How Cultural Appropriation Crushes Hollywood

When leaked audio revealed Los Angeles acting coach Lesly Kahn urging an out of work Jewish actress to change her name to “Rosa Ramirez,” social justice piranhas went into a Twitter frenzy.

As one might expect, Kahn promptly posted an apology, complete with a nice pledge to “diversity and inclusion,” showing she had stepped back in to conformity. Little did she know, her public shaming was just getting started:

  • @anairam013: This is white privilege to the max. Now that Latinos are getting more recognition and jobs, here comes the white people trying to steal them
  • @AngelicaMCadena: NO! Apology NOT accepted. How dare you!!! As an ethnically ambiguous Hispanic woman, I say shame on you!!!
  • @hotcheetos645: MY ETHNICITY IS NOT A COSTUME THAT YOU CAN CAPITALIZE ON. You’ll never get any work again. You’re done.

Politically-correct zealots are convinced of the superiority of their twisted morality whenever they call someone out. Making an example of Kahn signals to actors they had better think twice before attempting to escape their racial and ethnic identity boxes.

Interestingly, this is one of the great hypocrisies of the PC movement: To hail “diversity,” but ultimately keep certain individuals in their place by reinforcing the very stereotypes they claim they want to transcend.

This reminds me of the fallacy of cultural appropriation— people borrowing from cultures they don’t come from. However, the concept of “appropriation” has since been applied to actors who are increasingly accused of stealing opportunities from “marginalized” groups.

For example:

  • Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson came under fire after announcing he would produce and star in a movie about the legendary folk hero John Henry, a slave turned tough-as-nails railroad worker. The problem? Johnson, who has a black father and Samoan mother, is apparently not black enough to play the darker-skinned fictional character. He was asked to step down to give a darker-skinned black person a chance to play the role.
  • Zoe Saldana, a light-skinned black actress with Dominican, Haitian and Puerto Rican roots was viciously attacked for accepting the role of legendary soul singer Nina Simone who also happened to have dark skin. In fact, Saldana was accused of performing in “blackface” because of the darker make-up and prosthetic nose she wore in the movie. Fortunately, Saldana stood her ground. “There’s no one way to be black,” she said in response to the backlash. “I made a choice. Do I continue passing on the script and hope that the ‘right’ black person will do it…?”

Is it morally wrong for light-skinned black actors to play dark-skinned black characters? What about when non-white actors were cast as our nation’s white founding fathers in the Broadway musical “Hamilton?”

To me, either all actors are free to act or they’re not. “Hamilton” producers made a creative choice by casting actors of color and audiences responded favorably. What’s morally wrong is to force restrictions on some actors and not others, especially on the basis of skin color.

Even superstar Will Smith faced that challenge when some deemed him too light skinned to portray the father of Serena and Venus Williams.

The fact is, any time a person’s creativity in the performing arts is restricted, the entire process ceases to a free and creative endeavor and instead becomes a political one.

Unfortunately, identity politics doesn’t stop at the color of one’s skin. Actor Jake Whitehall was fiercely criticized after being cast as Disney’s first openly gay character in the movie Jungle Cruise because Whitehall isn’t really gay. Jake Gyllenhaal, a non-disabled actor, also took heat for taking on the real-life role of “Jeff Bauman,” a man who lost both legs in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Then there’s Scarlett Johansson, cast as a transgendered character in a film until activists demanded she step down to make room for a real transgendered actor.

Scarlett Johansson's casting as transgender man draws backlash

Johansson surrendered to the pressure.

Ask any radical activist about the complexities of how talent, bankability, and a myriad of other factors play into the success or failure of a given movie and you’ll likely get the middle finger. In truth, Johansson’s impressive box office draw could have ensured the movie would reach a wider audience, but that wasn’t good enough for the social engineering fanatics. In the end, their own ignorance killed the movie, not to mention a lot of work for other people.

Hollywood used to be a place where creative freedom was cherished. It was a place where actors could actually play characters different from themselves without ever having to worry about being harassed on social media or anywhere else.

Who changed the rules?

Individuals who think of themselves as victims actively feed the negative psychological dependency of their victimhood and, believing they’re powerless to change it, conveniently use it as a source of identity to extract cultural power. But there also exists an actual pecking order based on one’s supposed victimhood status.

It’s all part of an insidious ploy to further divide and exploit people, similar to others with respect to superficial attributes such as skin color or sexual preference, which says nothing about their value as an individual. The latest trendy word for this is “intersectionality.” Translation: Another Marxist redistribution scheme.

Be Your Own Superhero: Intersectional Feminism in Comics Panel | San Diego Comic-Con 2017

Think of it this way: If you identify as a straight, white male you’re at the very bottom of this social hierarchy. However, if you’re a black or gay male, you just scored some victim points! Bisexual, Hispanic female? Now you’re getting somewhere!

Even dark-skinned blacks occupy a higher status position than light-skinned blacks because of their supposed interracial “white privilege.” The more victim points one scores, the greater justification to impose censorship and forbid certain groups from participating in certain activities. Does this sound conducive to freedom of expression in the “liberal” performing arts?

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This kind of negative cultural power is maintained through political correctness—a behavior modification tool that threatens individuals with shaming and social rejection when they act or speak out against PC.

It’s why Kahn posted an apology letter and Johansson walked away from a movie role. Incredibly, when Business Insider columnist Daniella Greenbaum wrote her essay in support of Johansson’s casting, editors feared it was too offensive and pulled it from publication. No wonder, the point of PC is to achieve conformity of thought, not freedom of thought.

RELATED: Is This Why Judd Apatow Bows to the PC Police?

Imagine if military characters could only be played by those with military experience, Christians played by real Christians, or liberals were no longer allowed to be cast as conservatives. Imagine everyone being forbidden to “appropriate” accents. Sound a bit over-the-top? It’s not according to some in Hollywood.

If actors no longer have the freedom to play characters different from themselves, then real acting is already dead. Without the freedom to play “other,” legitimate opportunities to experience empathy are also destroyed.

Isn’t this what compels great actors to take on certain characters? They embrace the cultural and intellectual challenges that require them to identify with their characters, making artistic choices in order to give audiences an authentic portrayal.

Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones was cast as the Spanish beauty opposite Latin leading man Antonio Banderas in “The Mask of Zorro” (1998). Years later, when I was conducting fieldwork in Hollywood, I asked a well-known black casting director Tannen and her casting assistant Sharra (both pseudonyms) whether a Hispanic performer should have been cast instead:

Tannen: I thought Zeta was Hispanic. And I didn’t find out until I was reading about Traffic and they were talking about her using her natural Welsh accent. And I went, “Her what? Her Welsh? Is she Latino and Welsh? Wait, I don’t understand.” You know, but she still looks Latino to me.

Kimberly: Sure.

Sharra: It’s a fine line for me. Like with that, it didn’t really bother me that she was playing that because she seemed authentically Latin.

Looks Latin? Authentically Latin? Obviously there are some very influential people in Hollywood who don’t agree with the current PC order. When and how many of these individuals will come out of Hollywood’s PC closet is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, the take-a-way is simple. Much like the Broadway hit Hamilton, the fact that Zeta-Jones was able to reprise her role in a sequel, “The Legend of Zorro” (2005), is testament to how favorable her casting had been received by moviegoers.

Frankly, some people just need to get over themselves. It’s a privilege to be living and working in America. As long as we are free to think, speak, and create, there will always be unequal outcomes precisely because of the diverse choices each of us make and the individual tenacity we apply to them. That’s real artistic freedom, not oppression!

Kimberly Bloom Jackson is an actress turned cultural/media anthropologist. She is also the author of “Hollywood’s White Identity Crisis: Inside the Movie and Television Industry’s Dash to Diversity and What It Means for America” (forthcoming). Kimberly can be found at SnoopingAnthropologist.com.

Photo by daveynin on Foter.com / CC BY

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