Search Results for: ghost in the shell

Being Asian in Hollywood: Actors, directors, and creators talk representation

(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)
(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)

Representation in Hollywood is an issue by itself, but Asian representation in Hollywood is near non-existent. With the state of Hollywood being that black equates to “diversity” (despite there being more types of diversity out there than just being black) and Asian characters are still overrun with stereotypes or whitewashing, Asian actors and actresses have had a tough uphill battle in breaking through the glass ceiling.

JUST ADD COLOR is all about exploring how all types of diversity are showcased in Hollywood, so I thought it would be fantastic to have an ongoing series called POC in Hollywood. First up, the Asian American experience in Hollywood. In this longform piece, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues and biases plaguing Asian creatives in Hollywood.

This is a longform, so if you’d like to jump to specific parts, here’s the table of contents:

Whiteness as the default

IMDB
IMDB

Historically, Hollywood has used Asian locales and people as props, while white characters are given layered characteristics. In short, white characters have been treated as humans, while everyone and everything else are only developed in stereotypes.

The most recent examples of this include The Birth of the Dragon, in which a white character is used to frame Bruce Lee’s biopic, Doctor Strange, which sees Tilda Swinton playing an Asian role and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, which is a white character used to exploit a stereotypical Asian mysticism, Ghost in the Shell, which uses Japanese culture to frame Scarlett Johansson as The Major and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, which features India as a backdrop for white characters and Dev Patel playing a stereotypical Indian character.

“What’s particularly silly about The Birth of the Dragon is that they invented a fictional white character thinking that that would be what North American audience would want,” wrote Quentin Lee, The Unbidden director and founder of Margin Films in an email interview. “The filmmakers obviously fell flat on their faces. Not only it wasn’t historically accurate for the story, the film ended up insulting Bruce Lee and the audience who would support it. It was a creative misfire.”

Chris Tashima, an Academy-winning director for the 1998 short film Visas and Virtue and co-founder of Cedar Grove Productions, wrote that while he hasn’t seen The Birth of the Dragon yet, he found the basis of the film “ridiculous.”

“It’s understandable, why this has been the practice—being that traditionally, decision makers have been white males, and like anyone else, will want to see stories about themselves, and that audiences have traditionally been thought of as young, white males,” he wrote. “However, all of that is changing. It has been changing for a while, and it’s easy to see where it’s going: towards a diverse world. That’s an old practice and you’d think Hollywood would want to project, and put themselves on the cutting edge, and be more inclusive. It’s old, and tired, and more and more, I think audiences will want to see something different, something more truthful.”

“I think the overarching theme that runs through how Hollywood/the West represents POCs has to do with the ease with which they are able to strip POCs of agency over their own stories,” wrote Kesav Wable, Brooklyn-based actor, writer, 2011 HBO American Black Film Festival finalist for his short film, For Flow and Sundance lab short-listed screenwriter for a script about a Pakistani boxer wrongfully accused of planning a terror attack.

“This may come across as a bit exaggerated or radical, but I do believe that there is a link between white imperialist concepts such as ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘white man’s burden,’ which validated a lot of the literal takings from POCs that happened throughout earlier periods in civilized history, and now, in a media-hungry world where information, content, and stories are the most valuable currencies, there is an analogous “taking” of the narratives that POCs have lived through. By depicting POC characters through the lens of a white character, it enables white audiences to keep POCs’ stories at arm’s length, and to not completely empathize with those characters because they are not given the complete human dignity and complexity that is afforded the white character.”

“Perhaps, this, in a way, damps down the guilt that white audiences may feel if the POCs stories/circumstances have to do with the literal takings that were exacted by their ancestors. Or it’s just good for a cheap laugh. The truly insidious effect of POCs being usurped from their own narratives is that, even many of us POCs begin to start viewing things through a white lens and stop questioning whether these stories truly represent who we are because of how pervasive white-controlled media is.”

Wable used the upcoming film Happy End, which is about a bourgeois European family living amid the current refugee crisis. “Granted, I haven’t seen the film, so it’d be presumptive of me to conclude that refugees are not conferred with dignity/complexity as characters, but the very thought that French filmmakers think that shining a light on a bourgeois family with the refugee crisis as a ‘backdrop’ can be instructive about their world, speaks volumes about what it is white people are most interested in; themselves,” he wrote. “In this case, apparently, the context is a rueful rumination on their own blindness to the refugees’ plight. Somehow the irony of the very film’s existence as a manifestation of that blindness seems to be lost on them.”

Mandeep Sethi, filmmaker and emcee, also discussed about Hollywood’s tendencies to erase non-white people from their own stories. “I think centralizing POC stories around white characters is Hollywood’s way of taking a black or brown story and making it about white people,” he said. “Our culture is full of amazing stories and histories and Hollywood loves to cherry pick what they like but leave out the real nitty gritty including the people who created, interacted, and setup that story.”

Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)
Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)

Sinakhone Keodara, founder CEO of Asian Entertainment Television and host of Asian Entertainment Tonight, wrote that Hollywood’s penchant for using whiteness as a default is “a heinous tradition that is long overdue for a change.”

“Rather than trying to normalize Asian presence on screen to a wide American audience, Hollywood often goes the tired, well-worn and ‘safe’ route of using a white character in an attempt to more easily relate the character to a majority white American audience.  It’s cheap and unnecessary, because the proper and more effective way of relating a character to an audience is writing a character with emotional depth,” he said. “Ethnicity informs and colors our individual and community experiences, but emotion transcends ethnic boundaries.  With political correctness aside, Hollywood needs to stop engaging in a form of neo-emotional and neo-psychological colonialism against people of color, especially Asians by injecting whiteness into our stories.”

“I think that centralizing PoC stories around white characters is always going to happen as long as the people telling these stories are white,” wrote Asia Jackson, an actress, model and content creator. “What Hollywood needs is not only diversity on-camera, but to also make greater efforts to allow filmmakers of color to tell their own stories.”

Jodi Long, an actress who was a castmember of the first Asian American TV sitcom All-American Girl and member of the actors branch of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote that while whiteness as the default is the reality in Hollywood, a study shows a much needed change in film. “I just saw a new study The Inclusion Quotient done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media where the reality in terms of box office is changing, where women and diverse actors in lead roles are now performing extremely well,” she wrote. “Money talks in Hollywood but we still have to get beyond the implicit (unconscious) bias that factors into which projects get greenlit based on outmoded ways of thinking.”

Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)
Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)

Kunjue Li, Ripper Street actress and founder of China Dolls Productions Ltd., also addressed how money rules Hollywood, despite Hollywood not making the audience demand actually work for them financially. “I don’t think [whitewashing] is the right thing to do, and second of all, I don’t think it’s very commercial,” she said. “…[I]f they want to sell to Chinese audiences, which is the second biggest film market, then they need to tell a Chinese story…I think you have to tell a Chinese story [with] a Chinese cast.”

“If the film [was] an an American-Chinese co-production, [it would] actually help with the film itself because then it doesn’t have to go through the quota system…which means that only 30 percent of foreign films are allowed to show in China markets every year. If they do it as a co-production, then they get 1/3 of Chinese funding, but they have to have 1/3 of a Chinese [cast]. They’ll have one-third of Chinese funding, they’ll have domestic showings, they don’t have to go through the quota system, it’s much more feasible. Commercially, [whitewashing] doesn’t even work. I don’t understand why people keep doing that.”

Next: The pain of exoticism

3 Ways the Live-Action “Mulan” Film Could Be a Hit, If Disney Listens to the Advice

Disney (Twitter)
Disney (Twitter)

Disney is continuing its live-action bent by making the rumor of a live-action version of Mulan movie true. The studio officially announced that the film, based on the studio’s animated 1998 hit, is in the works. Cue the anxiety, and rightfully so; Asian characters are the least showcased group in movies and in television. The penchant for Hollywood to not only showcase Asian characters, combined with their penchant to whitewash and cast white actors as leads in movies with mostly Asian casts, such as Matt Damon’s The Great Wall, has many people already upset at the prospect of Disney ruining a live-action Mulan film.

To that end, nearly 90,000 people have already signed a petition asking for proper casting when making this film. Social media reacted to the news of the film and the petition like this:

The petition and the sheer amount of signers will hopefully get Disney’s attention. To go along with that, here’s some free advice to Disney when creating this film.

1. Actually cast Chinese and Chinese-American actors. Specifically Chinese and Chinese-American actors.

This seems like it would be common knowledge, seeing how the film’s story is one from Chinese legend. But you never know about Hollywood; they cast Scarlett Johannsson as The Major in Ghost in the Shell after all.

It’s also heavily important that Disney specifically hire Chinese and/or Chinese-American actors. Hiring Asian actors who aren’t Chinese reinforces the idea that the pan-Asian experience is an interchangeable one, when it’s not. Korean culture isn’t the same as Japanese culture, which isn’t the same as Chinese culture. Also, interchanging one Asian actor with another is quite offensive: many Japanese were offended when 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha cast its main leads with Chinese actresses—Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Li Gong, Tsai Chin. There’s also quite a number of other non-Japanese Asian actors in a film depicting a Japanese story.

Folks on Twitter have given tons of free casting advice to Disney:

It would behoove Disney to actually look at the suggestions and cast accordingly.

2. Hire Chinese consultants (and actually listen to them)

From my cursory research, it is unclear if Disney actually used consultants adept in ancient China, particularly the Tang Dynasty (one of the dynasties it’s believed the Legend of Hua Mulan comes from, as it’s not exactly clear which dynasty the story originated). But if going by this portion of the film’s Wikipedia page says anything:

In its earliest stages, the story was originally conceived as a Tootsie-like romantic comedy film where Mulan, who was a misfit tomboy that loves her father, is betrothed to Shang whom she has not met. On her betrothal day, her father Fa Zhou carves her destiny on a stone tablet in the family temple, which she shatters in anger, and runs away to forge her own destiny…In November 1993, Chris Sanders, who had just finished storyboard work on The Lion King, was hopeful to work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame until Schumacher appointed him to work on Mulan instead…Acting as Head of Story, Sanders grew frustrated with the romantic comedy aspect of the story, and urged producer Pam Coats to be more faithful to the original legend by having Mulan leave home because of the love for her father…This convinced the filmmakers to decide to change Mulan’s character in order to make her more appealing and selfless.

It’s that they either didn’t have consultants or decided against learning from their counsel.

Also showing Disney’s lack of trusting consultants is how dangerously close the “matchmaker” makeup looks to Japanese geisha makeup, as well as the fact that Disney had also hired consultants for their 1995 hit, Pocahontas. However, they didn’t actively use the consultants to make a more historically-accurate film. To quote The Los Angeles Times back in 1995:

“This is a nice film–if it didn’t carry the name ‘Pocahontas,'” says Shirely Little Dove Custalow McGowan, a key consultant on the movie who teaches Native American education at schools, including the University of Virginia. “Disney promised me historical accuracy, but there will be a lot to correct when I go into the classrooms.”

Sonny Skyhawk, founder of the Pasadena-based Ameriacn Indians in Film, is peeved that the film’s producer ignored his offer of help. “With few exceptions, the movie industry hasn’t got it right,” he explains. “And Hollywood has a long track record of not letting us see the product until it’s too late to make a difference.”

If Disney wants a live-action Mulan film to become a success, they should heed the word of Chinese consultants who will be able to steer them in the right direction. Just because Disney is the most powerful studio in the country, if not the world, doesn’t mean it knows everything.

Related: Recapping #WhitewashedOUT and the excitement for “Crazy, Rich Asians”

3. Take the Disney-isms out of this film

This sounds pretty pointed, but all of the quirks that Disney puts in its films need to be gone from Mulan. Disney consistently works from the viewpoint of middle-aged, straight white men “old boys club.” This point of view is something that ailed PocahontasThe Princess and the Frog, and in some ways, Mulan itself, even though they thankfully had the ability to see that Tootsie was not the right way to go with Mulan. To combat this, Disney needs to wake up and see the world outside of its mouse-eared tower. Disney needs to get in the trenches with this film, and make not a Disneyfied version of China, but a family-friendly tale that still adheres to its traditional Chinese roots. Basically, Disney just needs to do its best to make a faithful representation of a centuries-old story that also highlights a well-rounded representation of an often-stereotyped and underrepresented group. It isn’t a lot to ask, in all honesty. The commitment to do this, though, is what’s often the toughest thing for studios to adhere to.

BONUS: Address Shang’s sexuality

We gotta talk about this. When did Shang fall in love with Mulan? She wasn’t ever out of drag for long in the movie, so by just timing alone, it would seem that Shang fell in love with Mulan as Ping. Am I right or am I wrong? Can we ask B.D. Wong, Shang’s voice actor, this question? In my headcanon, Shang is either gay or bisexual. That’s the only way the love story can make sense to me.

Related: Queer Coding: Shang (Disney’s Mulan)

What do you think about the live-action Mulan film? Give your opinions in the comments section below! Also, if you like what I’ve had to say about the importance of consulting, sign up for notification of my upcoming character consulting service, Monique Jones Consulting!

JUST ADD COLOR’s Rumi Online Roundtable with Mihrimah Irena, Rana Tahir, Imran Siddiquee, Nora Rahimian and Evadney Petgrave

Jalal al-Din Mohammad Balkhi, the Sufi mystic and popular 13th century Persian poet better known as Rumi, is going to become a Hollywood superstar. Great; we’re getting diversity in storytelling, right? It would appear that it’s only a mirage. Despite the film focusing on a popular Middle Eastern historical figure, and despite screenwriter David Franzoni stating that he’s working on a script that will “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in western cinema by charting the life of the great Sufi scholar,” Franzoni still gave the suggestion that a white actor would play Rumi, such as Leonardo DiCaprio. Franzoni also suggested that someone like Robert Downey, Jr. would be great to play Shams of Tabriz, who was Rumi’s spiritual teacher.

To be fair, producer Stephen Joel Brown said that it’s too early to discuss casting, saying that the star caliber of a DiCaprio and Downey is what they’re looking for in their prospective leads. But the mere suggestion of DiCaprio and Downey, white actors, and conflating that with star power seems to suggest that once again, Hollywood has the potential to go the whitewashing route. That fear and anger resulted in the hashtag #RumiWasntWhite.

However, despite the backlash, there was another point of view voiced on Twitter. One thread in particular suggested that even though some Americans might be up in arms about the Rumi film, people overseas in Turkey, where Rumi was buried, wouldn’t be offended by DiCaprio playing Rumi; instead, they’d see it as a compliment that Hollywood wanted to give Rumi the Hollywood star treatment. However, the Afghan government is now aware of the film and are monitoring its development. Haoon Hakimi, the spokesperon for the country’s ministry of Information and Culture, told DW.com that the government is “still collecting informatoin on this issue” and that “[a]s soon as we have something, the ministry will share its views with the film makers.”

I wanted to see what potential audience members felt about this movie. So for this online roundtable (via email and Twitter direct message), we have Twitter user Mihrimah Irena, poetry writer, freelance editor and blogger Rana Tahir (rana-tahir.com), film and media critic, filmmaker, speaker and consultant Imran Siddiquee (imransiddiquee.com), music festival organizer and co-founder of global arts and culture collaborative network #CultureFix Nora Rahimian, and writer and Citrine Magazine founder/editor Evadney Petgrave.

JUST ADD COLOR: What were your immediate reactions to the news that Rumi could be played by Leonardo DiCaprio?

Mihrimah Irena : My immediate reaction was, pardon the French, WTF. literally. I was and am furious.

Rana Tahir: Honestly, I just had to roll my eyes. I love DiCaprio, I’ve been a fan since Titanic (screw everyone, that movie is a masterpiece), and I’m a fan of Rumi too. I’m not blaming either of them for this (well, I can’t blame Rumi, he’s been dead for a long time). I sincerely hope Leo turns this down. If not for us, then at least for himself: You can get other roles, Leo! Don’t taint yourself with racism!

Imran Siddiquee: I was actually surprised by how surprised I was at the news, only because you would think at this point we’d all be accustomed to such ridiculousness from Hollywood (since there have been way too many examples of this kind of whitewashing in the past year alone). But honestly, I feel like it only becomes more ridiculous the more it happens, because at some point you’re like – wait, are people really not paying attention at all? (They really aren’t).

Nora Rahimian: I was so excited for a Rumi film, in part because I was excited to see a representation of my culture that celebrated some of the parts of us I love the most: celebrations of poetry and love and beauty. That they want Leo to play the role is a symbol of the deeper whitewashing that inevitably will happen—that they’ll do—to Rumi’s story. It felt like an erasure of my people, of a denial of our cultural legacy.

Evadney Petgrave: Mainstream Hollywood’s nonsense has been getting so much attention since April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite was created, so I wasn’t too surprised when this announcement was made. Sadly, people of color are always on alert for how white people are going to try us next- this was just another one of those times. I feel like they just won’t ever get it, which is why I’m advocating for hitting them where it hurts – their pockets.

The director claims to want to affect people’s perceptions of the Middle East. What do you think of the irony that he’d choose non-Middle Eastern actors? In other words, would casting a non-Middle Eastern actor prevent the film from achieving what it aspires to?

Irena: The Middle East is rife with people of ALL skin colors – there are red haired Palestinians, blue eyed Lebanese, the list goes on. But to me, it’s the issue that he picked someone who is clearly European, who does not originate from that place and therefore doesn’t understand our history or our issues or our heritage… that to me is an issue. Look at Kingdom of Heaven– casting was right for that film and audiences in the Middle East greatly appreciated the portrayal of Saladdin by a middle eastern actor. I think the casting will cause and causes such an issue it will prevent the aspiration of this film.

Tahir: First of all, I think his premise is wrong. Making a movie about Rumi is probably not going to affect how people see the Middle East. Rumi was co-opted by white poets since Robert Bly introduced his poetry to the US in the 70’s. Often, Rumi’s poetry is divorced from his life, and more specifically, his faith. Rumi’s been whitewashed long before the idea of this movie, so to [white people] he might as well be European now.

Also, ancient depictions of the Middle East aren’t necessarily at issue when we talk about representation. Yes, it would be cool if the world knew a little more about how much Middle Eastern and Muslim societies have contributed to the world, but it’s more about the modern day representation. Highly developed games like “Call of Duty” can’t even bother to get the language right (Pakistanis speak Urdu, not Arabic!), and after all these years people still don’t get that turbans are usually worn by Sikhs not Muslims. If the director wants to help: recruit us to tell our stories as they are today, give us the platform! Want to help? Make a movie about the debacle that was Sykes-Picot. That shit has repercussions today, and he can even cast white people!

Siddiquee: I think casting a white man like DiCaprio to play this part actually would have an affect on people’s perceptions of the Middle East, in that it would further confirm/perpetuate an idea which white supremacy is always teaching us: that white men are more interesting than men of color. That white men are the heroes of history, and that people of color are only worth seeing as criminals and enemies of peace. This may not be what the creators overtly aspire to do, but I do get the sense that they aspire to make a film about Rumi for white people. That seems pretty clear to me given their comments – “He’s like Shakespeare” – and the fact that they reference Lawrence of Arabia as an inspiration. They have a particular audience in mind already and in that sense – which is a harmful, dismissive, and oppressive sense – casting Leonardo DiCaprio would help them achieve an unspoken goal.

But to your actual question, to make this casting decision would prevent the film from truly challenging stereotypes about Muslims or people from the Middle East.

Rahimian: Hollywood is very comfortable casting Middle Eastern actors as terrorists, villains, and monsters, but the fact that any positive portrayal of the region has to be done by a white actor is proof of how deeply white supremacy is embedded in our culture. The director can’t even imagine a “positive Middle East” with actual Middle Eastern people in. But what they can do is take a story that they find lucrative- Rumi is the best-selling poet in the US- and co-opt it for commercial gain. So the message is that the potential financial earnings are good enough for Hollywood, but the people, the cultural legacy, the history itself is not.

Petgrave: Almost everyone has heard or read a poem of Rumi’s, even if they don’t know his name. Yes, we do have to acknowledge people like Coleman Barks for anthologizing his work and helping bring it to the masses, but white-washing Rumi in a movie is a totally different animal. It just affirms that some white Americans think that something is not important unless they say it is. Writers, poets, and other people who love Rumi’s work would see the movie regardless of who is starring in it. In fact, this would be a Rumi movie that I will never support.

How do you think a whitewashed Rumi film would affect the fight for diversity in Hollywood?

Irena: The casting of a white actor for Rumi further exacerbates the issue of the CLEAR lack of diversity in Hollywood and shows that other people of color don’t matter and their stories and their struggles don’t matter.

Tahir: I think, and this may be the pessimist in me, that it won’t do much. There have been countless numbers of movies that were whitewashed. I mean look at what they are doing to Ghost in the Shell. Producers will continue to do this until there are real consequences. In order to have real consequences we need solidarity among a majority of moviegoers. This means that the burden (just demographically speaking) falls on white people. They are the majority of moviegoers in the U.S. according to the MPAA, and they are the ones Hollywood caters to more than anyone else. They’ve got to put their hat in the ring, so to speak.

The problem is white supremacy, the solution is white people. Ironic.

Rahimian: Rumi is one example in a long line stories that Hollywood has appropriated and whitewashed. What concerns me with this story in particular is that not much is actually known about Rumi’s life. So whatever Hollywood portrays will become fact for most people. They’re not just whitewashing history; they’re rewriting it.

Is it going to change Hollywood? No. But I think the backlash against Leo-as-Rumi reflects a shift where audiences are not just no longer accepting whitewashed films but also are demanding diversity in stories, characters, actors, and decision-makers.

Petgrave: There’s been a lot of people of all colors speaking out against this, so I think it will help to spread more light on Hollywood’s whitewashing. We are making our voices heard (and that is good), but we must do more than tweet and leave comments. Creating and sharing our own stories is the only way I believe we can have real diversity in Hollywood.

There’s a thread on Twitter about how some overseas wouldn’t see Leo-as-Rumi offensive because they might not see themselves as POC. What are your opinions on this?

Irena: I know from Pakistan and the Middle East there is a likeness and desire to have white skin and look lighter and look like those of European descent. But to me, I don’t agree with the opinion that people see themselves as white and stuff. The point is he doesn’t represent us, our heritage, our struggles, probably never even read Rumi or Hafez or any other poet from the Middle East when people from there read and learn it as soon as they are born.

Tahir:  I understand this point [in the thread] all too well. I grew up in the Middle East, in Kuwait specifically. When I lived there, I didn’t really have a problem with brown face, mostly because I never had to think about it. Two of my favorite movies are Jinnah and The Message where Christopher Lee and Anthony Quinn play brown people. What did it matter if one white guy played an Arab or Desi, when I could switch the channel and watch tons of people in the media who looked like me, or go outside and see the majority of people looked like me? I had daily representation. PoC in places where they are underrepresented don’t have that, so of course they think about representation in different ways.

But ultimately this is a cop-out. A Pakistani-American has as much right to Jinnah as a Pakistani does. Those of Arab/Turkish descent in the U.S. have as much right to think about how Rumi is represented as Turkish people. The politics change in the so-called melting pot we live in. The director is American, and he’s making an American movie which he will probably market and sell in the U.S. primarily. Dude can shove it with his excuses.

Another aside on this: do you really think Turkish people won’t be happy if someone of Turkish descent (or even an actor from Turkey) plays Rumi in a major Hollywood picture? People abroad are always noting with pride when someone like Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai Bachan, or even Omar Sharif breaks that barrier and gets into Hollywood. If the director is so concerned about people abroad, he could really give them something to root for by casting one of their own as Rumi.

Rahimian:  Race is a social construct. Ethnicity is about culture, history, etc. Color really doesn’t have to do with either. But the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that many of our countries suffered have left behind these ideas that “white is better” and set up the U.S./the West as standards to be compared to. So to say that Leo-as-Rumi is an honor is a symbol of deeply embedded internalized racism and the on-going colonial mentality.

Petgrave: Fair enough [re: the thread’s opinion]. I certainly can’t tell people what they should be offended at, but there are plenty of Middle-Eastern people who do agree that the filmmakers already have the wrong idea. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to see someone who shares Rumi’s nationality, play Rumi. It’s elementary thinking. It’s not “an honor” to have your culture mimicked by whiteness and erased. There are plenty of Middle Eastern actors that can play this role and it’s a slap in the face to them to not even be able to be involved because they’re not white American. It’s more than being the same color.

America doesn’t have a great track record with proper Middle Eastern representation. What positive impact could an American-made film about Rumi (starring a Middle Eastern actor) have on America?

Irena: If Rumi starred a Middle Eastern, it would be a start towards better portrayal of middle easterners instead of having them as always terrorists. With a major film like this, it can catalyze having better portrayals of middle eastern and Muslims and thus work towards bridging the communities together and have better inclusiveness.

Tahir: I think, again, the issue is still about modern representation. Rumi is one of the top-selling poets in the U.S. right now, but misrepresentation about Islam and Middle Eastern people in general is rampant. A movie about Rumi done well, that incorporates his culture and faith properly, could have a good impact. It might make people think more about our contributions to the world over human history, but it does little to combat stereotypes today.

Rahimian:  If done well, the film would add a counter-narrative to all the negative portrayals of Middle Easterners. It would be another representation of us. At its best, it would be an invitation for people to further explore parts of Middle Eastern culture, history, and poetry that they perhaps hadn’t thought about it before. But do I trust that this film is being created to challenge stereotypes or actually pay homage to Rumi and his culture? Not at all.

Petgrave: Rumi is well-known here. People who care about his work, will support it. People who care about accurate representation will support it. I’m not sure how the filmmakers plan to tell his story since so little is known about him, but if the film is of good quality, it will do well in the box office. Accurate representation in media will finally show us that America might just be starting to get “great.”

How do you hope Hollywood addresses the Rumi film controversy and prevent potential erasure?

Irena: I hope they address the controversy OPPOSITE of how they handled Gods of Egypt. Like at least say “Oh, we will cast this Middle Eastern person instead and apologize.”…My overall message is this—Hollywood’s casting has, since it’s very inception, is dismissive of POC and if they have POC, most of the time, they cast them for “diversity sake” or as a filler or to fulfill a negative stereotypes. Which is wrong considering the world we live in.

Tahir: I think the best thing it can do is make a lot of money and prove to filmmakers that movies featuring Middle Eastern actors as the protagonist can succeed in the market. I hope the director just realizes his mistake and casts a PoC. If not, I hope DiCaprio publicly turns this role down and uses his platform to talk about representation like he does climate change. If that doesn’t happen either, I hope people boycott and send a message with their dollar.

Siddiquee: I think it’s a plus that this call out happened now, rather than later, since the film hasn’t completed casting. Too often we find about these things after production has begun – or sometimes even when we’re sitting in the theatre watching a film (which is the worst). There’s really a simple solution for these men in power, if they’d like this conversation to go away: don’t cast Leo or Robert Downey Jr. in these roles. And then, make the effort to cast someone who isn’t white.

But, if I’m being completely honest? I’m not really confident, at this point, that people who would suggest Leo in the lead role are then going to be able to make a film about Rumi which truly works against the dominance of whiteness in Hollywood—regardless of who they ultimately cast. And so, if they haven’t already, I think the most significant thing they can do at this point is bring on a co-writer or director who is a person of color, and preferably someone from somewhere close to where Rumi was born. (I know this is a slim possibility, but one can dream).

Rahimian: Bring in Middle Eastern filmmakers, consultants, actors, directors… Let us tell our own story.

Petgrave: I hope they do the right thing and put profits aside and focus on telling and showing an accurate representation. I have no hopes that will actually happen.

Who would you cast as Rumi?

Irena: I would cast as Rumi Halit Ergenç who is a prominent Turkish Actor and who starred in a Turkish Show called Magnificent Century ( a show about Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent) that is an international sensation. Or perhaps Remi Malik from [Mr.] Robot. Or Alexander Siddig.

Tahir: Mihrimah mentioned Alexander Siddig, I second that! I thought he was the perfect person to play Doran Martell on Game of Thrones, but then they gutted the Dorne storyline. Needless to say, I’m heartbroken. Turkey’s TV game has been amazing lately. Their shows are popular all over the [Middle East]. I would be interested in seeing Halit Ergenç from the show Harem Al-Sultan play Rumi. (Also, just to clarify, I know Rumi is Persian, I’m just using Turkey because that is where he is buried and where a lot of westerners go to learn about Rumi.)

Siddiquee:  Someone like Shahab Hosseini, who just won Best Actor at Cannes, or two other men who’ve recently starred in Asghar Farhadi films, Peyman Moaadi and Ali Mosaffa, would be more than capable.

Rahimian: Honestly, couldn’t name names. But what something Imran tweeted earlier about the idea that Leo being the best possible person in the world to play this character is a symbol of white supremacy stands out. Even if the argument is, “But Leo and RDJ would draw box office crowds,” we only have to look at Bollywood and Nollywood to point out the market value of people of color in leading roles (made by and for people of color).

(And Rana, I love your point about the timeline of this film. There is a trope around the old or ancient Middle East as exotic that comes from an orientalist lens. I can easily see this film building off that, where the Middle East, and its people, would still be this exotic “other”. How does this challenge stereotypes? How does this touch on the continuity of history, of geopolitical nuances, etc? So it would completely be possible to make this film and devoid of all nuance and context.)

Petgrave: I’m not too keen on Persian and Middle-Eastern actors, but I have seen names thrown around like: Shahab Hosseini, who has won the Best Actor award at Cannes this year. The talent is out there.

Other articles to check out:

“The Hollywood bull enters Rumi’s china shop” | Aljazeera.com

“Leonardo DiCaprio as Persian poet Rumi: Gladiator screenwriter faces cries of Hollywood whitewashing” | The Telegraph

#DifferenceMakers: Andrew Pulrang and The Tyrion Test

The Bechdel Test is something that movies should always strive to abide by. As TRI director Jai Jamison told me (in an upcoming interview), the test actually provides such a low benchmark for films, but still, films routinely fail this most basic of qualifications.

For a movie to pass the test (made popular by cartoonist Allison Bechdel but attributed by Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace, as stated by Pass the Bechdel Test),  it must be able to check off these three items from the list (as quoted from the site):

1. Has to have at least two [named*] women in it
2. Who have a conversation with each other
3. About something other than a man

The test is one that has also acted as the basis for other types of inclusive tests, and Disability Thinking’s Andrew Pulrang has used it to create what he calls “The Tyrion Test,” named after one of the most visible and most complicated characters with disability, Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones.

The original version of his test, created in 2014, read as this:

1) At least one character with disabilities is involved in significant plot developments not centered on their disabilities,
2) Disabilities are depicted realistically, neither less nor more severe than they would be in real life, and
3) Disabled characters are givers as well as receivers…supportive of other characters, not just supported by them.

This year, Pulrang released a shorter version of the list:

1) Features two or more disabled characters, who
2) Talk to each other,
3) About something other than their disabilities.

Pulrang might have shortened his test, but he’s still vying for the nuances he prescribed in his original test. “I still think it also matters whether disabled characters have real agency, whether or not they are fully developed, and what kind of role they play in their stories,” he wrote. “I also think it’s good when writers avoid leaning on a few tired disability tropes and stereotypes.”

Hollywood would do well to take heed to this new test and actually apply it, because hiring non-disabled actors is not only lazy, but it’s also denying actors with disabilities the chance to achieve their Hollywood dreams. Equally as lazy is writing either writing disabled characters as “inspiration porn” or excluding them all together, when people with disabilities are just as much part of the population as anyone else. As I wrote in my Ghost in the Shell Nerds of Color piece, Hollywood is supposed to be about examining the human condition. Why does it make more sense to Hollywood to examine all of the human condition, which also includes the experiences of those with disabilities, with non-disabled actors?

(I know there are arguments about how it’s easier for Hollywood to hire able-bodied actors, but to that I say: Why does Hollywood have to be defined by ableism and ableist spaces? What’s the answer to that question?)

The fact that actors with disabilities aren’t considered and able-bodied actors are preferred goes part and parcel with the assumptions that 1) people with disabilities only exist for the emotional development of able-bodied people and 2) well-rounded people with disabilities don’t exist. (You can read more about the common misconceptions held about people with disabilities here). Instead of reducing characters with disabilities to a very abelist, patronizing perspective, writers should use The Tyrion Test and other tests as a way to see if their stories hold up to the standards of inclusiveness. To that end, Hollywood could easily fix this their ableist perception towards actors with disabilities if they wanted, and starting with a simple test like Pulrang’s adaptation could act as a great reminder to give actors with disabilities the chances they deserve.

Another article to check out:

The disability community’s Bechdel Test | Al Jazeera America

Recapping #WhitewashedOUT and the excitement for “Crazy, Rich Asians”

Edited to reflect the full team behind #whitewashedOUT

JUST ADD COLOR has been doing some major coverage about the whitewashing of Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, and if you read my virtual roundtable with The Nerds of Color’s Keith Chow and Afronerd and Renegade Nerd’s Claire Lanay, you might have seen some mention of Chow’s hashtag project, #whitewashedOUT. The hashtag went live Tuesday, and it sparked such a wave of responses, it tracked to number two in the Twitter trends.

Since it’s been a few days (and since I’ve been busy with my own Ghost in the Shell article for The Nerds of Color), let’s recap what happened this week.

The power of #whitewashedOUT

The hashtag #whitewashedOUT was a combined effort of Chow, Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor of Library & Information Science at St. Catherine University, writer Ellen Oh (@elloellenoh), writer Amitha Knight, writer Sona Charaipotra, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Terry Hong , “Bookrageous” podcaster and writer Preeti Chhibber (@runwithskizzers), surgeon and writer Ilene Wong Gregorio, writer Thien-Kim Lam, and Written in the Stars author Aisha Saeed. (It’s also worth noting that many listed here are also a part of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, with Oh as the CEO and President.) Comedian and actress Margaret Cho also contributed to the hashtag with her commentary and support.

Everyone came out in droves to support it and to offer their own experiences with racism, lack of representation, and struggles for self-acceptance.

Stars like Kerry Washington, Jackée Harry, Hari Kondabolu, Constance Wu, BD Wong, director Lexi Alexander and others helped bolster the hashtag, too, making the movement even more powerful. (Make sure to check the hashtag for yourself to see what everyone else had to say.)

Around the same time as #whitewashedOUT, a Facebook post Star Trek‘s George Takei made about Doctor Strange went viral. Here’s what Takei wrote on his Facebook page:

So let me get this straight. You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales…in Asia? This backpedaling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots.

Marvel already addressed the Tibetan question by setting the action and The Ancient One in Kathmandu, Nepal in the film. It wouldn’t have mattered to the Chinese government by that point whether the character was white or Asian, as it was already in another country. So this is a red herring, and it’s insulting that they expect us to buy their explanation. They cast Tilda because they believe white audiences want to see white faces. Audiences, too, should be aware of how dumb and out of touch the studios think we are.

To those who say, “She [is] an actress, this is fiction,” remember that Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can’t keep pretending there isn’t something deeper at work here. If it were true that actors of Asian descent were being offered choice roles in films, these arguments might prevail. But there has been a long standing practice of taking roles that were originally Asian and rewriting them for white actors to play, leaving Asians invisible on the screen and underemployed as actors. This is a very real problem, not an abstract one. It is not about political correctness, it is about correcting systemic exclusion. Do you see the difference?

Wong also had stuff to say on the erroneous casting of late. In his speech during May 2nd’s Beyond Orientalism: A Forum, Wong discussed about the instances he’s faced racist casting and yellowface in his acting career. “The tradition of white actors transforming themselves, playing whoever they want, crossing race, painting themselves up, and doing all sorts of things like that is as deeply entrenched in them as our pain is in us,” he said (as recounted by Fusion). “…You [white actors] can’t win when you have the yellowface on. You can’t win when you take the yellowface off. You’re in the wrong part.”

Online coverage of #whitewashedOUT

Several outlets covered the impact of #whitewashedOUT, including NBC Asian America, Buzzfeed, CNN Money, Colorlines, Salon, Bustle, Blavity, and others. Chow told Buzzfeed in a phone interview that the hashtag is about everything whitewashing represents, not just the optics of seeing Asian faces in film. “The whole idea of being whitewashed goes beyond just Asian characters being played by white people,” he said. “It’s the idea of centering whiteness in every story. Whiteness to them is ‘colorblind.’ Everyone can project themselves onto a white guy. Being an Asian-American person, I’ve spent my entire life identifying with non-Asian people, because you have to. And I want [to] tell white moviegoers it’s not that hard to see a person [who isn’t of] your ethnicity and identify with that person. We’ve been doing it for years.”

Marvel’s response to #whitewashedOUT

Marvel brass has certainly heard about #whitewashedOUT and have responded. To the level of satisfaction one might feel about the responses depends on you, the individual.

Scott Derrickson, the director of Doctor Strange, wrote on Twitter, “Raw anger/hurt from Asian-Americans over Hollywood whitewashing, stereotyping, & erasure of Asians in cinema. I am listening and learning.” The test is if Derrickson (and other directors who are also watching the #whitewashedOUT movement) will put what was learned into practice. (Some of the responses Derrickson received from his Twitter response were from a person who wrote that he had been blocked by Derrickson last year for bringing up the whitewashing in the film. “Now all of a sudden, he’s ‘listening,’ he wrote.)

Kevin Feige was asked about the controversy by Deadline, to which he responded with several interesting statements:

On the erroneous statement of Swinton being cast due to Chinese-Tibetan tensions (as originally alluded by Doctor Strange co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill): We make all of our decisions on all of our films, and certainly on Doctor Strange, for creative reasons and not political reasons. That’s just always been te case. I’ve always believed that it is the films themeselves that will cross all borders and really get people to identify with these heroeos, and that always comes down to creative and not political reasons.

On the casting of Swinton as a creative choice: The casting of The Ancient One was a major topic of conversation in the development and the creative process of the story. We didn’t want to play into any of the stereotypes found in the comic books, some of which go back as far as 50 years or more. We felt the idea of gender swapping the role of The Ancient One was exciting. It opened up possibilities, it was a fresh way into this old and very typical storyline. Why not make the wisest bestower of knowledge in the universe to our heroes in the particular film a woman instead of a man?

On the whitewashing controversy: The truth is, the conversation that’s taking place around this is super-important. It’s something we are incredibly mindful of. We cast Tilda out of a desire to subvert stereotypes, not feed into them. I don’t know if you saw [Doctor Strange director] Scott Derrickson’s tweet the other day. He said we’re listening and we’re learning, every day. That really is true…I’m hopeful that some of our upcoming announcements are going to show that we’ve been listening.

On Captain Marvel being directed by a woman: [W]e are meeting with many, many immensely talented directors, the majority of whom are female. I do hope they will have announcements certainly by the summer, before the summer’s end, on a director for that.

Feige gives answers that are typical of an exec who has to respond to a controversy, but having said that, I personally think he means well. But “meaning well” is different than actually putting your money where your mouth is, and Feige himself addressed that sentiment in his interview (which is why he said he’s hopeful that upcoming films will help assuage fears of further diversity issues). However, three points of contention here,  one of them not even having to do with Feige:

  1. Why did Deadline writer Mike Fleming, Jr. call the controversy a “pseudo-controversy”? What makes this a fake controversy or half of a controversy? There’s nothing “pseudo” about it.
  2. If Feige wanted to subvert The Ancient One by casting a woman, why not have an Asian woman do it? (This point is actually discussed in my roundtable article). Or, if a woman is all that’s needed, why cast a white woman only? Were other actresses considered? Were certain casting agents even aware of the role to pass it along to their WOC clients? What was the audition process like? What did the casting call entail? There are a lot of questions here, because if The Ancient One is a learned woman, then anyone could play that role. The word “woman” doesn’t equal “white woman.”
  3. To that end, Doctor Strange didn’t have to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch either, because the assumption is still that a white man has to lead a Marvel movie. Twitter user Gelek Bhotay brings this up in his Twitter thread. If we’re really breaking away from the racist past of the Doctor Strange comics, take it completely out of the white male gaze and put it in the gaze of a POC woman and a POC man. It would also help if Marvel considered representing more of its viewership, such as LGBT viewers, disabled viewers, etc. Of course, you can’t address all of these in just one film, but that’s the beauty of a huge Marvel universe; you can address everyone when it comes to future film decisions. There’s still a lot of “listening and learning” Marvel has to do.

The big Hollywood news: Jon Chu to direct Crazy, Rich Asians

In this midst of #whitewashedOUT coverage, news was released that Jon Chu is set to direct the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy, Rich Asians. The book, according to Entertainment Weekly, “tells the story of an American-born Chinese woman who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s super-wealthy family once there, she encounters jaw-dropping opulence and snobbery.” The book has two sequel books, China’s Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems (the latter of which will be out in 2017).

Chu tweeted about the news, also adding, “With amazing Asian actors cast in EVERY SINGLE ROLE. #itstime.”

It is time. It’s past time. So let’s hope that Crazy, Rich Asians doesn’t act as this generation’s Joy Luck Club (i.e. be an incredible film only to become an anomaly in Hollywood’s filmography featuring Asian-Americans in major roles). Let’s hope that Crazy, Rich Asians is just the first of an overflow of films starring Asian-Americans as leading men and leading ladies.

Paisley Park Is In Your Heart: Prince and the Power of Individuality

“I‘m finally feeling better,” I told my mom over the phone. I’d just expelled a lot of grief I was experiencing in an hour-long rant to her. At that point in the day—around 10 to 11 in the morning—my grief wasn’t anything Prince related. In fact, like everyone else that day, little did I know the rest of my day would be consumed by the news of His Purple Majesty’s passing.

At the time, what I was ranting about was about personal stuff; my Sleepy Hollow post concerning Abbie’s death had become one of the biggest hits, if not the biggest hit, JUST ADD COLOR and my personal writing portfolio had seen. Even Variety‘s Maureen Ryan, a writer I’m a huge fan of, and Kelly Connolly, my Entertainment Weekly Community Blog boss, had read it, having found it organically (I had actually considered sending them the link to the article, but I figured that if they read it, they’d read it, and if not, then whatever.) Ryan even went a step further and highlighted a part of the article she was the most affected by and retweeted the article to her followers. I was flabbergasted and honored that I was now considered worthy to be retweeted by writing elite. That’s when the panic and fear set in.

Now that I had reached another plateau in my online writing career, what did followers expect from me? Would I have to write about every pop culture thing, even if I didn’t particularly care about it? Would I have to give my opinion on everything? And if I did give an opinion, would it be the opinion that would put me on the ever-present “problematic” lists of Twitter and Tumblr denizens? I’d already had my brushes with that before—those brushes exposed me a lot more to the hypocrisy of social media life than I would have liked to have experienced. How hypocritical was expected to be? In other words: what kind of “self” was I now allowed to have on Twitter now that more eyes were looking at what I’d have to write?

These thoughts about self-preservation, self-representation, and the inherent fakery of internet culture had consumed me for days, leading me to rant about it to my sister the night before, and then to my mom the next morning after staying in bed for far too long, dreading to start my day and deal with my social media quandaries yet again. After that hour of ranting (so much so that I was putting my mom to sleep by talking so much) and letting off steam in the form of tears, I felt better and said so. “That’s good,” my mom said. “It’s good to get it all out.”

“Yeah,” I said, already feeling lighter and finally looking forward to writing some stuff on Underground and maybe even that pesky article about Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange. I got out of bed, remade it, did my morning routine, and started putting some laundry away while talking to my mom about whatever else had been rattling around in my brain.

Then my sister texted me. “Prince is dead!” she exclaimed. Angina, something I’ve never really had an issue with (despite my history of chronic stress and anxiety), flared up so badly I briefly considered if I needed a paramedic myself. As strange as it sounds even to me, the most recent time I’ve felt so directionless was about two years ago, when my uncle—another person I wrongly assumed would live forever—died. Instantly, I was trying to figure out if this was a hoax—it had to be a hoax, because Prince doesn’t just die—but as I switched between my mom and Twitter, I saw that it wasn’t a hoax. It was true. “NOT PRINCE!” I yelled to my empty room and my mom on the other end. “NO! NOT PRINCE!” My mom, on the other hand, was waiting on CNN or MSNBC to confirm it. Once they did, she sounded tired. “I was waiting to see if it was true,” she said. “That’s sad.”

♦♦♦

Like the news junkie I am, I ran to my television in the living room to see what MSNBC was saying. As I watched Brian Williams say what we were all thinking at that moment—that we were all living what we thought would be a normal, uneventful Thursday only to hear the unthinkable—I started reflecting on things. It’s not unusual for me to think a lot; thinking is what jumpstarts this site every day, after all. But this train of thought, after the shock started subsiding microscopically, began to center around Prince’s way of life. More specifically, how Prince never let anyone define him; he was always in control of himself and his image.

My sister observed that Prince’s iron grip on his image might have been “a little psychotic.” But regardless of what kind of control issues Prince may have had (or probably did have, judging by how rigid he was with how Vanity 6, Sheila E., and Apollonia are all versions of the same dream woman archetype he fostered over the decades) Prince’s control over his outward persona and his introverted personal life is deeply rooted in two of his philosophical mottos:

and

“If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”

The former is one of the reasons why Prince became known as the Prince of Shade on social media, and the latter is about his battles with Warner Bros. over owning the rights to his own music. But both also speak to how Prince carried himself and how he practiced the art of disregard for other people’s feelings about how he should live his life.

Prince became a star because of his musical talent, first and foremost. He was a musical prodigy, playing at least 27 instruments, not counting his own honeyed vocal cords. But what launched him into supernova-dom was his ability to be completely unique, particularly during a time in which everyone wanted to be unique.

♦♦♦

The ’80s are best known for its androgyny, the pounds and pounds of makeup women and men would wear, the frantic, desperate desire to be something new and different, something no one’s ever seen before. You had Madonna, The Culture Club’s Boy George, Adam Ant, and even “standard” R&B acts like Shalamar played with beauty and androgyny (something Charlie Murphy hilariously highlighted in his infamous Chappelle‘s Show skit about Prince). All of them, though, have to pay homage to originators of androgyny-in-music, like Little Richard, David Bowie, and even James Brown to a certain extent. And while I’m certain David Bowie, who was steeped in soul music history, did know how his bread was buttered (and often said so), Prince (as it has been said so much over the course of these strange days) was one that relished in the path paved by his musical forefathers and sought to create alchemy with the tools they left behind. He certainly did, giving the world something that was both in line with the era’s play on sex and sexuality and much more than anyone could comprehend. (Indeed, Prince himself actually said so in “I Would Die 4 You”: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something you could never understand.”)

From where I’m sitting, Prince’s legendary status wasn’t achieved just because he participated in the ’80s androgyny; it was because he defined what it meant for him and never apologized for it or explained it. Whereas most others were still defining themselves by labels, Prince used none. To use another song, he raps “My name is Prince,” and that is the summation of it all. He is everything you saw and then more, tons more. He wasn’t man or woman, and he wasn’t something we could comprehend. The fact that he was the only one who could understand his own mystery intrigued us and made us want to be in his quirky, fascinating, dreamscape of a world.

In his way, he invited us all to discover our own mysteries. When he sang “Paisley Park is in your heart,” he wanted us to find out what made each of us special and cultivate that, just like he’d figured out how to cultivate his own specialness. Prince, who had been bullied in school and suffered from epilepsy, wanted us to create our own Paisley Parks, our own personal universes that allowed us to be the spectacular selves we want to be. He had figured out the secret, and in order to join in on his fun, you had to be willing to search for the answers to yourselves. You had to build your own personal Paisley Park, a task that’s much easier to sing about than it is to actually do.

I’d say a direct parallel to the ’80s “gimmie more” culture is right now. The ’10s are a time in which we’ve got access to everything and everyone just by using our phones, tablets, or laptops. We are closer than we ever were to celebrities, dignitaries, and presidents alike. You’d think that would satisfy us. But instead, all of this access to each other has only made us more neurotic and more prone to wanting to fit in than ever before.

Article after article after article states how Facebook (and social media in general) has led to a dramatic uptick in depression, all because we’re posturing to each other. Most of what you see on social media isn’t real. Too much of the time, there’s someone lying to you about what they’ve got, who they know, how “woke” they are or how accepting or inclusive they are. If they’re not busy trying to convince you of how much more together they are than you, then they’re busy overloading you with opinions about how to get to where they are in life and why you aren’t there. Why you and your fave “will never.” (“Will never” what, exactly?) Why you should strive to be a #carefreeblackgirl, even if you don’t feel that carefree. Why you shouldn’t express why you don’t feel as magical as the #blackgirlmagic hashtag suggests you should (Dr. Linda Chavers, who wrote in Elle about how her debilitating illness has left her feeling like a shell instead of someone who feels magical and important, received a mountain of clapbacks instead of nurturing support from a community). There are too many people out there busy tearing down others to uplift themselves. Too many times in the social media world, having your own view on the world—whether that opinion is something the majority agrees with or not—can be seen as detrimental to your social standing, much less your career.

The “gimmie more” culture has evolved into a shaming culture. Are you feminist enough? Are you queer enough? Are you alternative enough? Are you black enough (and to that end, are you carefree or magical enough)? There’s even a specific uniform for the “alt” person; just go on Tumblr and Twitter and you’ll find that a lot of folks who want to be perceived as “special” all end up looking similar, depending on what brand of “alt” they aspire to. But is wearing a uniform actually being alternative? Is critiquing others for their personal Paisley Parks building up your own?

Prince didn’t tear others down while staying in his own lane. Instead, he worked on his own stuff and released his own personal stamp on life into the world for us to marvel at. What we saw in his music and artistic representation was a manifestation of his own high self-worth. As many have said online, what they loved most about him was his ability to be himself. While most of us are struggling to find peace with our identities, Prince seemed to casually live in it and mine it for inspiration. He was his own inspiration—how many of us can say that about ourselves?

♦♦♦

I hate that it took Prince’s death for me to realize what was the most grand thing about him, and that he was the teacher of the most important lesson I need to learn in life. I’ve always struggled with just being myself; if you read my Mr. Robot piece, you’ll see that I’ve always had a bout with accepting my own sensitivity. But I’ve had other battles, most of them racially and culturally charged. The more I’ve become a part of the social media and online journalism/blogging spheres, the more I’ve realized how crucially important it is to have a strong sense of self-worth and self-understanding. Not only is it important just in life in general, but it’s comes in so handy when having to deal with strong personalities, a barrage of opinions, and others who are keen on tearing you down just to prove how special they are.

That’s what brings this article full circle; my rant to my mom was based in the fact that I still didn’t know how to grapple with the stress of being in a forum where almost everyone is trying to present their best, most perfect, most special selves. I couldn’t get my mind around how social media perpetuates the act of folks trying to prove their specialness by pointing out where others are “problematic” and never letting them live down whatever mistake they might have made. All I wanted to find was peace and the belief that I could be whatever and whoever I wanted to be without worry from what other people would have to say. I wanted relief from the stress of “fitting in,” a stress that I thought would have left me once I graduated from high school years ago.

Unfortunately, Prince’s death taught me that I have yet to own my masters, because the master—my fear—was owning me big time. I learned that I honestly don’t need to worry about what anyone else thinks of me, as long as I have belief and love for myself. If I work on becoming the version of Monique want to be, then the stress of “fitting in” will go away. I will be me, and everyone else can be them, whether that’s them being their best selves or not. Like Prince, can find my own Paisley Park and happily live there in my heart. Once I discover that, I’ll be able to attract others to me, others who want to know what my mystery is. That’s a lesson we can all learn.

To quote Janelle Monaé (who was also one of the people Prince called “friend”), “Categorize me, I defy every label.” Prince challenged us to not just define ourselves, but to defy the labels people put on us and the ones we put on ourselves. He wanted us to challenge others to try to put us in boxes, and he wanted those who tried to categorize to fail. We should try to learn from his example and try to truly accept what makes us unique; if anyone tried to play us, they’d soon learn they were only playing themselves. His name was Prince. My name is Monique. Who are you?

Other articles to check out:
“Whether Or Not Prince Knew It, He Was A Disability Icon To Me” | Black Girl Dangerous
Prince never apologized for who he was. For that, he was an inspiration. | Washington Post

Prince gave black kids permission to be weirdos | Vox

Prince Knew What He Wanted: Sex, Soul and You | The New York Times

Creative Commons license linklink to Flickr download page

Charles King Leaves WME to Create Firm for Multicultural Entertainment

I think my articles on Exodus: Gods and Kings, the Sony hack, and Ghost in the Shell say it best: Hollywood is messed up when it comes to real representation of non-whites in entertainment. Another thing it shows is that there needs to be a studio or agency that will handle films that otherwise wouldn’t get sold in the traditional Hollywood system so that new and important stories can finally get out of the script ghetto.  Enter Charles King and his new venture, MACRO.