Time to Stop Obsessing About Playing 'Dignified' Movie Roles
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.
It’s natural to react to allegations that you are less than the normal, and to prove that you’re not just trying to be equal but better than the normal: more serious, more composed, more sophisticated, and yes, more dignified than the people who are degrading you. Condoleezza Rice told People magazine that when she was in college, she told a professor, “I speak French, I play Bach, I’m better in your culture than you are,” in response to the professor’s citation of a racist scientist who said that black people were biologically less intelligent than other races.
It’s the need for that sort of refutation that animates a great deal of Sidney Poitier’s career—he could tame classrooms full of London students, outclass white newspaper publishers and gallery owners, and solve murders that white detectives couldn’t, even under constant threat.
Similarly, Tom Hanks’ performance as Andrew Beckett, a gay man suffering from AIDS and fired from his law firm in the movie “Philadelphia” is a sharp rebuke to the idea that it’s his bigoted heterosexual coworkers who are the true grownups. Members of the firm try to embarrass Beckett, setting him up as incompetent, suggesting he’s responsible for his own illness. But his resilience proves that having sex in a movie theater is less a cause for shame than being an ignorant bigot.
But while constantly proving you’re better than the people who oppress and deny your dignity may be an effective refutation of prejudice, it’s also exhausting. The right to not have to constantly act as representative of a class of people, but to be able to relax and make bad decisions without undermining an entire liberation movement, is a marker of true equality.
That’s why shows like the web series “Husbands,” which features two famous gay men who get drunkenly married in Vegas after six weeks of dating and decide to make a go of it, or characters like Troy on the on-hiatus “Community,” are so much fun. The couple on "Husbands" may be mortified that they got caught shirtless and drunk by the paparazzi, but the important thing is building a viable relationship rather than being perfect role models. Troy, liberated from his high school football days, is free to let his geek flag fly, to live in a pillow fort and rock truly awesome “Aliens”-inspired costumes with his best friend.
Taking the weight of the world off black and gay characters’ shoulders is a matter of fairness—but it’s also in the best interest of creating real variety in their storylines, and better entertainment for everyone.