Cultural Segregation

Two instances in which so-called cultural appropriation occurring in the film industry have been pointed out recently. The first is the case of Ruby Rose, who was slated to play Kate Kane aka Batwoman in a new series. The character (since her 2006 incarnation) is both Jewish and lesbian; Ruby Rose is not Jewish and identifies as genderfluid. This discrepancy between the actor and the character led to social media backlash that resulted in Ruby Rose quitting Twitter. The second case, which hasn’t received as much attention (at least not in as far as it could be construed as cultural appropriation) is the possibility of Idris Elba being cast as the next James Bond. Richard Spencer posted a Twitter thread saying:

“Let there be no mistake, a Black James Bond would be an act of dispossession far greater than a flotilla of a million refugees. Refugees are, after all, refugees. James Bond is a symbol of British identity—indeed, the British empire—and of European masculinity writ large.”

Both of these cases aren’t exactly the same. They’re different in that the first one is outrage toward the actor not meeting strict intersectional criteria imposed by the audience while the second one is outrage toward the creators for making a creative decision about the character itself (the particular actor Idris Elba is incidental in this case).

However, the logic in both cases is similar: the fictional character and the non-fictional person portraying the character must have exactly the same background and identity.

I see the case against so-called cultural appropriation boiling down to three different arguments: 1) the person portraying the fictional character must be able to understand the world view of the character in order to accurately and faithfully portray the character, 2) having someone who does not check off the requisite boxes in terms of intersectionality is essentially robbing this portrayal from someone more qualified in terms of intersectionality – in the case of Ruby Rose, it robs the role from an actual Jewish lesbian woman; in the case of Idris Elba, it robs the role from an actual white man, and 3) that the characters are symbolic of a certain identity and must therefore remain faithful to this identity.

Reason 1 may be theoretically true, but to take this to its logical conclusion, a person should only ever be able to portray themselves. I may know a lot about my brother, but I don’t completely understand his worldview, so should I even be allowed to portray him as a character?

As far as acting goes, the whole point of the art is to act. In other words, for a person to portray someone that the actor is not. Should actors only be allowed to portray characters who are also actors? Should we stop making World War 2 movies, since none of the actors involved fought in World War 2? Should only Jewish converts to Christianity be allowed to portray Christians, since that is who the original Christians were?

Speaking as a writer, I enjoy coming up with characters who are much different than myself. Characters coming from different backgrounds in different parts of the world with different views about philosophy, society, and identity. Not only is this more interesting than only telling stories completely about cisgendered heterosexual white men of Dutch ancestry from working class Michigan who grew up in the 1990s, but it allows me to broaden my own horizons. Coming up with characters from my book (shameless plug), such as a Japanese ex-Yakuza member who now lives as a trans woman, or a white ex-Marine man living in a mostly Cuban-American neighborhood in Florida, or a female assassin for the Mexican cartel with genetically engineered upgrades, meant that I had to be able to attempt to identify and empathize with these characters. It forced me to learn something about their internal states of mind, but also about how people like this live in the world. My own world would be much smaller if I kept it confined to only my own ability to fully understand: the world of a cisgendered heterosexual white man of Dutch ancestry from working class Michigan who grew up in the 1990s.

Reason 2 may be theoretically true in some cases. Certainly, if there is an equally qualified and available Jewish lesbian that wants to play Batwoman, giving it to someone else might be seen as a slight. There could also be many other reasons aside from pure intersectional adherence that would sway the producers one way or the other, such as prior working relationships with one particular actor, actor pay and marketability, etc. But, I would argue, if we are to obey strict intersectional guidelines, more often than not, a project will never even get off the ground. The number of qualified (meets all of the intersectional criteria and can actually perform the job requirements (ie in the case of acting, the person is actually an actor that can perform the type of role being considered)), available people who also desire a particular role would be incredibly limiting. In the theoretical framework of intersectionality, wouldn’t the audience be better served getting the project at all, and getting to move even slightly closer to understanding the experiences of the character, rather than making perfect the enemy of the good?

As far as making James Bond black, in this particular case, race has little to do with the role. Certainly, if being white was an important aspect of the character of James Bond – for instance, if James Bond had to infiltrate a Soviet spy network, which would only work if he could disguise himself as a Soviet Russian – then it wouldn’t make sense for James Bond to be black. The fact that he has to use his whiteness would become an essential aspect of his character. But it’s possible to make a James Bond who doesn’t require his whiteness as an essential aspect of his character. I’ve seen only a handful of James Bond movies (so correct me if I’m wrong) but I don’t ever remember the fact that he is white even being mentioned, much less being an issue.

Reason 3 is what Richard Spencer brings up in his Tweet: namely that James Bond is symbolic of the British identity, which is white. The same argument could be used in the case of Batwoman being symbolic of Jewish lesbian women, although this would symbolize a much smaller identity group. This argument has also been made for characters such as Major in the 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell, when the Japanese character was portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. In both cases – James Bond and Major – the race of the character is never important to the story, but both are being held as symbolic representations of their respective identity groups. This argument only works if we concede that race intrinsically important. That we ought to hold a character’s race up as an essential good in-itself, rather than incidental to a character for whom their race is never an important aspect of their character. This is an insidious form of racism that forces people to see race as an essential aspect of ourselves as people, above and beyond our shared experience as humans.

Certainly characters can be made who are supposed to symbolize something about a certain people’s struggle, but if this isn’t what the character is meant to portray, then isn’t their race incidental to the character? If one were to portray Martin Luther King Jr., then yes, using a black actor would be necessary, since this would be a portrayal of a black man fighting for the equal rights of black people. But James Bond is not fighting for the equal rights of white people. To say that it is innacurate for a British spy to be anything other than white may have been true when the character was conceived, but it is no longer the case, so saying that James Bond, or any British spy in general, are categorically not able to be black is not even factually accurate. James Bond being white is completely incidental to the character. To insist that James Bond remain white is purely to raise his whiteness to a symbolic level.

In the end, I see cultural appropriation as an attempt to culturally segregate people. Much of human history has been made possible by the dialectic between different cultures coming together and sharing (sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently) their ideas. And this is all culture is: an idea, not an essential aspect of a person’s being. Good ideas should be allowed to win in the marketplace of ideas, regardless of the race of the individual holding that idea. I would argue that the best way to let good cultural ideas win is to allow people to freely explore those ideas in the form of art and entertainment. Cultural segregation, which seems to be the popular response to perceived cultural appropriation, is essentially telling people that it is wrong to even attempt to hold cultural ideas outside their own experience. Allowing people to go outside of this cultural segregation can only increase empathy. Indeed, the arts and entertainment industries embracing cultural exploration, as opposed to cultural segregation, has been a huge driving force in progressing society’s understanding of people and ideas unfamiliar to their own lived experience. Cultural segregation can only be a step backwards, into a dark and isolating world where people can only identify with others just like themselves. Where we must constantly be cultural sentinels on the lookout for transgressions. Where the type of groupthink that leads to dismissing everything negative about ourselves and our own culture while consistently attempting to amplify the negatives of others, rather than understanding them. That is certainly not a world I would want to live in.

EDIT (2/8/2023) – the following video does a good job discussing topic: