Okay, so I’m talking to the Professor last night and she’s trying to make some point that requires her to go off on some tangent about the Hallmark movie Riding the Bus with My Sister which stars Rosie O’Donnell as a developmentally disabled woman.
I make the comment that I find Rosie O’Donnell playing a developmentally disabled woman to be distasteful and the Professor asks why and I realize that I don’t have a well thought out reason why other than that if feels a little too much like minstrelsy to me. If it’s not okay for O’Donnell to dress up in blackface and play, say, Whoopi Goldberg in that biopic, it seems to me that it’s not okay for O’Donnell to play Beth Simon.
I couldn’t articulate it last night, but it’s been nagging at me and I mulled it over while walking the dog and I think I can get at it now.
It’s true that actors take on personas and roles by definition of their job. And so, on the surface, it seems that it ought to be all right for any actor who can pull the part off to play the part.
But. . . that’s what gets me. An actor must be acceptable to his or her audience. Let me say that again another way: the audience must be willing to accept that the actor can play the part.
Let’s think about Birth of a Nation which featured white actors as black characters. Though there was controversy when the movie came out, it was over the depiction of African Americans in the film, not whether white actors had any business playing black characters; that was a common practice.
But it was wrong, and here’s why it was nearly impossible for people at the time to see it: because most of the white people involved assumed that they knew how to perform blackness, that the assumptions white people had about black people were right and insightful. White people could play black characters because white people–actors and audiences–assumed that they really knew what being black meant.
Or think of Elizabethan actors, performing as women. Why did audiences accept teenage boys performing female characters? Because both the actors and the audience assumed that it was obvious what being a woman was and that they were as capable of performing femininity as any woman.
(Yes, in both cases, there were taboos against having black and women performers, but it should be noted that the taboo didn’t prevent the performance of blackness or womanness.)
To me, O’Donnell’s performance feels like something similar: that it’s so obvious how developmentally disabled people are that anyone can have enough insight into their condition(s) to perform it.
I’m just not so sure of that. I suspect we’re being as blind to our own privilege–embodied in the belief that we know what a “type” of person is like enough to perform and recognize the accuracy of that performance without having really been in that position–as earlier audiences.
And so, why couldn’t a developmentally disabled person play the part?
Do we really believe that Rosie O’Donnell is bringing more (or even as much) to that role than someone who knows what the character is going through?