Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
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.
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.
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.)