Diversity in Hollywood: The Power (and Limits) of Narratives

I’ve always been a bit of a reluctant blonde. I don’t dislike my hair color, but blonde has never felt like me.

I wasn’t a cheerleader. I have never cared about makeup or fashion. Growing up, I was the one who was good at school. I’d also worn glasses since age five, and I was chubby for my age. Blonde jokes never bothered me, because I didn’t feel blonde.

In America — and in many cases, far beyond — Western beauty standards have long seen blonde as the ideal beauty. From Marilyn Monroe to Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Brad Pitt, you obviously don’t have to be blonde to be thought of as attractive, but it definitely helps.

For every Tiana or Pocahontas, there’s ten more Tinkerbells or Cinderellas. Disney had a huge hit with Moana — but I still see more kids belting “Let It Go” and wanting hair like Elsa from Frozen.

The stories around us influence how we view ourselves and how we see each other. Over the past two decades, our narratives have begun fighting against the collective obsession with traditional Western beauty standards. The stories we tell have begun seeking to expand our ideals beyond just the Abercrombie-looking white football quarterback with his perfectly chiseled abs. (Or his gorgeous cheerleader girlfriend with her platinum blonde hair and supermodel frame.)

Yet as Hollywood begins to embrace new narratives — and open itself up to new standards of beauty — it will be all too easy to take them at face value. Unfortunately, these new stories, as meaningful as they are, only account for part of the picture. Choosing to make money off diverse blockbusters doesn’t make Hollywood woke. It makes Hollywood good at making money.

Thinking Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan is more attractive than Leo DiCaprio doesn’t make us woke. It doesn’t mean we understand America’s complex history of racism, or know how to best navigate our increasingly multicultural world. It just means we are able to recognize that Michael B. Jordan is hot.

Which is less of an opinion and more of an objective scientific fact.

Seth Cohen and rise of the geek

In the early 2000s, Hollywood first saw the benefit of challenging traditional views of attractiveness. It’s been called the Seth Cohen effect, and my teenage self fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Everyone expected Ryan Atwood, played by a gorgeous blond actor named Benjamin McKenzie, to be the breakout star of Fox’s iconic teen drama The O.C. (Look at his face. Look at his and his impossibly chiseled cheekbones. He fits the bill perfectly.) But instead, the show found an unexpected heartthrob in Seth Cohen, played to geeky, awkward perfection by Adam Brody.

Early ads and promotion for The O.C. barely showed Seth at all. Creator and showrunner Josh Schwartz was excited about the character, who he’d based on his own experiences as a teen, but the network thought it was a huge risk. Like many teen stories before it, The O.C. had that familiar bad boy role. Like Dylan McKay in Beverly Hills 90210 before it, Ryan was The O.C.’s attractive, often misunderstood rebel. But the show lacked a Brandon Walsh: a clean-cut, All-American athlete. In his place: a nerdy, video game loving geek next door. And that geek next door started a phenomenon.

After The O.C., Schwartz brought countless nerdy heartthrobs into the pop culture machine, including Zachary Levi’s nerdy crime fighter Chuck, on NBC for 5 seasons, and most notably Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey, who had a 6-season run. Dan’s mark on the pop culture mindset also landed actor Penn Badgley similar roles in teen films from Easy A to John Tucker Must Die.

I bought into all of it

I turned thirteen in 2001, so my teenage years were flooded with these new geeky heartthrob narratives. Athletes and bad boys had never been my type, so I quickly embraced the quiet, unassumingly attractive nerd as the guy for me.

Then I started dating them … and I quickly realized nerds aren’t a superior brand of human. There are wonderful men among them, there’s no doubt. But the Josh Schwartz narrative I’d adopted so eagerly wasn’t an ultimate truth. It was a narrative, nothing more: as attractive and flawed as any other.

The nerdy guys I liked ended up being just as — well, human — as any other guy. They still had the potential to objectify me, to seem more interested in my hair than in having meaningful conversations … or our mutual love of anime. Being a nerd didn’t make them better than everyone else.

When I watch clips from the O.C. today, I’m shocked by how many concerning things about Seth, and his particular romantic trope, I missed. Seth could be a pretty awful boyfriend—but somehow, with all the geek charming narrative, I totally missed it.

Black Panther

Within its first two weekends at the box office, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther had smashed numerous box office records, bringing in over $700 million worldwide. It’s the first Marvel superhero film to feature a predominantly black cast, and with black storytellers and musical artists at the helm, the film is a celebration of blackness that doesn’t fall into familiar stereotypes or misrepresentations.

As a writer and storyteller, I am thrilled to see movies like Black Panther and Wonder Women smashing so many records at the box office. Hollywood finally has convincing evidence that casting people of color and women in powerful, non-tokenizing roles, is actually good for business. They don’t have to play to stereotypes. Hollywood superstars don’t have to fit with 1950s beauty norms.

People of color & women can tell our own stories. We can be writers, directors, and producers. And our films can crush it at the box office.

But liking Wonder Woman doesn’t make a man instantly supportive of women. It doesn’t mean he knows how to be a respectful partner by default. Liking Black Panther doesn’t mean I understand the power I hold as a white woman or know how to use it well. I’ve been trying to understand America’s racialized power structures and systemic whiteness for the past four years, and I still fall short quite often. I have a lot more to learn.

Narratives in LGBTQ inclusion

To this day, the musical comedy Glee — about a group of misfits who find friendships and comminuted in their high school glee club, ran on Fox for six seasons — is one of my favorite TV shows.

In season 2, Glee introduced Blaine Anderson, the leader of a rival show choir, an all-male acapella group called the Warblers. Played by Darren Criss, his mix of charm, musical skill, and attractiveness (he was really attractive) quickly became one of the show’s most popular stars.

Blaine’s relationship with his eventual boyfriend Kurt developed slowly. Their romance began from a strong platonic friendship. Blaine supported Kurt as he dealt with high school bullies. But even as I listened to Blaine’s many Glee solos on repeat, I had a sense that the show was capitalizing on my attraction to a (very attractive) straight actor as a way to ease me into feeling excited about a romance between to gay teenagers. I had nothing against inclusion — in fact, becoming more aware of the ways LGBTQ folks are marginalized, discriminated against (especially in Christian spaces) — was something I genuinely wanted to learn more about and wasn’t sure how to.

But that’s not what this was. This was a super-sweet love story between two fictional characters. This wasn’t real life. These weren’t real people I knew. This was a narrative. A carefully-crafted narrative done with a specific goal in mind.

No matter how much I wanted to support that narrative, until I got in the real world and got to know real queer folks — it wasn’t enough. It was a great story. It had power: it helped people see the world in new ways. But it wasn’t real life.

After a couple years of what felt like unanswered prayer, I eventually got to know, and had many neat conversations with, amazing LGBTQ Christians. It didn’t happen right away, because most of the Christian spaces I’m a part of prefer not to talk about sexuality. It took a while to begin to have conversations, but I have been able to have conversations with Christians who are queer, and their insight and wisdom on faith and living for Christ has encouraged, challenged, and sharpened my faith in so many ways.

These friendships — these conversations with strong, faithful Christians — are what I was looking for when I was watching Glee. But they’re not a TV show. They’re real people. They’ve prayed for me, sent me gifs when I’m having a bad day; we’ve had deep and meaningful conversations about faith, and they regularly challenge me to see my life of faith in fuller and more complex ways. We talk about the intersection of sexuality and faith, but they’ve encouraged my faith and helped me live out my faith in so many other ways, too. Some are deeply involved at church, others have been burned and are hanging back.

Narratives give us a framework through which we interpret and find meaning in our world. Our cultures will likely always tell stories, but it’s important that we don’t get so caught up in stories that we mistake them for the real world.

As excited as I am to see Hollywood produce more diverse films, I’m concerned that we — especially people who are a part of majority culture — will fall into the trap of believing that liking Black Panther makes us woke.

Being an ally: working to identify the power we hold in predominantly white systems and working to share that power, both personally and systemically, is hard work. Watching and supporting art by black storytellers is wonderful, and there’s much we can learn from it. But simply entering into an unfamiliar narrative isn’t enough. We have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones and take action.

Narratives hold power, of course. To go through life ignorant of them and their influence would be a mistake.

Take my hair, for example. No matter how much I bristle at the stereotypes, I’ll still be blonde. I know that I don’t fit what pop culture expects blondes to be. I know that I wasn’t thin or popular as a teenager. I might not like when people make assumptions about me.

ECC94C2B-1B3D-42ED-823E-3B38EBDB7C69But I could never pretend there aren’t benefits to being blonde and white in America. We have very little control over the assumptions people make off of first impressions and physical appearance. For every person, especially those who are part of a majority group, the question is: where in my life do I have influence? Where is my opinion heard — and where does my voice carry weight?

I’ve been shocked by the number of places I’ve seen where I have influence. Even without distinct leadership roles, I can still speak into various situations and structures where I don’t feel we’re being as inclusive as we could be.

How do we engage with narratives effectively: learning from them; using them not as a substitute for real relationships in our world, but as an encouragement to get outside of our familiar surroundings and engage more fully in the beauty and strength of the world around us?

 


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