Time to Stop Obsessing About Playing 'Dignified' Movie Roles
1 year ago
Equality also means minorities having the right to be undignified
Viola Davis recently made headlines for declaring that she’s exhausted by the use of the word “dignified” to describe black actresses. But while her objection stems partially from the overuse of cliché language to describe African-American actresses who portray them, from “sassy” to “soulful,” it hits at a larger point. For minorities of all stripes in popular culture, true equality means the right to be undignified—but on your own terms.
An easy way to marginalize people—or to justify policies that limit their full participation in American life—is to suggest that they lack dignity and self-control. And popular culture’s been a vehicle for those stereotypes, particularly as they’re directed at African-Americans and gay people. “Birth of a Nation” shows African-Americans behaving corruptly both individually and collectively. In “Birth,” African Americans are portrayed as fraudulently-elected black lawmakers violating political protocols, wasting the time of the South Carolina state legislature or out attacking white women. The movie suggests that African-Americans can’t follow rules, much less elevate society beyond the legal minimums that hold us together.
Stereotypes of gay men and lesbians may not imply that they’re not capable of obeying the law or upholding it, but they often rely on the idea that gay people are incapable of living up to straight definitions of what constitutes dignified behavior. Whether it’s Albin trying—and failing—to imitate John Wayne in the original “La Cage aux Folles,” or “Lilith,” in which lesbianism is a disease you can fall prey to if you’re already mentally ill, gayness is a condition that makes you less-than, that makes you crazy, that makes you perpetually unable to meet the standards set for you.