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Not going to Let It Go, and the storm WILL rage on

Politics of Race and Gender in Filmmaking

Not going to Let It Go, and the storm WILL rage on

Politics of Race and Gender in Filmmaking

So, I am pretty proud of my fan art getting circulation on thiscouldhavebeenfrozen. I loved the film (and have a spoiler filled rant about it here), but have kept a critical eye on the project since I learned about the TCHBF project about a year ago. So, I post my racebent Elsa and Anna fan art in the wee hours last night and watch the notes soar to higher levels than I’d ever seen before! Such happy! Wowe!

But then I see that I got a note that just says “No” from someone as a response to the version I posted on my art blog, a version that included said spoiler-filled rant. I put a lot of thought into my write-up, expecting no comments from anyone (lol no one ever looks at my stuff), but then I find this person saying simply “No!” I am a little confused and not sure what they mean.

I look into their blog a bit to see if I could send them a message, and I cannot, so maybe they’ll see this?

Person who said “No!” I want to know what you were referring to. My brief analysis of the film’s flaws? My arguments about PoC in fantasy films? The positive remarks I made? The racebent drawing, period? I want to know what you are talking about, because I feel like we could have a more meaningful discussion on the subject of race and the media if you are upset at my racebent artwork.

At a glance of your posts, I notice you reflect the sentiment of “if PoC want to see themselves in the media, they should make their own.” Look, I’m right there with you. I didn’t study feminism and race in the media in college to reach the sole conclusion that Hollywood is racist/sexist/etc. I admit that I do think Hollywood is racist, so I agree that people of color need to make their own media. However, you seem to quickly dismiss the fact that there is a power structure already in place in terms of the executives making decisions. They know what sells if they are playing it safe, and that’s how they decided their approach for Tangled and probably how they decided to rein in some of their original ambitions for Frozen.

I do not think all executives are white, but it is clear that they are disproportionately so. As are they disproportionately male, which is why it is a win that Frozen was co-written and directed by a woman while another woman co-wrote the songs. That’s a little bit of progress, and a step in the right direction. Women in these positions of power ultimately make for stronger stories about realistic female characters. I’m more than happy for that.

But back to the point of race, the people in power (ie US Hollywood executives) obviously believe that most movies should feature mostly-white casts, because that’s what has historically been successful. I’m going to simplify this, as there are a few more factors going on, but I want to drive home the point that these successful films that featured predominantely white casts didn’t do as well as they did in a void, but rather under historical conditions where US society as a whole devalued people of color politically, economically, and socially. The most important two forms of capital here are political and economic, as these are means for people in the United States to gain agency in a capitalist society such as the US.

So with monetary and political power comes access that is crucial for filmmaking, especially in the past when the process was even more expensive. While anyone could -hypothetically- create their own media, it takes more than an idea and a script to reach audiences. It takes access to technology, time, and man-power to create film. Re: Money. The people who are in hollywood often got there because they were predisposed to having access/time because of their socioeconomic privelege (aww yeah. I used the p-word). It’s not the only way to get there, and I commend those who were able to start from nothing, and those who start from nothing who are also marginalized by race, gender, or sexuality. But the system doesn’t exactly make it easy.

I have read many accounts of writers who pitch ideas for films featuring non-white casts that either get rejected or white-washed to make the film more “marketable.” The ideas for non-white media from non-white folk are out there, but so many of them get cut before coming into fruition. The same goes for female-centric stories, so it’s no surprise as to why there are so few female characters that are fleshed out beyond the point of acting as a sex object or romantic interest. I mean, Alison Bechdel accidentally created a stupidly simple set of criteria for female characters that SO FEW hollywood films can meet. I am happy to say Frozen passes, but that’s unfortunately an exception to the apparent rule.

And what is the logic of casting mostly white/male characters? And casting them more often than not as the lead? Because historically, when women and people of color had less political agency, the films did well? Because women and people of color begrudgingly identify with white men as the default human, and actual white dudes rarely question the status quo that has almost always catered to them? That is the state of things, it seems. Sure there are some great exceptions to the rule, but for some reason those exceptions aren’t enough to allow more people of color and feminist women to make decisions as higher ups. And the status quo is so firmly in place, it will be a while before this will change.

And here’s the thing that makes the race/gender thing somewhat insidious for a film like Frozen, and why the “This Could Have Been Frozen” project even became a thing: Frozen is a fictional, animated film. Both of these traits make it so the limits on who could have been on screen were completely arbitrary, and when things are arbitrary, the apparent default is white. Never mind that Arendale is NOT Norway, that the Snow Queen was not exactly the source material but an inspiration (kind of how the Frog Prince was inspiration for Princess and the Frog), and that we have talking snowmen in the film. Nevermind, too, that there is a non-white group of people called the Sami that are also indigenous to the Scandinavian part of the real world, and that Europe has never really been all white, either.

But the people making the decisions didn’t want to take a risk with their expensive film. Animating a film like Frozen takes an even more intensive process than traditional filmmaking, and it involves SO much manpower to get from idea to final product. It’s a technological masterpiece with its beautiful flurries of snow and accurate recreation of ice. Making such a fancy film under the Disney brand is not cheap. So, it’s not quite the same thing when person of color creates a film that will probably screen a few festivals and serve as a means for getting hired at the lower rung of another company where they will have no decision making power for a long time. A Disney film and any big-budget Hollywood film in general will have so much more exposure than independent media. At least as long as the media model stands as it is. Things are changing, of course, with the advent of streaming services and the youtube generation, but the quality of a project still matters and that’s a big advantage Disney and similarly powerful Hollywood agencies have over smaller animation teams.

Still, the funny thing to me is that people who did the nitty gritty work of animating, designing, lighting, rigging, editing, etc the film are probably a very diverse range of folks. You can get a glimpse of it when you watch DVD special features or skim the credits. I know that I’ve come across a lot of blogs by professional artists and animators, a lot of whom are not white or dudes for that matter. I even attended a Pixar workshop once with two speakers, and the man who talked about animation was hispanic. People of color are in the production process, and I am hoping more of us can work our way up to create more diverse films in the future. Because doesn’t diversity only serve to enrich stories? Multiple perspectives and voices in the room can only serve to make a stronger final product. THAT’S JUST GOOD FOR CAPITALISM, ISN’T IT? If you won’t listen to my appeal on a social/human level, at least consider the dollar, dollar, bill, ya’ll.

I invite you to think a little more critically about the media you consume every day, and think about why whiteness is the default. Perhaps give some bell hooks a read? This essay about black spectatorship, “The Oppositional Gaze,” is a good start and it can give you a glimpse into what people of color deal with when going to the movies that mostly star white people. And maybe you should also consider the impact media can have on a society. If you follow George Takei, you may have seen his link to this video about how MLK Jr. was a big fan the character of Uhura because it was the first time a black woman had agency on screen. It was a bold move for the Star Trek creators to cast her, and while it was not executed perfectly, it was historic and had an impact on so many. Representation matters more than you think.

So, I racebent the characters from Frozen as black women, but I myself am Latina. I guess I’m just used to having to identify with someone who doesn’t look like me? It’s really not that big of a deal for me to draw characters that don’t resemble my upbringing. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, nor does it make me angry to question how valid or “realistic” it is considering it is fictional artwork. It does upset me that I don’t often see someone like me on screen, and it’s something I do hope to help change someday. It’s why I even got interested in filmmaking in the first place, and the theory that I learned in my media studies classes only drives me more to create my own media. I hope to be the change I want to see, too, and that I can follow my own dreams to create a film with as much reach as Frozen. Slowly, but surely, women of color are gaining the agency we need to achieve these types of things.

At least I hope.

Crosspost from a rant written on December 6th, 2013 on my Tumblr.