I love Trevor Noah. Not in an, I wanna lick your face and stalk you online nonsensical kind of way. This is more like, wow. What a good dude. The comedian and host of The Daily Show seems so empathetic, so smart, so kind and thoughtful. Patient too.
Sometimes just listening to him talk makes me feel better. It’s like, yeah. He’s in our corner. He gets it. Take his recent comments about Scarlett Johansson. The actress is back in the news again for giving more air to what some perceive as her healthy sense of entitlement. In a recent interview she said “…as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job.”
That sentence seems to have kicked everything off, and at face value it doesn’t amount to much. But her past behavior offers problematic context. Johansson has been involved in multiple instances of white washing, and even gender washing, in recent years, taking on characters originally created to represent people from non-straight, white groups.
Noah offered his thoughts:
“For so long, Hollywood and the people who have defined storytelling in America, have defined it as stories to be told for and by white people,” he said in a clip.
“All people are saying is, if there are these opportunities where it’s like, a Japanese character pops up, you saw how many people loved Crazy Rich Asians ’cause they’re like, ‘Hey man, just to see myself on screen’ — not in just a stereotypical fashion but just to see myself as a human being.
“We take for granted how much representation means to human beings.”
Noah went on to say that representation – in film, TV, art and the like – plays a key role in actually shaping society. “Imagery is powerful,” he explained, “Because a lot of the people who watch those movies don’t come into contact with diverse people. So, their image of these people is defined by Hollywood.”
My hat’s off to him. He could have blasted her, rolled his eyes, thrown up his hands in disgust that we’re still here, again, with the same frickin’ lady. But he’s trying, God bless him, to kindly explain the obvious to the deliberately obtuse, in hopes that his explanation will sway someone, somewhere, and change their mind, heart or behavior enough that we as a collective will benefit.
It’s admirable, really, because this particular fight is exhausting. I’ve been doing my own very small part for years now, every Friday, calling out the truth as I see it, offering a different perspective on the events of the day, in an objective a way as is possible in a blog – in hopes of swaying someone, somewhere, changing their mind, heart or behavior in hopes that we as a collective will benefit.
Sometimes it feels like a huge waste of time. But as futile as things can seem, people like me, like Trevor Noah, and the hundreds of others who try to point out white privilege, can’t seem to stop. At most we take breaks. We focus on other things, we laugh, we make others laugh, and when the laughter stops and tears are ready to fall we place ourselves behind closed doors where no one can see.
In the article where Johansson made her “controversial” remarks, she talked about living in a weird identity-less time, the prevalence of casting trends, and she seemed to question what is acting if social and political things take priority over art?
“There are a lot of social lines being drawn now, and a lot of political correctness is being reflected in art…I feel like it’s a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions.”
Let’s unpack that, shall we? Discounting the vague, safeness of her comments, I was left with an impression, a faint hue of bitterness. Like, maybe this was her rather bloodless middle finger to the people who created diversity-related controversies about her in the past and kept her from playing roles that she wanted to.
Beyond that, I find her comments quite strange because art has always been political. How could it not be? It reflects society, the world we live in, the people with whom we interact. The act of creating art is often born from a person’s emotion, experience, pain, suffering, life.
Also, what identity does she think is missing? We live in an era where diversity has never been more vocal and prevalent. It’s a time where authenticity and uniqueness are so prized they lose their value from being copied so quickly. I don’t know.
I feel like this is a person who has not learned anything from her controversial experiences. Johansson hasn’t learned that inclusion matters, and that representation in art is important for the audience, for the actors and creators, and as Noah says, for society as a whole. She is still focused on what she wants, what she has seemingly been denied. Thoughts of the thousands of actors of color who’ve been systemically relegated to roles that make people who look like her comfortable – while they keep the choice characters for themselves – likely are not resonating with her at all.
I could be wrong. I could be reading too much into the whole thing. My perspective could be colored – pun intended – by Noah’s comments, by my own experiences and desires. But this talk of casting trends struck a sharp and dissonant chord with me.
Diversity is not a trend. Inclusion is not a trend. At least, they shouldn’t be. They are in point of fact, the simple and complex reality of the world we live in today.
Johansson’s mention of political correctness, of discomfort because art should be free from restriction, that smacks of pique. A white woman huffing irritably that she’s been importuned, yet again, by the tiresome need of everyone outside her bubble to have a turn. It’s sad, really. The blinkered-ness of it.
But that’s why we need people like Trevor Noah. We need someone to call things out and raise a flag, or at least a questioning finger, so that we don’t become complacent with the status quo, complicit with a comfortable and familiar order. One that prioritizes one actress’ desire for limitless freedom over the rights of a mélange of actors and actresses of color who can play the part equally well if not better if given a chance.
Realistically, Johansson isn’t the problem. She’s one actress. She’s not making movies. She’s not casting them or producing them. The real battle is with casting directors, filmmakers, script writers, etc. But she is not without power.
She could take a stance for inclusion if she wanted to. She’s not hungry. She’s not completely without merit. The reason she keeps getting shit on is because she appears not to care about anyone but herself. That narrow-minded selfishness is the essence of white privilege.