Does On-Screen Representation Matter?

“Representation matters” seems to be the unofficial catchphrase for this moment in media. If people see themselves on TV, it can change their lives. It’s the reason why moviegoers consider shows and movies that have diverse casts, such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Black-ish, “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Black Panther,” so important. But accurate representation is not always important to everyone, and some don’t need an actor or actress to share the exact same identity as the character they are portraying.

The opinions of the Foghorn are varied on this subject.

For some of us, accurate representation is just not that important. What makes an actor or actress good is their ability to play a variety of roles. Someone who plays a character doesn’t always necessarily have to match the exact identity of the character since it doesn’t take away from the legitimacy of the role. Even if an actor’s background does not exactly match their character, their role can still have a positive impact on that community.

There are examples of male actors playing transgender women that we would argue are positive representations. One example would be Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club,” for which he won Best Supporting Actor at the 86th Academy Awards. This representation of a trans woman did not take away from the “legitimacy” of the character. In fact, this movie, and specifically Leto’s acting, brought the trans movement out into the mainstream just a little more. Of course, if the casting director decided to actually cast a trans woman as the character, that would have been great –– but Leto did not make that role any less powerful.

This is not a black and white issue. Those on the staff who are willing to give more leeway don’t think that a character’s identity should have no influence on who is casted to play them. Those who are for accuracy don’t think that an actor or actress needs to be the exact same person as a character. For example, while “Dallas Buyers Club” may have been an example where an actor not matching the character worked out, recent controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson being cast as a transgender man in “Rub & Tug” proves that inaccurate casting can be harmful for some.

While we might not think we necessarily need transgender performers to play every single transgender role, we think there should be a proportional number of transgender performers playing trans and non-trans characters. Representation is not just about accuracy, it’s about exposure. There are a minority of roles for people who aren’t straight or white, so actors of these groups often have more limited opportunities to get roles. An actress like Scarlett Johansson is not struggling so much in her own career that she should take roles away from people of that group; she’s not living paycheck to paycheck.

While there are some on the staff who do not prioritize accurate representation, there are some who consider it to be very important.

First of all, a lot of us believe that casting is not always done based on impact but rather on money. Scarlett Johansson was most likely cast in “Rub & Tug” because she is an Avenger –– not because she would give a better performance. People would see a familiar face and go to the movie. This is reflective of the flawed idea that telling white or cisgender stories appeal wider than thoughtful, specific stories. If you look at the popularity of “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” you can see that new stories sell well.

It’s hard to have this conversation without context about how marginalized groups have been portrayed by majority groups in the media. Since the early 19th century, white actors playing people of color have always done so for the amusement of white people. These characters are not included in order to tell their stories, but instead so that the audience could laugh at the way Asian people look or speak, or make fun of African Americans. With trans people, their identity has often been the butt of jokes. Marginalized people have always had their identities exploited for the amusement and even fetishization of other people. From minstrel shows during the Jim Crow era where white people performed blackface to the mockery of a transgender character in “Zoolander 2” where one of the characters asks the trans character if she has a “hot dog or a bun” and says that All is marrying “hermself.”

It’s important to prioritize the opinions of these marginalized people when it comes to representation –– after all, filmmakers are going to be profiting off of telling their stories, so there needs to be care in how these stories are told. Not only is diversity in representation important, but it is equally important to have a diversity of narratives. It’s possible to have a movie with gay characters or characters of color without the plot being about their identities. They have their frustrations, have friendships and fall in love just like anyone else.

The staff of the Foghorn has a variety of opinions on this issue, but we’re all united in hoping that every piece of media treats every group with respect.

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