Friday, May 29

Reel Representation: On-screen diversity must not be used to avoid controversial discussions

(Claire Sun/Daily Bruin)

Sometimes, it’s wrong to bring up diversity in Hollywood.

When promoting problematic or contentious film projects, actors have launched into discussions about diversity as a tool to circumvent more controversial topics. The tactic has most recently been used by actors discussing the controversy surrounding Woody Allen.

Allen’s daughter, Dylan Farrow, accused the prolific director of molesting her when she was a child, a claim Allen denies. While allegations of sexual abuse and child molestation have been around for many years, the vast majority of Hollywood continues to work with him – every single one of Allen’s films is brimming with A-list talent, from Cate Blanchett to Justin Timberlake.

More than once, when asked about a hard or controversial topic, actors have lauded the use of representation in films to sidestep difficult questions. These actors’ actions are unacceptable and undermine genuine conversations about diversity and representation, making it harder for artists seriously advocating diversity to pursue change.


In light of the #MeToo movement in Hollywood, the claims against Allen have taken on new weight in the conversation around sexual misconduct in the film industry. Timothée Chalamet of Allen’s upcoming film “A Rainy Day in New York” is one of the latest former-Allen collaborators to express regret for working with the director, pledging to donate his salary from the film to organizations such as the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.

However, the vast majority of Hollywood has yet to renounce Allen, and some continue to actively support him. Kate Winslet, who stars in Allen’s newest film, “Wonder Wheel,” declined to answer difficult questions about the allegations facing Allen on the press tour, saying,”It’s just a difficult discussion. I’d rather respectfully not enter it today.” Instead, she praised Allen’s handling of female characters, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “His female characters are always so rich and large and honest in terms of how they’re feeling and he just knows how to write dialogue for them to communicate all that.”

By shifting the focus away from the allegations of misconduct and refocusing on the merits of Allen’s ability to understand women, Winslet brandishes diversity as an incisive tool to redirect the conversation.

Winslet’s words bring to mind a similar interview that Scarlett Johansson did last year while promoting “Ghost in the Shell” – a film that drew controversy over claims that it was whitewashing the Japanese anime series from which it had been adapted. When asked about the perceived whitewashing, Johansson seemed to acknowledge the issue, telling Marie Claire, “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.”

However, within the same answer, she quickly pivoted, saying, “Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that – the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.” When Johansson vaguely addresses claims of racism but then redefines her whitewashed role as a strong female character, she reframes the conversation from an uncomfortable one about racial erasure to one about the more laudable notion of feminist empowerment.

When directors and actors work together to bring strong, complex women to the screen, they should absolutely be applauded. However, Winslet’s and Johansson’s statements make me deeply uneasy. They’re manipulating the conversation to get themselves out of hot water.

To some extent, we’ve seen this bleed into the media coverage of sexual misconduct allegations against Aziz Ansari. Although Ansari himself hasn’t directly invoked diversity in his defense, many have struggled to contend with the accusations because Ansari has been a vocal feminist in the past, even wearing a Time’s Up pin to the recent Golden Globes. In a way, Ansari’s past support for female representation has served as a shield – at best, it confuses the allegations. At worst, it deflects them altogether.

As the struggle for diversity becomes more prevalent in Hollywood, I’m sure that this interview diversion tactic will only increase in frequency. Interviewers aren’t as afraid to ask the tough questions, and thus far, using diversity as support has been effective in letting actors off the hook, even if that relief is fleeting.

As a result, vigilance is essential. In order to make sure that diversity is viewed as a serious issue, we as viewers have to make sure that representation isn’t weaponized only in the face of PR disasters.

When I fight for representation, I don’t want to feel that my words have been cheapened by opportunistic actors hoping to catch a break from public scrutiny.

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.