This piece was published in Catalyst on the 18th of September, 2013.
Scarlett Johansson sits in a windowsill overlooking Tokyo. With facial expression alone, eyes directed away from the camera, she communicates a kind of bored melancholy. That’s all part of the narrative, but there’s something else her face conveys; something on a different plane altogether. We, the audience, are to find her beautiful.
Why should she be beautiful? Why this character in particular? It’s entirely possible that there are roles out there that demand conventionally attractive actors — one must look a little like Marilyn Monroe to play Marilyn Monroe, I suppose — but this is not one of them. This character could have been played by someone slimmer and less alluring, or someone fatter and as alluring, or anybody, really; so how is it, then, that this exceptionally attractive woman landed the role? Are we to consider it mere happenstance?
Clearly, it’s anything but. Rather than being an anomaly, Johansson is indicative of the film industry’s greatest unwritten rule: for women, at least, the screen is to be the near-exclusive realm of the conventionally attractive. This is as true for studio product as it is for independent film; as applicable at Cannes as it is in Los Angeles. A few rule-proving exceptions aside, this has been a constant throughout the history of cinema.
Feminist film theorists might invoke the ‘male gaze’, and it’s easy to see why: the film industry is still a heavily male-dominated area, and female actors are still far more likely to be chosen for their looks than their male counterparts. However, this is not solely a feminist issue. It is still, for instance, uncommon to see an overweight man in a leading role.
Is this a problem? Considering the importance of media in shaping the way we see the world, there’s good reason to believe so. It is highly unlikely that the homogeneity of female appearance in film, TV, music videos, magazines and billboards doesn’t in some way contribute to negative self-image amongst women and teenage girls; likewise, it would be difficult to conclude that the same phenomenon doesn’t feed into broader discrimination. It is impossible to consider the vile prejudice directed at the overweight, for instance, without holding popular media at least somewhat accountable.
Still, even these are insufficient justifications for what would inevitably be considered an attack on artistic freedom. Beyond being genuinely problematic, any ‘end product’ remedy — quotas, for instance — would probably only be ineffective and tokenistic anyway.
There is, surprisingly enough, a much more practical and reasonable solution. When it comes to appearance, there is precious little equal opportunity in casting. Let us consider Ms. Johansson once more: whatever facial proportions happen to correspond to the current beauty paradigm, whatever body shape is considered most socially acceptable, she is in possession of them. As such, she has been a member of a privileged group since childhood. In her profession of choice, she, like most other well-known female thespians, has had opportunities that many equally talented actors have simply never been granted. For those whose physical attributes do not conform to the beauty standards required by the mainstream entertainment industry, the chances of professional success are so remote that the choice of an acting career could only be said to be ill-advised.
This, sadly, is not a phenomenon limited to the film industry. Popular music, television, advertising and the fashion industry are other areas in which the same discrimination is perpetuated. In an age in which discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, sex or sexuality is no longer considered lawful in most workplaces, it may seem strange that such blatant prejudice is still given a free pass.
Needless to say, enforcing discrimination law in the entertainment industry has already proven a thorny issue. In the United States, the country from which the vast bulk of our popular entertainment is sourced from, a rare racial discrimination claim against the producers of a reality TV show was dismissed on the grounds of contravening the right to free speech. Although the verdict in Australia may well have been different, there’s good reason to exercise caution here: one would hardly want a Soviet-style system in which film content was regulated in order to meet a set of moral or political requirements. Indeed, artistic freedom should still be considered paramount — the only change that ought to be pursued is a fairer, more equal-opportunity casting process.
This would not be an easy law to enforce. There would need to be some objective record of the casting process, whether that be monitoring from an independent body or access to audition tapes, and it would be imperative that filmmakers had access to the defence that a role demanded a certain physical appearance. Given that claimants would need serious reason to believe that they had been unfairly passed over, cases would be few and far between. These caveats, however, are common to all forms of discrimination law; sometimes, the most important point is that the guideline exists. So long as casting directors were aware that they were lawfully bound to consider actors based on merit, it is inevitable that we would start to see a greater diversity of people onscreen. That could only be for the best.
For now, however, the entertainment industry continues to systematically exclude a section of the population for no defensible reason. That this fact doesn’t provoke greater disapprobation is perhaps testament to how accustomed we are to it. The battle, however, is looming; with it, the prospect of a future in which our screens are no longer solely the domain of the privileged. It cannot come soon enough.