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"But she's a talented actress!" (a case study) 
19th-Mar-2011 11:22 am
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I've been hanging out at themockingjay to keep up with The Hunger Games movie news. Casting debates have been pretty civil, but the inevitable "But she's a talented actress!" has also made its appearance. :-/ I thought I would compose a photo-essay as to what exactly is the problem with "But she's a talented actress!" and variants thereof. (Feedback is welcome!)



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But she's a talented actress!


This is Jennifer Lawrence: a talented but obscure actress who came to national attention after starring in an obscure movie and garnering a nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars. She is also white and (relatively) skinny.

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But she's a talented actress!


This is Gabourey Sidibe: a talented but obscure actress who came to national attention after starring in an obscure movie and garnering a nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars. She is also black and plus-sized.

Because of her great talent and hard work, Jennifer Lawrence deserves to be a star. She is getting ample opportunity to become exactly that, with status-raising roles in big Hollywood movies-wannabe-trilogies like X-Men: First Class (as Raven Darkholme/Mystique) and The Hunger Games (as the main character, Katniss Everdeen). It has been about two months since Lawrence received her Best Actress nomination.

Because of her great talent and hard work, Gabourey Sidibe deserves to be a star. But is she getting the opportunity to become exactly that? Sidibe has had bit parts in movies and TV shows like The Big C. Her next role in a big Hollywood movie will be in Tower Heist. It has been about a year and one month since Sidibe received her Best Actress nomination.

Why the discrepancy in OPPORTUNITIES being offered to these wonderfully talented and hard-working actresses?

1) Because the number of roles written for white women far outstrip those written for women of color. (The cases of Jennifer Lawrence and Gabourey Sidibe are further exacerbated by the size difference.)
2) Because roles that are written for women of color or ethnically ambiguous women (like Katniss) often come with a "She should be Caucasian" note on the casting call, regardless. Because white women will be considered for roles written for women of color, but women of color are much more rarely considered for white roles.

Photobucketgabs


Bottomline: For white actors like Jennifer Lawrence, "but she's a talented actress!" is a pass (used here in the sense that a driver's license gives you a pass to legally drive in a country, but wouldn't automatically make you the best driver on the planet) that will gain her access to a wide range of roles. It means being given serious consideration, even for ethnically ambiguous and ethnic non-ambiguous roles like Katniss and Katara.

For actors of color like Gabourey Sidibe, "but she's a talented actress!" is a reminder of a glass ceiling: an indirect, sometimes unconscious barrier she will never be talented enough to pass. Actresses like Sidibe have a small pool of roles to pick from, a pool made smaller by a Hollywood tradition that makes it ok for a white actor to play an ethnic role.

Just ask Vanity Fair. Could you even imagine Vanity Fair snubbing Lawrence for a spot on their "Young Hollywood" cover like they did Sidibe? (And indeed, one year later, there she is.)
Comments 
19th-Mar-2011 07:19 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for posting this. I think you make a lot of really great points about the society we live in.
19th-Mar-2011 07:21 pm (UTC)
Simply put and a very neat post. Thank you for this!
19th-Mar-2011 07:21 pm (UTC)
You might want to bring up Sidibe did get a part on a tv show, the Big C since it will come up as a rebuttal and she did another movie. Unless you watch the show, you have no idea who GS plays.

Maybe you should put up that JL has iconic and starring roles? She's playing Mystique, a fan favorite. People going in know who Mystique. They will look for her.

JL starring in Hunger Games. Her name will come first on the billboard. She'd be eligable for best actress. Her face on the posters. She's the center of the movie.


GS has supporting roles in movies headlined by other people. In the Big C, Laura Linney and Oliver Platt are on the posters. She has a reccuring role, but she's not central to it. She's not headliners. She's not even mentioned in the explanation on the side.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Big_C_(TV_series)

Yelling to the Sky is an indie film where she did have first billing, but not much of a splash or budget.

Finally, Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy and Matthew Broderick are starring in Tower Height. She's playing a supporting role which is fine, but again, this isn't a movie where she'd likely get showcased.



19th-Mar-2011 07:31 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I've edited it a little and am trying to make a stronger distinction between "big" and "small."
19th-Mar-2011 09:22 pm (UTC)
GREAT post, thank you.
19th-Mar-2011 11:40 pm (UTC)
This is so frustrating on so many levels, especially when I hear that Sidibe would get more roles if she "lost some weight". I'm just... so frustrated to be reading this...

(Not to be implying that this article is bad. It's very well-written. That's why I'm frustrated.)
19th-Mar-2011 11:48 pm (UTC)
Excellent post, but as long as most of the paying public doesn't show they care with the dollars, this will continue.
20th-Mar-2011 12:45 am (UTC)
Going to add to the echoes here but, again, thank you for writing this and putting into words what I have a lot of trouble getting across to some people.
20th-Mar-2011 02:00 am (UTC)
I think you should change the word "pass" to "opportunity" or something like it. "Pass" makes it sounds like JL is not working for her roles. It could open your post for derailing by people saying that you're attacking JL.
22nd-Mar-2011 01:11 am (UTC)
I still prefer the word "pass," but I tried to clarify that point a bit better. Thank you!
20th-Mar-2011 04:50 am (UTC)
Very nicely put together.

ETA: And if people were going to say that Gabourey Sidibe's only issue in gaining prominence is her weight (which, hi, is an important issue), there are plenty of other examples. Bend It Like Beckham starred Parminder Nagra, with Keira Knightley having the second largest role. The movie is considered to be the breakthrough role for both actresses. Nagra's most prominent role since then was on the tv show E.R.. Knightley is an internationally known actress.

Edited at 2011-03-20 05:23 am (UTC)
20th-Mar-2011 05:44 am (UTC)
Amen. Very good point about Nagra and Knightley.
20th-Mar-2011 07:05 am (UTC)
I'd say it's a combination of race and weight.
20th-Mar-2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
I love the pictures of Gabourey Sidibe, especially in her blue dress. She needs to lose weight to get more roles my butt, the casting directors are just too shallow to see past her weight.

Which doesn't help my suspicions that they chose Ms. Lawrence because she's a beautiful blonde bombshell who will attract the pervy members of the male audience. I'm not saying Jennifer Lawrence isn't talented, she probably is but I think her looks as well as her ethnicity give her a free pass at certain roles that could have been given to just as competent actors like Steinfield.
20th-Mar-2011 10:13 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this post. It should be seen by everyone who thinks that racism and discrimination no longer exist in Hollywood.
21st-Mar-2011 04:29 pm (UTC)
Sidibe deserved that damn Oscar.
21st-Mar-2011 08:44 pm (UTC)
This post is very well written. I don't think the point could be made any clearer.

And now I'm in a terrible mood.
22nd-Mar-2011 01:46 pm (UTC)
it's even sadder when you compare a good actor with a bad one. Dev Patel is a wonderful actor and deserved the awards he won for Slumdog Millionaire. Jackson Rathborne is a terrible actor, and deserves the golden raspberry he won. Maybe it's just the bad direction of MNight, but other interviews and videos I've seen of him makes him seem equally as awkward. He moves and speaks so awkwardly on camera that I assume he was raised by a herd of really bad Jack Sparrow impersonators. Jackson had five movies lined up, Dev has one where he plays a Native from India (There's nothing wrong with that per-say, but Patel's talent is really great for the audience seeing the world through him and most native parts are meant to be outsiders)
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