Over the past few months, there have been two movies that have gotten considerable hype for having a white cis-gendered male play a character from a different subordinated group. In this case, I am referring to Jared Leto who plays Rayon, a transgender woman, in Dallas Buyers Club and Johnny Depp who plays Tonto, a Native American from the Comanche tribe, in Disney’s The Lone Ranger. Both men have been the center of many debates questioning the reasoning behind their being cast in those roles. As I have discussed in previous posts, there is absolutely an overrepresentation of whiteness in the media, particularly of white men. Many people are thus outraged that these two roles, designed to honor and bring forward stories that are not typically seen in Hollywood, were given to the very men that we as a society are used to seeing.
I do not think it is fair to place all of the blame on these two actors, Depp and Leto have proved themselves to be successful at what they do. However, it does call into question why actors and actresses who do represent these subordinated identities are not being asked to play a specific role, why they are not being sought out and being chosen by casting directors.
This can similarly be seen within television shows and movies at large within the disabled communities- Degrassi’s Jimmy, Glee’s Artie. By having this character be played by communities who do not share the same identities, it is lowering representation.
Overall, there continues to be arguments for both sides in all of these cases. For instance, Comanche Chairman Wallace Coffey, an elected official for the Comache people, while said that he would love to see someone who identities as Native on the big screen, also stated, “This is just the beginning, is my thinking. It opens the doors for more creative visions with regard to Native Americans in the future….” However, others, including Adrienne Keene, author of the blog Native Appropriations, stated, “You guys, I’m pissed off. Like for real. I had a teensy-tiny bit of hope that this wouldn’t be another othering-stereotype-filled-horror, but clearly I was so wrong.”
I believe that there are many things to say in terms of representation in the media, and while I believe that those actors who were chosen to play Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, Tonto in The Lone Ranger, Jimmy in Degrassi, Artie in Glee, and still dozens more of characters did not do a bad job in their portrayals, I do not know if I believe they fully play up those characters to their justice. I believe that it would make much more of an impact to have a woman who identifies as trans* play the role or Rayon on the trans* community, to have someone Native play Tonto, etc., As I said, it isn’t as though those selected weren’t good, but it’s yet another way of hiding a subordinated group and not allowing those who identify on a daily basis to be visible. We are, in part, erasing the true stories and struggles that the characters are meant to portray.