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Stranger than Fiction (Part 1)

July 21, 2018

"It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them." ~ Aldous Huxley, Island

 

Show of hands, who among you in the audience knows the difference between reality and fiction?  Pretty sure everyone's hand just went up; and if it didn't, I'd probably recommend you seek professional help for your schizophrenia.

 

Most people, though, I think we can all agree, are able to tell the difference between the two; and moreover, we all know that actors are just acting.  Sometimes, especially if they're really good at what they do, we can forget it's an act and get caught up in suspension of disbelief in the moment, which is what we love about great acting and great actors; but when we pull away and stop to think about it for two seconds, we realize it's not actually real.  We know those people aren't actually in love (most of the time), no one really died (unless it's a snuff film), and the actors typically don't hate each other.

 

At least, not in the same way they do on screen.

 

Ok, so Hollywood drama aside, the larger point is that no one should be surprised that actors get paid to pretend to be other people for a living.  Yet a lot of news stories have come out recently about this actor or that being heavily criticized for their apparent insensitivity in playing a certain demographic they themselves don't share.

 

This is nothing new, of course.  Going all the way back to the early days of film, you have debates about whether or not it's racist for white actors to dress in blackface when there are plenty of colored actors to fill the role, and then later given them bit parts as token characters.

 

At the time, it was argued that even having the appearance of blacks on screen was itself a step towards progress compared to what many of them suffered before and after that period and the quite literal attempts at erasure in the form of subjugation, enslavement, and murder.  Maybe these depictions, that we now consider highly racist, were a necessary evil for blacks to advance themselves, and maybe they weren't; but at least we can all rest easy knowing that, nowadays, we've become more enlightened and don't do that sort of thing anymore.  Right?

 

Oh, I guess not. 

 

Fact check me on this, but I don't seem to recall anyone taking to the streets and calling for Robert Downey Jr. to be fired for dressing up in blackface.  I know I certainly didn't, nor would I want him to be.

 

Maybe the lack of public outcry is cuz he's on the left and has the "right think" opinion.  Maybe it's because we all knew it was just acting and the only reason he even did it in the first place was as a humorous social commentary, as evidenced by how his character was heavily criticized within the film, so maybe it wasn't necessary.  People knew what it meant.

 

Or maybe I just missed it and this is one example that flew under the radar.

 

Apologies in advance to Robert Downey Jr. if I just ruined your career with this article.  I didn't mean to cause problems.  I really like you as an actor and as a human being, even if I disagree with your politics.

 

Unfortunately, other actors weren't so fortunate as to escape criticism.

 

The most recent example that comes to mind is that of Henry Cavill who expressed in an interview his reservations about dating, being a high-profile individual in a world where unfortunately false rape accusations occur far too frequently.

 

Cavill took a lot of heat for this, especially from feminists in the #MeToo movement.  People were quick to jump down his throat for this statement on social media, suggesting that he was a terrible person.  A few even suggested that maybe he should be dating if he can't tell the difference between flirting and rape.  Many of these women (and their beta male allies) suffer from a chronic case of tone deafness and a tremendous lack of empathy.  A fact that seems to have escaped their notice.

 

As the Switzerland of identity politics, allow me to translate for those of you who don't get it.

 

Yes, there are many men out there who can't tell the difference between rape and flirting; but the reason Henry Cavill said what he said is because apparently neither can a lot of women!!

 

This may come as a surprise to many of you, especially those who think all women are saints and all men are evil; but there are actually women out there who are crazy or vindictive.  Who would lie to harm a man or who at least maybe aren't thinking as clearly as they should when they say and do things.  In fact, I'm sure a lot of the same women who are upset at men like Henry Cavill for having doubts about dating in this day and age are probably among them.

 

Not all of them, of course, but not none either.

 

If you want an example of what I'm talking about, look no further than Aziz Ansari.  Say what you want about the man, but his career was destroyed because a woman had a bad date and sent mixed signals but then later claimed he'd sexually assaulted her.  The #MeToo movement was quick to decry him as another bad actor, but fortunately there were also many women who rightly saw through her bullshit.

 

Shit like this only hurts genuine victims of rape and assault.

 

I think it's clear to anyone who investigates the matter that those women who continue to condemn him for this care more about pushing an ideologically-driven narrative than they do about facts and justice.

 

Or take the case of Jian Gomeshi, who actually went to trial for sexual assault allegations, but it later came out that the woman who accused him had still been sending him flirtatious emails after he'd supposedly violated her.  Does that sound like something a genuine victim would do?

 

 

Now, I didn't know who either of these men were until the internet made them infamous.  They were fortunate enough to have corroboration for their stories, but how many other men weren't so lucky to avoid having their lives destroyed by pernicious harpies such as this?  How many more men share the same sentiment as Henry Cavill as a result of the chill effect from even hearing stories like this and not wanting to subjected to the same bullshit?

 

I don't know how many more there are, but I know these can't be the only two.  I wrote about this at length in my articles on sexual relations and feminism, so I won't belabor the point here.  Just try to have some empathy for the other side is all I'm saying.

 

Rape occurs.  False rape allegations occur.  Both are bad and ruin people's lives.  Let's come together as a society to treat them as equally serious issues and not make our willingness to believe or disbelief people a matter of what happens to be between their legs.

Returning to issues of demographic hijacking specifically, though, we find Scarlett Johansson has recently been accused of whitewashing the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action Ghost in the Shell movie, and then publicly shamed into stepping down from the role of an overweight transgender man named Dante Gill in Rub & Tug.

 

The former is sort of an interesting case and not just because I'm a huge Ghost in the Shell fan.

 

It's something of an outlier because the movie is based off an anime.  For those not familiar with the genre, one of the most iconic features of anime in terms of style are the trademark large eyes.  You might be wondering why anime characters have big eyes as part of the aesthetic.  The answer dates all the way back to the 1950s and '60s with the creation of the Astro Boy anime and manga by artist and director Osamu Tezuka.

 

Astro Boy wasn't the first anime, though Osamu is often regarded as the father of manga and the Walt Disney of Japan.  It was the first serial to make the genre popular and, early Disney films were among Osamu's biggest influences in terms of art style, which, wait for it ... featured stylistically large eyes as one of their trademarks.  Astro Boy then set a precedent for the rest of the genre that still persists to this day, with even American cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender or Teen Titans borrowing influence from their Japanese counterparts to form a sort of pseudo-anime.

 

Why is this important?

 

Because cross-pollination of aesthetics has a huge precedence in anime and manga.  There is tremendous variation within the genre, of course; but perhaps due to the American influences on its origins, many of the characters in a lot of anime and manga actually resemble white westerners even if they're supposed to be ethnically Japanese.

 

That's entirely subject to audience interpretation, of course, but I think it's pretty clear to any observer that there's tremendous variation even among iterations of the same character:

 

Second from the left looks the most Japanese, but the one in the middle is the most iconic.

 

This doesn't just apply to Motoko either.  If you look at another famous Ghost in the Shell character, Daisuke Aramaki, his design is clearly heavily inspired by philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer in keeping with the series' high-brow themes and story.

 

Ok, but this is still whitewashing, right?  I mean, anime aesthetics aside, it's pretty obvious that Motoko is supposed to be Japanese while ScarJo clearly isn't.

 

Well, in this case, you can't really set the aesthetics aside since it's the visual component that's the main criticism.  It's that ScarJo doesn't look ethnically Japanese ... but then, neither does Motoko herself (at least not the most popular variant) and you can ask the Japanese themselves as apparently a lot of them had no problem with the casting.  Many even thought she looked the part more than a Japanese actress would.

 

Then again, can we really trust the Japanese on this, given how racist and xenophobic they are when it comes to things like their immigration policy?  Oh, wait.  I forgot.  Minorities can't be racist.  Damn, identity politics sure is confusing.

 

I'm kidding of course.  Obviously anyone can be racist, but in this case a lot of the outrage is coming from non-Asians, so I guess that reduces this to virtue signaling and feelings of offense on behalf of others.

 

Obviously, this is not to suggest that whitewashing doesn't occur in Hollywood.  It clearly does and is clearly problematic, for reasons of artistic integrity if nothing else, let alone social justice.  The Last Airbender is a clear example since Sokka and Katara are both very visibly ethnic inuit in the show but cast as white in the film.  And I say that as a general M. Knight Shayamalan fan.

 

Yes, I said it.  Don't judge me!

 

Matt Damon's The Wall is another movie that can fuck right off with its anachronistic bullshit.

Ok, so maybe I've managed to convince you on Ghost in the Shell, but what about Rub & Tug?  That's obviously very different, right?  Yes, but my defense is likewise very different.

 

Remember we were talking before about the advancement of blacks in film, but somehow Robert Downey Jr. got a pass for blackface?  I contend that Scarlet Johansson's role here is similar to that.  You don't have to like it, and I'm right there with you in terms of wishing we lived in a better world.  I'm just pointing out the reality of the situation so you can hopefully refocus your efforts and energies elsewhere and have it be more productive.

 

ScarJo's another example of someone whom I like, but for their politics:

 

 

In this video, she's making the mistake you're all making right now, which is petty infighting against people who are otherwise on your team.  She thinks she's being helpful when in reality she's just creating wedge issues and division.

 

Still, she means well just like I'm sure you all mean well.  But there's a difference between meaning well and doing well.

 

Apart from her politics, however, I think ScarJo's a very talented actress in her own right.  She obviously fits the stereotypical conception of the ideal feminine, which in itself comes with many unearned advantages, but it also makes you a target for envious people who don't measure up, which I suppose is one major disadvantage.

 

Whether we care to admit it or not, attractiveness (of either gender) affects our perception of people in terms of their honesty, trustworthiness, and competence.  It's just how we're wired.  It has nothing to do with actual reality, it's all about perception.  Fortunately for us, perception is the order of the day. 

 

Those same neural pathways also irrationally draw us in to see a movie featuring someone we like and part with our hard-earned dollars.  It's why people willingly pay Brad Pitt $40 million, for instance, to make even a crappy B-movie while you wouldn't get a tenth of that to star in a major blockbuster.  It's also why movies tend to cast people who are prettier than their real-world counterparts.  Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street or Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex come to mind.

 

Again, we're hard-wired to like looking at attractive people.  That's just the reality of it.

 

Similarly, competence begets competence as those with a track record of success are given still more opportunities, at least until they fuck up, as we saw in the case of Mel Gibson.  Competence can inspire greatness in others, but because of this self-feeding mechanism, it can also breed contempt among those who lack it.  Chronic failures, losers, and incompetents will often attack these figures out of jealousy, crying foul play, undermining their achievements, and insisting that the only reason these people got where they are is by stealing what they have from someone else.

 

It's why you should approach any accusation or scandal with cautious skepticism because a lot of people just want their fifteen minutes of fame and, because their worldview is one in which success can only come at someone else's expense, they will often find theirs by those means as well.
 

Returning to the topic at hand, a lot of activists are saying this business with ScarJo is a form of trans erasure, which I think is hyperbolic rhetoric designed to tap into deep emotional feelings as if this were the fucking Holocaust.  I think it's manipulative, but at the same time, I do at least understand what they mean they say things like that.  For those of you following at home, allow me to translate.  What they really mean is this denies trans people opportunities.  That trans people should be able to play - at the very least - trans roles, if not other roles in order to help provide an authentic experience.

 

While I do agree that any marginalized people should be allowed more opportunities in society, I have two major problems with the way in which this whole thing is being handled.

 

Firstly, I would argue that the trans community just shot itself in the foot with this issue and I predict this movie will now tank as a result.  If the issue is lack of visibility, ScarJo is a big name actress who would have drawn tons of people to see it.  Maybe not as many as, say, The Avengers, but more than otherwise would have were it you or I playing the role of Dante.  You'd have a certain class of people who are fans of hers who'd go to see it solely because it's a ScarJo movie and, in so doing, walk away at having gotten to see a glimpse of what the life of a trans person is like.

 

That would have been a novel experience for a number of them that likely helped shift society in a more progressive and trans-inclusive direction long-term.

 

Instead, those people aren't going to go see it now because she's not in it, which means the opportunity to extend empathy and tolerance is ultimately hampered because of a few short-sighted moral busybodies.

 

But wait, I hear you say, we should be giving those roles to trans people in order to give them the opportunity to become big name stars like ScarJo.  Many of them face discrimination and violence as it is and have trouble getting jobs, let alone becoming famous, so it's not exactly an even playing field cuz of systemic reasons.  To which I say, I'm all for improving visibility and acceptance of trans actors, but you're pitting two of your own paths towards attaining that success against one another.

 

And I would argue, you probably chose the worse option in this case.

 

Now, I understand that's a provocative statement, so allow me to darksplain it for you.  Supposing you now put a fat trans actor in the role, and let's suppose they even do really well - better acting than ScarJo.  Great so far, except that, because of the way in which you went about it, now a lot of people who would have gone to see the film won't, meaning the visibility this actor could have had is a lot less simply cuz so many people are pissed off at you or turned off by your alienating identity politics.  They'd rather throw their hands up like Henry Cavill and say fuck it.

 

But those are just a bunch of sexist transphobes, I hear you say.

 

Right!  And those are exactly the sort of people who most need to go see this film, but how many of them probably won't now?  Maybe the trans actor does well enough cuz you get a lot of fellow trans people to come out in mass to see this movie but they're already on board.  Their reasons for seeing it are more about empowerment and visibility rather than confronting transphobia.  So what you've effectively done is create an echo chamber and hurt your own cause in the long run when what you need to do is expand your audience and give other people a reason to see it.

 

More importantly, you need to give them a reason to care about it long enough to seed whatever point you're trying to make.  Black Panther and Spiderman: Homecoming are perfect examples of diversity done right.

 

Again, I just wanna reiterate, I'm all for trans actors getting work and having more opportunities, both as trans people and in other roles; I'm simply pointing out the collateral damage your tactics are doing to your own cause and how this is a pretty poor choice of hill to die on.

 

 

Being anonymous, there's no way for you to tell whether I'm saying all this for or

against my own interests, which means you'll have to actually think about it.

 

Maybe there's something I'm just not understanding about this issue and I'm more than happy to listen, but it doesn't seem like a good strategy to me.

 

The second problem I have with this is, it's a slippery slope.  If we're going to say that only people of a particular demographic can play that demographic so as to provide an authentic experience, then why shouldn't we extend that logic to everything?  So now, only veterans can play combat roles, only police can do crime dramas, only those who went to med school can play hospital dramas, only scientists can play science roles, only rich people can play elites, and no one can play as anything magical since that's not something that exists.

 

Which is a real potch for me as a fantasy author, I've gotta say.

(And that one very clearly is in my own self-interest.)

 

You might be thinking, "Great!  More opportunities for marginalized people!" except that sort of ignores the whole point of what acting is.  Recall I said in the beginning, we all know the difference between reality and fantasy and we all know actors are just acting.  So already, we know that what we're getting isn't an authentic experience.

 

Some of you probably think I'm being heavy-handed with this, but really I'm just taking your arguments to their logical conclusion.  How do you get an authentic experience for things that clearly are pure fantasy and don't exist in the real world?  You can ground it in reality (which is what I try to do) but no matter what, there will still be parts that are clearly fabrications, and that's the point.

 

Even in so-called realism, you're still making shit up, you're still lying to the audience, if only by virtue of selective editing and picking and choosing what to focus on and what to leave out.

 

The alternative is to just do away with fiction entirely, which means no one gets any acting job.

 

But I mean, it's what has to be done in order to create that authentic experience, right?  People are incapable of empathy or pretending.  There's no actor good enough to trick you into thinking they're really a mailman or a teacher or a parent when they're not, so clearly they can't pretend to be different genders, races, and orientations either.

 

If that's what your after, maybe confront Rachel Dolezal and Shaun King on their inauthenticity.