SARRAH LE MARQUAND
SARRAH LE MARQUAND

We are so woke it’s dangerous

WOULDN'T it be funny if the ever increasingly shrill attempts to achieve inclusion resulted only in a society less tolerant and more divided than ever?

You're right, of course. It's not very funny at all.

But in any event it's a moot point given there's little room for humour - much less nuance or compassion or critical thought of any kind - in these aforementioned shrill times in which we live.

It is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson who is the latest to have fallen short of the new cinematic barometer by which our humanity is now seemingly measured.

His portrayal of the lead character in the action film Skyscraper, in which he plays a former FBI agent and war veteran who fights to save his family from a burning tower, has attracted criticism given the able-bodied Johnson is playing an amputee.

Among those upset over the casting is American actress and Paralympian Katy Sullivan, who penned an open letter to Johnson last week complaining that the role should have gone to a genuinely disabled actor rather than an actor, err… well, acting, as the script demands.

"My request is for you to stop saying 'Yes' to roles like the one in that movie," she wrote. "The outcry is about inclusion. TRUE inclusion."

Look, I get it. It's completely understandable to feel frustrated that actors with disabilities are overlooked by casting directors and movie studios in favour of "safer" established names, who invariably are conventionally attractive leading men and women who just so happen to be marketable and, yes, able-bodied. So it's a valid concern for Sullivan to raise.

But come on.

Notwithstanding this would-be moviegoer's suspicion that Skyscraper is nothing but a pale imitation of Die Hard and thus hardly deserving of all this fuss, is it really such a bad thing that the hero of an action flick is an amputee?

Don't look now, but by the macho standards of blockbusters past, this is a progressive step few would have dared dream of as recently as 20 years ago.

You might say the same of the big-screen depiction of transgender people, which has quite rightfully come a long way in recent years.

And yet not content with the likes of Scarlett Johansson signing on to give transgender gangster Dante "Tex" Gill the Hollywood treatment, critics have succeeded in putting an end to that particular casting too.

"I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project," Johansson announced earlier this month, after the outcry became too loud to ignore.

"I have great admiration and love for the trans community and am grateful that the conversation regarding inclusivity in Hollywood continues."

Translation: simplistic protests and downright bullying triumph once again, and both art - and genuine cultural progress - take a backward step.

Again, let's take a moment to acknowledge that performers of all ages, colour, body shape and sexuality should enjoy authentic and non-condescending representation in the media. No argument here.

But this increasingly fashionable edict that only certain people are qualified to speak on certain issues, or portray certain roles, is not enlightened - it's nothing short of dangerous.

Not only is this mindset utterly devoid of imagination and complexity, but more worrying still, it is devoid of empathy.

"The Rock" Dwayne Johnson worked with various amputee groups to ensure his portrayal in Skyscraper was accurate.

Do we really want to live in a world where we only pay attention or react to issues relating to our own particular demographic?

Do we really want to foster a culture where everyone is encouraged to stay in their box and pay no heed to the life experiences and challenges and needs of others?

That doesn't sound much like progress to me.

Isn't empathy the ability to understand and appreciate another person's thoughts and needs?

Because decrying that it's simply not possible to walk a mile in another's shoes unless you happen to have been born fitting that very same shoe size seems to put paid to that ideal.

Basic evolution of the human race aside, there's a litany of iconic pop culture that would not exist had it been subjected to today's standards, despite being credited with raising awareness and accelerating mainstream acceptance of lifestyles once deemed "alternative".

Scarlett Johansson withdrew from playing transgender gangster person Dante Gill after an outcry. (Pic: Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images)
Scarlett Johansson withdrew from playing transgender gangster person Dante Gill after an outcry. (Pic: Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images)

Did being straight in real life hinder Heath Ledger's searing portrayal of a gay man in Brokeback Mountain?

On the contrary, his off-screen persona only helped the film resonate with a broader audience who might otherwise have been resistant to the material.

Dante Gill in 1985. (Pic: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP)
Dante Gill in 1985. (Pic: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP)

And what of Sarah Jessica Parker, who was a blissful newlywed when she was cast in the role of quintessential single girl Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City in 1998?

Later taking on responsibilities of executive producer, the real life wife and mother played a pivotal role in redefining the fictional characterisation of a woman who was neither.

Should being a married mum-of-three have disqualified Jessica Parker from delivering a sympathetic on-screen incarnation of someone who was in many ways her polar opposite?

And what if the reverse were to apply? What if the late actor Robert Reed, who played Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch, was prevented from portraying a heterosexual suburban dad given in reality he was gay?

So-called inclusion isn't so woke when you flip it, is it?

Whether it's critiquing breakfast TV panellists on the their skin colour rather than the substance of what they have to say, or arguing that men should not be allowed to participate in the #MeToo movement, or demanding that one overpaid actor be replaced for another, what's missing from the current landscape is an acknowledgment of and respect for our shared experiences.

You might say check your privilege. To which I say check your empathy.

Sarrah Le Marquand is the editor-in-chief of Stellar magazine and the founding editor of RendezView.



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