I remember staring at a figure on the screen, astounded by the way the actor could dance around without missing a single line of the song they were singing. It was much later when I found out most actors tend to record musical numbers separately from their dance choreography. You can imagine the shock even later on when I discovered that Zac Efron never sang in the first “High School Musical”, despite his role as a musical icon both in the movie and in real life.
An actor’s job is, well, to act. What is the issue with presenting themselves as someone they are not if they are successfully performing a role? It’s not like actors playing superheroes can actually fly, or those starring in Disney princess movies are truly royalty. And yet, this argument quickly falls apart when faced up against one of the biggest controversies in acting: minority representation.
We can start by discussing media representation by category. First, there’s the issue of gender. Theater has a long history of men playing female roles, which originated due to the disbarment of women on stage.
Currently, there is more debate about cisgender actors playing transgender characters, such as with the movie “The Danish Girl,” which stars Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe.
In this modern context, it is important to consider the difficulties in portraying one’s journey, particularly in terms of transitioning. But this doesn’t mean the role should be handed to a cis actor without any further thought, either. It would be best to allow a trans individual to be in charge of that storytelling aspect, and if they believe a cis actor to be the best fit to tell that story, then I don’t see why anyone else should have a problem with it. The issue arises when the voices being represented are entirely cast aside, and it becomes more about fitting any socially conforming individual into roles that deviate from the norm, all so general audiences will be more receptive to it.
Then, there’s the representation of sexuality in media. Though gender cannot be recognized easily either, sexuality is a topic that is delved into much more often, and sparks more conversation as a result. Like anyone else, actors don’t have an obligation to share their personal information with the public, and those keeping their sexuality under wraps often face flack for playing roles that they don’t “actually represent.” With the unfortunate incident involving “Heartstopper” actor Kit Connor, who felt obligated to come out after being accused of queerbaiting, sexuality appears to be more of a gray area in casting than most assumed. It comes down to casting being done fairly, with the prioritization of the minorities it represents, and the public learning when not to get involved.
Besides gender and sexuality, another problem comes up with race-based casting. Hollywood, along with other film industries, is infamous for its history of white-washing characters, or at the very least, downplaying their “non-whiteness.” In more recent years, there has been a movement of casting people of color in roles that are typically depicted by white actors. Personally, while I believe this is generally fueled by good intentions, it feels very hand-me-down. Why don’t people of color deserve their own unique storylines and places in the media, instead of Hollywood regurgitating old content for an attempt at inclusivity?
There is the point that race-bending characters whose racial identities were never specified isn’t inherently harmful. That this can actually be really inspiring to young children who have never seen characters who look like them on screen before. And to that, I say, there is a time and place. I find nothing wrong with it as a concept, but it is disheartening to see the majority of media starring people of color as recycled material being retold or sticking to the same “inspirational struggle story” plots.
At the end of the day, if the minorities being represented on stage are being properly consulted, and the casting process has been well-thought out, I don’t necessarily see an issue with actors playing roles they don’t perfectly adhere to. That is the point of their profession. At the same time, there is a social obligation to amend the history of oppressing minorities through limiting their roles in media, and that should be overseen by minorities themselves. It doesn’t matter who is playing the role; it only matters if the individuals being represented approve of who plays the role.