HOLLYWOOD, BOOK PUBLISHING, AND OTHER MEDIA OUTLETS are designed to give audiences stories that they will want to take in, but, all too often, the system that is used to determine whether or not a narrative will connect with readers and watchers — and, therefore, whether or not a particular story will ever see widespread distribution — neglects to consider the audience as a diverse blend of people who enjoy good stories. Instead, the publishers, producers, and distributors who decide what gets published and when choose to put out stories based on so-called “mainstream appeal” — that is, appeal to an imaginary audience that is largely white and largely male.
Those who participate in this system and are not bothered by it spin the decision catalyst, not as an upholder of the status quo, but as a type of common-sense business acumen. These are the stories that sell, they say. Audiences enjoy them, to the tune of millions every year. Why would we fix what isn’t broken?
Because the system is broken. Yes, androcentric stories and whitewashed casts make money, but they don’t bring in the kind of profits that diverse books and movies do. According to Mic:
Over the past decade, a box office hit about a man — think the Harry Potter series, or about a group of men like Wild Hogs — grossed an average of $80.6 million. In the same period, a hit film about a woman grossed an average of $126.1 million. That means, on balance, top-grossing movies about women earned $45.5 million more at the box office than movies about men.
And yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, publishing powerhouses continue to deliver cracker-bland stories about pretty girls and their strong, silent beaus. When a charming, funny, and eye-poppingly appealing movie comes out to upset the apple cart with a woman-rich ’80s revival — yes, Virginia, I’m talking about Ghostbusters — angry, male “fans” of the original do everything in their power to stop the project from achieving any sense of success.
Ironically, those same self-avowed purists were upset in 2012, when Amandla Stenberg was cast to play Hunger Games character Rue in the film franchise based on Suzanne Collins’ YA book series. Readers took to Twitter to express their displeasure with the decision to cast a black actress in the role, and many felt that it “ruined” the movie. Collins’ description of Rue as “a twelve-year-old girl from District 11 [who] has dark brown skin and eyes” did not sink in with these majority white — or “mainstream” — audience members. Instead, as one Tumblr user pointed out:
These people are MAD that the girl that they cried over while reading the book was “some black girl” all along. So now they’re angry. Wasted tears, wasted emotions. It’s sad to think that had they known that she was black all along, there would have been [no] sorrow or sadness over her death.
This problem goes beyond race and sex, however. All too often, entertainment media present stories about marginalized people from the “more relatable” perspectives of their white, male, straight, wealthy, healthy, able-bodied, Christian acquaintances, friends, and family members. Ostensibly, the story should be about the person whom society has othered, but instead of allowing that person to tell his or her own tale, publishers and producers place a generic, privileged stand-in between that character and the audience.
And so we learn about racism through the eyes of an economically secure little white girl who sees racially charged violence play out in her hometown. How a man who has been diagnosed with autism perceives the world is presented as a foil to his frustrated neurotypical brother’s experience. We see the day-to-day life of a homeless person only after his son finds him on the street.
In all of these stories, the conflict does not come from society’s rejection and abuse of the marginalized person. Instead, it takes place within the privileged narrator, who must decide how they feel about an issue that they are able to walk away from at the end of the day. Told in this way, points of marginalization become catalysts for privileged narrators’ personal growth. The little white girl realizes that people who are nice to her might not be so kind to those who are different. The selfish younger brother must sacrifice his interests to dutifully micromanage his neuro-atypical brother’s life. The well-to-do son, capable of bringing his father in from the cold, must decide whether being homeless is punishment enough for whatever slights he feels his father inflicted upon him during childhood.
So, the next time you see me bristle over Eurocentric storytelling and transphobic casting, understand that it’s because I’ve watched this movie, over and over again, until I’m sick of it. I want stories about people whose lives and existences are impacted by marginalization. I don’t want to hear your privileged narrative.