From Shakespeare to James Bond to Nancy Drew, non-traditional casting choices in the film and stage worlds are in the news lately. Producers seem eager to play with the traditional gender and ethnicity of white and/or male characters – unfortunately not so much to further an artistic vision as to push for politically correct gender and racial equality. Here’s why that is wrongheaded.
Take Emma Rice, for example. Rice is the newest artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, and she is troubled by the facts that only 16% of Shakespeare’s characters are women and most of the memorable lines are spoken by men. She is on a mission to get “a much greater proportion of women on the stage” at the Globe. “[Y]es, it is a target,” she declares. “How can we get the female voices through? How can we change the mold?”
Rice quotes actress Geena Davis, who has said that the way to get more women acting in film and TV is for directors simply to “change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names.” But this is not what Rice is aiming for. Davis is suggesting writing more female characters into leading roles that ordinarily would go to male characters; Rice wants to cast existing male characters with actresses.
For example, “[t]here is no reason why [the Earl of] Gloucester can’t be a woman,” said Rice, who admits to being no Shakespeare expert, having directed only one of his plays and having read only a few others. “If anybody bended [sic] gender it was Shakespeare, so I think it just takes a change of mindset.”
But there already have been examples of such gender-bending casting in recent Shakespearean adaptations, with all-female casts and a female Hamlet, for example. None of it elevates the plays above the level of a self-conscious casting stunt. None of it really “changes the mindset” of the audience.
Similar efforts are being made in Hollywood, where TV producers who are adapting the popular Nancy Drew novels into a TV series want to reimagine the teen sleuth as a woman in her 30s who is “any ethnicity but white.” CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller told The Hollywood Reporter that, for Nancy Drew and other series in development, “We’re not casting color-blind, we’re casting color-conscious.” But color-blindness should be the goal; color-consciousness is by definition racism.
As another example, there has been a recent surge of interest in casting the extraordinarily talented Idris Elba, a black actor, as James Bond now that the term of the iconic spy’s current incarnation, Daniel Craig, is drawing to a close. And why not? After all, Bond – like Nancy Drew – is a fictional character, not a real-life historical figure, so why can’t there be a black Bond, many ask? Or a gay Bond, for that matter, or Latino, or Muslim, or even female? Wouldn’t that be a huge leap forward for gender and racial equality?
No, and here’s why not: first, James Bond is not black or gay or Latino or Muslim, and I believe in maintaining the integrity of even fictional characters in their universe. More importantly, if the aim is gender- and color-blindness, then the only solution is to find a hitherto unknown literary character or create an all-new fictional character who is the equivalent to Bond, and who simply happens to be black (or gay, Asian, etc.).
All of the politically-driven efforts to replace existing white or male characters with non-whites or females are merely gimmicks and quota-filling, and they don’t ultimately serve the purpose of racial or gender equality in entertainment. Idris Elba playing Bond is still just a black Bond; what’s better is an original black superspy character as an alternative to Bond. A female lead in Hamlet comes off as just a marketing ploy; what’s more effective is a brilliant play that elevates a female protagonist to the culturally iconic level of a Hamlet. A 30-year-old Asian or Latina Nancy Drew is no longer the Nancy Drew of the novels; why not find or create a new equivalent? Again, gimmicks and quotas will not “change the mindset” and achieve real equality; original fictional creations will.
Of course, notoriously risk-averse Hollywood’s chief reason for rejecting that solution is economic: famous fictional characters are proven properties with very valuable name recognition and built-in audiences. But here is an example of a step in the right direction: the producers of the thriller series 24, featuring anti-terrorist scourge Jack Bauer, are rebooting the show with a black actor in the lead. The key is that the actor will not be playing a black Bauer; the producers are simply starting from scratch with a new hero, who happens to be black.
Granted, what I’m recommending requires taking a chance on creativity. It requires writers who can invent memorable characters that grab the cultural imagination and stand the test of time like Hamlet, James Bond, and Nancy Drew. That is no mean feat. But as long as the so-called creatives in the entertainment industry are fixated on simply plugging different ethnicities and genders into existing characters, their attempts to force more inclusion will never rise above politically correct gimmicks.