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Casting Controversies: Where Should We Draw the Line?

Two FASHION staffers discuss the social media outrage over Ruby Rose as Batwoman, and other casting controversies

The ranks here at FASHION are not filled with men. Shocking, right? But there are one or two (there are actually, literally, two). Naturally, when a question about male/female dynamics arises it’s only fair that one of them stand in for the members of his gender and provide some insight. Our last topic of conversation was about the alleged Justin Trudeau ‘groping’ incident and today we’re wading into an issue where gender, race and sexuality all play a role. Two of our staffers—from the men’s corner, Greg Hudson, and from the women’s, Pahull Bains—talk it out.

GH: A couple of days ago, Ruby Rose—the model/actress that, according to my girlfriend, made every straight woman question how rigid their sexuality might be—quit Twitter and disabled comments on her Instagram. She became the latest celebrity to ditch social media after being harassed by so-called fans. Often, the trolls behind this kind of attack are misogynist, alt-right types furious that a woman or a minority has turned up in their favourite bit of culture. But Ruby Rose wasn’t being harassed for being a woman or LGBTQ. She was hounded by people ostensibly committed to social justice. Rose had just announced that she would be playing Batwoman in an upcoming CW crossover and for those unfamiliar with the extended Bat-family, Batwoman, real name Kate Kane (following the comic book tradition of alliterative names for women and heroes), is a lesbian. So is Ruby Rose. But her trolls maybe missed the memo? Because one of the main subjects of her harassment was that she wasn’t lesbian enough.

We both agree that this bullying is gross. But this also raises the subject who should be allowed to play who. After hearing that Scarlett Johansson was going to be playing a transgender character, the Internet cried foul loud enough that she backed out (I’m sticking a pin in this, because I want to return to it in like 1,500 words). People have seen how powerful a well-targeted social media campaign can be, even when the the outrage is insincere (see James Gunn). The question is, what is the most responsible way to wield that power? Sometimes, actors and creators are right to listen to the online horde, other times, the horde seems to be using their progressive ideals to mask their assholery. How do we know when it’s okay to pile on about a casting decision, and when we should just chill?

Let’s say that Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the gold standard of offensive casting. If it were announced today that, say, Zach Galifianakis was going to play Pat Morita in a biopic about the man who was Mr. Miyagi, the internet would be right to rage. But, some folks were upset when The Rock—who has two working (very muscular) legs—was cast as someone with only one leg in Skyscraper. To me, that seems excessive, but then it’s easy for me to say that, since I get represented on-screen all the time.

What do you think the rules should be? Obviously Ruby Rose doesn’t need to give up her role but where is the line, do you think?

PB: There’s no real line to be drawn in this debate, and if there is, it would have to be in the sand because it’s just gonna keep moving with the ebb and flow of political and social awareness. When talking about whitewashing and related issues (straightwashing?), context is crucial. But I think some key questions would be: i) is the casting choice taking an opportunity away from a person of colour or other minority? ii) was a legitimate attempt made to find someone from said marginalized community?

Of course, with something like race, one would think it’s a no-brainer. But Scarlett Johansson as Japanese manga character Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton as the Tibetan-origin Ancient One in Doctor Strange, and Emma Stone as Allison Ng, a person of Hawaiian and Asian descent, in Aloha are all proof that nothing is off-limits to you when you’re white. That said, at least some people are starting to question their own privilege. Well, okay, one person. British actor Ed Skrein (who looks eerily like Nicholas Hoult, just FYI) bowed out of the Hellboy reboot, in which he was set to play a character of Asian origin. When it comes to race, Hollywood, let me help you out. It’s easy: cast white people as white characters, black people as black characters, Asian people as Asian characters and so on.

Now, on to the murky area. Is it okay to cast a straight person in a gay role? Should a cisgender person play a trans character? I think if there had to be a simple, blanket way of looking at it: it would be interior vs exterior. If there’s a character who needs to look a certain way (transgender, Indian, whathaveyou), the role should go to someone who already meets the criteria. But a gay person looks exactly like a straight person. All they need to do to play the role convincingly is to act, aka their job. And that of course goes both ways. A gay person should be able to play a straight person, and vice versa. That’s why I don’t get this outcry over Ruby Rose. They didn’t have to get an LGBTQ actor to play this role but they searched for and found one. And people were still upset?! Because she’s genderfluid and hence not strictly a lesbian? Come on, give it up people. There are bigger fires to fight.

What do you think about this interior vs exterior thing? Does that make sense, at least as a starting point?

GH: I think it’s definitely reasonable. But I still have questions/concerns/thoughts.

1. What about disabilities? What about Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking, or, I don’t know, any other time an able-bodied actor plays someone who is blind, deaf, suffering from MS, or who has developmental delays? All these are important aspects of a person’s identity that are visible from the outside.

2. I get the sense that there is a bit of a double standard. I don’t think anyone minds if and when a gay actor plays a straight character (and by anyone I mean progressives), but they make hay when the reverse happens. Now, maybe this is fair in the sense that there are only so many gay characters, but if so it’s fair in the same way it’s ‘fair’ for non-white writers to make pejorative generalizations about white people. We should at least acknowledge that the double standard exists, whether it’s a justified corrective or not. (I think, when it comes to sexuality, it isn’t justified. But maybe that’s just because I thought Brokeback Mountain was beautiful).

3. Also age–putting aside the fact that there are like seven actors over the age of 65 that are allowed to work, with improvements in technology, soon we’ll be able to just age actors up or down to fit the role (or bring them back to life…)

4. This too might be justified as a correction, but we seem to have some inconsistent feelings about the sanctity of fictional people’s biographies. Take Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, for instance. The original character was pretty problematic in its orientalism. But since the character never really existed, why couldn’t they change it? Compare and contrast that with the talk about Idris Elba taking over the role of James Bond. The fact is, James Bond wasn’t real, which means he wasn’t really white. So why not have a black Bond. But then, Ghost in the Shell wasn’t a documentary…But maybe the whitewashing was extra offensive because it’s one thing to change the biography of a problematic character, but it’s quite another to do it to a character that’s badass.

We justify the inconsistency because of the scarcity of opportunities. But opportunity is a funny thing to complain about when it comes to Hollywood, isn’t it? The odds of making it as an actor are so infinitesimally small that being white seems like an almost negligible leg up. Statistically, Hollywood discriminates against everyone. How serious should we be about equality? Should we force retirement on actors after a certain number of movies so that new actors can have a chance?

This debate often feels naive to me. At least when it’s framed by “giving opportunities.” Luckily, there are arguments for representation that don’t sound like progressive policing. Films and shows that tell a wider range of stories and have more than one point of view seem to not only do better, they seem to be be better. And that means more money for everyone! Framing it as a fair/not-fair thing only perpetuates the stereotype that progressives are entitled, but the fact is it’s just better business.

PB: Okay, let’s get into that disability argument. Take A Quiet Place for example. One of the characters in the film is deaf, and John Krasinski hired a deaf actress to play the part. Now, he didn’t need to. But he chose to make an effort, to search for a deaf actress who could play that role, and it paid off. The film is more authentic and powerful for it. I mean, if you’re trying to tell the story of a disabled or transgender person, would you not want to hire someone who could play that most truthfully? Doesn’t it just make sense?

However. You brought up Eddie Redmayne. Things like that are a bit more tricky because I don’t know how many working actors afflicted with debilitating diseases like MS are even out there, and if any of them would be remotely inclined—or in a position, health-wise—to take on a grueling acting commitment with 18-hour work days. So some of these have to be practical decisions. But when logistically possible, I think it’s on directors, producers and casting agencies to make that effort, because of course there are tons of actors with disabilities out there, who are hugely discriminated against and shut out of the game, for the most part.

To your point about the double standard: yes, there is one and while I really don’t think there should be, I understand why there is. Gay actors have been denied opportunities for decades and even today, every prominent role an out and proud queer person gets can feel like a minor victory. So I totally get why no one makes a fuss when a gay actor lands a straight role BUT I don’t think they should make a fuss when the reverse happens either. Of course, it’s only natural for a marginalized community to feel like they’re being denied opportunities that seem tailor-made for them. I totally see where they’re coming from but acting is about inhabiting another character, often with wildly different experiences, opinions and desires than your own. Gay vs straight is just an extension of that. I really don’t think it should matter either way who plays what.

When it comes to fictional stories, sure, we don’t need to be up in arms over the portrayal of a person who never existed, but I do think storytellers have a responsibility to their script, whether fictional or not. Look at A Fantastic Woman, the Chilean film that won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year—it’s a story about a transgender woman whose partner dies, and the lead is played by a trans woman; it’s a staggeringly beautiful, painful film and she brings so much truth and depth to it. Could a cisgender actress have played it well enough? Yeah probably, but to see an actual trans woman in that role made it that much more poignant. I think it all comes down to honouring what your script calls for. If there are no identifying characteristics to paint a person with a specific identity or ethnicity, go crazy! Cast whomever the hell you want. You might remember a bit of an uproar when a black woman was cast as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter play ‘The Cursed Child.’ JK Rowling shut that shit down by saying she never explicitly said in any of the books that Hermione was white. So anything goes. But when you’re casting for a person named, say, Motoko Kusanagi, well you should really know what to do with that one.

GH: Which is why Cameron Crowe hiring Emma Stone to play Alison Ng seems so confounding. Because he wrote the script! He decided to make the character vaguely Asian, and then he decided to cast a decidedly not Asian actress to play the part. I realize this rant is four years late, but seriously, the dude was running shit, so he had some options.

Remember I stuck a pin in something a while back? I’m returning to it now. Last thing: if we look over the examples we’ve mentioned, the ones where the internet got the angriest were ones that starred…wait for it…women! I think that, more than a genuine desire to give another LGBT actress a chance, was why Ruby Rose got harassed about her part. I could certainly be wrong about this but I wonder if the fact that Rose is sexually desirable to men made her an easier target. It’s as if the male gaze affected the way non-males saw her. How could she be lesbian enough if she’s a sex symbol? Scarlett Johansson, too: when she was first put on blast about the trans role, she pointed to the fact that men had not only played trans women without controversy, they were critically praised and given awards. It seems that women might be an easier target for policing than men.

PB: Hm, you raise an interesting question. That’s probably some truth to that but men certainly aren’t immune: Jared Leto got his fair share of social media hate around Dallas Buyers Club, and most recently, Jack Whitehall’s been getting an earful because of Disney’s choice to cast him, a straight dude, as their first openly gay character in Jungle Cruise. So, I don’t really know. Did you ever watch Felicity Huffman’s Transamerica? It was aaaages ago but I don’t think she got too much flak for playing a trans woman? (Oh, and she got nominated for an Oscar too.) So who knows what pushes certain people’s buttons and why.

Going back to what I said earlier about how it’s tough to figure out where to draw the line: I think everyone comes at this with a distinct viewpoint dictated by their own biases, sense of right vs wrong, overall sense of inequity etc, and so the lines we draw are pretty arbitrary. What makes sense in one situation might not in another, and what makes sense to one person might not to another. I think ultimately what matters is that whoever is making those decisions and greenlighting some of these controversial projects should be able to defend their position, whatever that might be. I think I could respect that. As long as their position isn’t just, ‘well you see we wanted a beautiful, bankable, A-list actress for the role…’

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