Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Real Problem with This Year's Oscars

2016 has only just begun, but there already is plenty about race, gender, diversity and the Anglo-American arts scene to chew over. Take your pick from the whiteness of this year's Oscars to a UK literary festival dedicated to non-white authors and the online furore following an interview a white-male journalist had with the first Sino-British-female winner of the T S Elliot prize for poetry.

I am writing from the point of view of someone who is not part of the Anglo-American arts scene. When I say 'Anglo-American', I mean 'UK, US and English-language', 'arts scene' encompasses the worlds of literature and film, and 'not part of' means that I get my bread and butter from elsewhere.

From where I stand, the problem isn't institutionalised racism. In other words, I used to think that Hollywood and the world of Anglo-American literature Favoured the White Man of a Certain Class, but I don't think that anymore. Rather, I think that the gatekeepers of the Anglo-American arts scene are out of touch with the people who are not part of the Anglo-American arts scene.

These gatekeepers want profit. Of course they would; they are in business. But in doing what they do, they have created a set of Boxes that Must Be Ticked In Order To Create a Blockbuster.

When I watch a Hollywood movie, I usually find the following:
 -the darkest black man (if in a group with whites/paler blacks) dies first
-any black man, even if he looks good in a suit, can't be Indiana Jones or James Bond
-the Arab man is a terrorist
-the man from the Indian subcontinent (because they are all the same in Hollywood) speaks with a head wiggle and a singsong accent
-the white non-Jewish girl must have a white man to rescue her, or otherwise show that she's boss by being so good at what she does that no white man can dethrone her
-the older white non-Jewish woman is defined by her relationships and their calibre and not by her intellectual capacity
-the Asian / Oriental from the US man never gets the white girl (if he does, he dies)
-Mexican = Latino = Hispanic = Spanglish = ghetto/gangster/gardener/maid
-the Asian / Oriental woman, no matter where she is from, is either a mysterious martial arts expert with mind-blowing bedroom skills or submissive with mind-blowing bedroom skills
-the Asian / Oriental guy from the Far East = North Korean = Chinese = Jet Li-sort of chap if he's bad and Jackie Chan if he's good.

Do you think white actors in Hollywood films have it easy? They don't, because their characters usually follow these rules:
-Young + American accent + light coloured hair and eyes = hero/main character who is inexperienced and/or stupid and muscly and needs help to succeed
-Young + American accent + dark hair and eyes = hero/main character who is clever and reedy and had a hard childhood/youth and needs help to succeed
-old/middle-aged + American accent = US President/boss (good guy in distress) + a deputy (stupid, power-crazy and bad)
-Jewish = clever and good (Jewish women, on the other hand, come across as worriers if they aren't mothers and overprotective of their offspring if they are mothers) / survivors of the Holocaust
-Russian = clever and bad
-German = stupid and bad and/or Nazi
-British stiff upper lip = clever and bad and megalomaniac; dies or is imprisoned
-Cockney = stupid and good and a survivor
-Italian = you can tell by the accent plus pizza, restaurant and mobster neighbour
-Irish = you can tell by the accent plus shoes, bullying attitude and loutish behaviour
-tweenie + American accent = precocious 
-tweenie + British accent = Harry Potter/a wizard
-non-Italian/non-Irish/non-British/non-Russian/non-German/non-Jewish European = MIA

If fictional characters must follow those rules, what else can we expect from the storylines and worlds such characters inhabit? 

It's all getting predictable, baby, so predictable that Joss Whedon, when he's writing a script for a film, can generate rules which detail what needs to happen and when, and put his rules into practice.

And let's not get started on Anglo-American literature. This has been happening for a while now, and I wasn't surprised by last year's success of Yi Fen Chou. It just isn't possible for a human being to speak good English and be female and Chinese and a happy bunny and comfortable in her own skin. To be authentic, this human must be a female, must tok pigeon and must be unhappy and unsettled because she's either torn between her Chinese immigrant background and her Anglo-American environment, or she has a mother who's torn between her Chinese immigrant background and Anglo-American environment. If she's willing to be authentic, she's an author, she's marketable, she's publishable.

Why does Malorie Blackman remain the only black science-fiction author of note? Why does she have to write about race and being black, and why is a made-up world where blacks hold power classed as 'science-fiction' as opposed to 'fiction'? Why can't Malorie write about spaceships and the challenges of building them?

Why can't Tom Clancy write a gothic romance, Lee Child chick lit, or Neil Gaiman a historical story, without any supernatural and fantastic elements, about black slaves?

Is it because these authors aren't good enough? Or is it because 'it won't be authentic', and therefore, 'unmarketable'?


The Anglo-American publishing industry isn't racist and sexist. It doesn't aim to silence an author, and neither does it favour a group because that group is 'powerful'. It doesn't care about your authenticity and your story. All it wants is profit. It must create Blueprints For a Bestseller which force an author to write about certain topics because 'that's what the readers want'.

That's why there's Monica ALI and 'Brick Lane', 'mixed race' ZADIE Smith and 'multicultural-London' 'White-Teeth'.

That's why Joanne has to be JK Rowling as well as Robert Galbraith. She can't be a children's author whose main character is a boy because boys apparently won't read books about boys who were created by women, and frankly now, she can't write about grisly murders if she's a children's author and female, can she?

Does the blame for this predictability, whether in Anglo-American film or literature, lie with  gatekeepers? Or are we consumers really as shallow as gatekeepers say we are?

As a consumer, I am willing to try anything, so for that reason, I blame the gatekeepers of Anglo-American arts for restricting my diet. All I can say, gatekeepers, is that you will only have yourselves to blame if you kill creativity and originality for the sake of fattening your profits.

Let Joanne write the next 'Fifty Shades' as 'JK Rowling'. Let Idris Elba be James Bond. Whether I'll buy it or not is up to me.

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