Mainstream filmmakers’ misrepresentation of minority groups is nothing new. However, particularly egregious recent examples remind the filmgoing public that such film portrayals in some cases may be stereotypical, may misinform and may be hurtful.
“The Prom,” a film adaptation of the eponymous Broadway musical, was released on Netflix on Dec. 11, 2020. Controversy arose about James Corden, a heterosexual actor, playing Barry Glickman, a gay character, especially after Corden received a Golden Globe Award nomination for his performance.
Truth be told, I know LGBTQ+ people who did not mind Corden’s performance. And as a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, I do not find his performance particularly alarming. However, I still believe the vocal inflections and bodily gestures he put on were problematic. For instance, Corden’s character frequently spoke with emphasized diction on certain consonants and acted in a feminine manner, which are trademark stereotypes of gay men, according to huffpost.com. As such, I think the problem is less about a heterosexual actor playing a gay character and more about his playing what many casual moviegoers may view as “the gay character.”
Now, I am not trying to say that this single performance in this single movie is solely responsible for the reinforcement of LGBTQ+ stereotypes in our wider society. But it is indicative of a larger issue. According to novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TEDTalk “The danger of a single story,” stereotypes are not necessarily untrue, but they are incomplete.
Adichie’s words lay out the problem perfectly. These stereotypes of gay men allow the cisgender, heterosexual majority to view LGBTQ+ people as “the other” — incapable of acting, thinking or being anything like them. The most ironic thing in the case of “The Prom” is that Glickman’s characterization would be a non-issue if an LGBTQ+ actor, who sincerely embodied these inflections and mannerisms, were portraying him. But that is not the case, and Corden definitely should be held to scrutiny, especially in the face of the aforementioned award buzz.
I wish stereotype reinforcement were the worst harm these inaccurate portrayals could cause, but “Music,” released on Feb. 10, 2021, suggests that the potential harm could be more severe. “Music” tells the story of a girl with autism, played by Maddie Ziegler, a non-autistic actor. While my preceding concerns about stereotyping apply here, what makes “Music” especially concerning is its depiction of prone restraint.
According to disabilityrightsca.org, prone restraint is a method of extended restraint against an individual. This method can put the restrained at risk of injury, including asphyxiation or death, according to disabilityrightsca.org. Despite this practice being potentially lethal, multiple autistic people and disability advocates have said “Music” portrays prone restraint as a correct way to aid an autistic person when he or she is having a meltdown, according to buzzfeed.com.
The film’s director, Sia, said the scenes would be removed and a warning statement would be added to the film, according to The Rolling Stone. However, that these depictions of autism and prone restraint happened at all seems immensely irresponsible to me. If just one person, having seen the unaltered film, concludes that prone restraint is a safe method for aiding autistic people, in my opinion, damage already has been done.
To be clear, I am in no way saying that “Music” or any single film is responsible for the widespread stigmatization and misunderstanding of autism. However, in a digitized world where misinformation is easily shared, the public should not underestimate the potential harm.
While oftentimes the goal of the filmmaker is to manipulate reality or create an escapist fantasy, the lives and identities of real-world underrepresented groups are not some fun house display for presumptuous actors and hackneyed directors to exploit. Filmmakers must handle these sensitive subjects with tact. The consequences of failing to do so can be severe.
Dismantling harmful mindsets and systems of oppression neither begins nor ends with better media representation. Even in a world where all underrepresented roles were portrayed by actors of their characters’ respective identities, the work still would be far from over. That being said, rejecting offensive, harmful film portrayals in favor of authentic performances would be a step in the right direction.