine, excellent vintage, but it has an unpleasant aftertaste.

  • https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/p-and-m-awareness Stogucheme

    Did anyone read Gabourey’s response to the Vanity Fair snubbing? I guess beggars can’t be choosers, right? *spits* Our society is pathetic when Marginalized People have to smile and be grateful to get what little they’ve gotten instead of screaming in frustration at the prejudices they face. It’s even more pathetic that everyone expects them to act like the Model Marginalized Person and not complain. *takes a breath, attempts to calm down* Sorry. Anyway…

    I swear, someone needs to become a trillionair and flood the market with good POC-led films…if they break Hollywood (or at least hurt it) maybe it’ll get the hint…or maybe it’ll just ignore it and try to make more white-led films. But it could work.

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  • moosh

    Fine if they want to cast a white actress for a multiracial role. But do they HAVE TO do the brownface? 

  • JP

    Don’t you think WEIGHT is a much bigger issue than RACE in the difference between these two actresses? Look at Zoe Saldana, she has a black appearance (and is half black) and has no shortage of roles whatsoever. Why? Because she’s thin and sexy. Gabourey Sidibe isn’t.

    • Venom

      Zoe Saldana is nowhere near being a household name the way Jennifer Lawrence is poised to become, or that the likes of Megan Fox already are. Her best known roles are as supporting characters, one of which she herself isn’t even seen.

      But in regards to weight and beauty, that only reinforces the author’s point that “she’s a talented actress” is an egregious double standard. If Gabourey Sidibe is “a talented actress”, then ANYTHING relating to her physical appearance should be deemed unimportant. Anyone who thinks Lawrence got her parts on skill alone is either incredibly naive or incredibly delusional.

    • bran

      Zoe is acceptable to Hollywood because she is light, skinny, has long hair, an “exotic” name and her onscreen partners are always white men.

      Melissa McCarthy is not a size two and look at the acclaim she has. 

      Now you wanna try that again?

      • Zoefan :S

        THANK YOU BRAN! I’m so glad I’m not the only person who noticed that bs.

  • Blahblah

    Your case study is flawed. 

    Gabourney Sidibe isn’t cast in more roles due to her size, not her race. As unfortunate as it is, “sexiness” sells tickets; obese women do not. While I do believe you are correct that there is a glass ceiling surrounding race, there is a larger ceiling around weight. A better analysis would be two comparable “sexy” actresses in the same weight class.

    For example Taraji P Henderson was nominated in 2008 for the Curious Case of Benjamin Button and since has had a steady workload, including five movies in 2010. 

    You used Gabourney to fluff up your side of the debate and it’s unnecessary. Find a talented caucasian actress who is wildly overweight and it’s the same story as Sidibe.

    • Venom

      You try to bring up Taraji P. HENSON, but can’t even get her name right. You’ve shot yourself in the foot and proved the article’s point.

  • Jia

    In regards to Race, I could say Jackie Chan is a great actor, but it would make no sense to hire him as Martin Luther king Jr. in a movie. The same thing applies to Jenifer Lawrence.

  • AirTwister1

    If people think being an Asian Actress is tough finding lead roles in Hollywood, try being an Asian MALE Actor looking for lead roles in Hollywood. If being gay LLoyd on Entourage is the best Asian Male Actors can hope for then some Ari GOld’s need to be punched in the throat.

    John Cho and Daniel Dae Kim are paving the road at the moment but that’s not enough.

    • Rand Ortega

      Well said. But they’re still relegated to supporting roles. When Kim is cast as Kaneda or Harry Shum Jr. is cast as Akira or when a Japanese American actor has the fan base & credits as a leading actor can be cast, then we’ve made some progress.

  • FFS

    A black man was cast in the roll of a norse god historically described as being white with red hair, and a red beard – who was NEVER interpreted as black until Hollywood touched him. Your cast statement stands corrected. You get BET Network, and black magazines. Get off of it.
    The public likes to look at thin to medium-sized women. It’s more to do with weight, less to do with race.

    • bran

      Are you really using BET as an example (a network owned by Viacom). Please stop telling POC that race is not an issue when the people went apeshit over a black man in a movie (I believe he was only it the damn thing for three minutes at that!) And he was the only black person in the the movie.

    • http://malexos.wordpress.com/ MrHassanSan

      I realize this is a very late response, but sometimes black people want to see non-stereotypical black people in normal, everyman roles. Sometimes we want to see black characters outside of a black-aimed niche, and though I can’t truly speak for other races, I’m sure they feel the same way. I’m a black teenager, and I don’t even like BET. And yes, we have “black” magazines, but I’d be hard pressed to find one in my local grocery store…that may be virtue of living in North Carolina, but still…

      Anyway, while I agree that much of this particular argument has to do with her weight, I can’t help but feel that if she were a just-as-heavy caucasian actress, the people at Vanity Magazine might be a *bit* more inclined to feature her on the cover.
      INB4 “But there’s a black guy on the cover too!”

    • Gabbycrr

      Well, don’t we sound self entitled. Thank you so much for giving us one channel and allowing us to have our own magazines. Thank you for allowing some of us to have big roles in movies, i know it took a lot out of you to do that for us. Oh and while i’m at it thank you for allowing us to breathe your air, and go to your schools and go shopping at your shopping malls. I don’t know if you realize this, but america does not belong to white people and white people might own Hollywood but that’s a whole nother tale i don’t feel like getting into. We should not have to be happy with the scraps white people happen to give us. This is the “land of opportunity” where everyone is “equal” So come down from your high horse; POC have just as much right to roles and tv and movies as white people. 

  • Mirrorreflex

    What ethnicity was Katniss supposed to be anyway, it has been a while since I read the book but wasn’t she described as tan, dark haired and grey eyed. Aren’t those traits that could describe a multitude of ethnicities? Or did they ask for ‘caucasian only’ actresses for the role.

    • http://www.racebending.com Marissa Lee

      The issue was that the casting call only requested Caucasian actors even though actors of several different ethnicity could have easily fit her description.

    • Cythna

      Looking at the description of Katniss she could could any one of a number of ethnicities. However, her Mum and sister are blonde, which limits the choice a bit! Really glad they picked a black actress as Rue though.

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