Girls on Film: Women of Color, Move to the Right

Girls on Film: Women of Color, Move to the Right

Feb 02, 2012

Vanity Fair isn’t known for getting its annual Hollywood Issue right. Each year we are graced with a thick, Tinseltown-studded release of widely recognized talent and new faces the magazine swears will hit it big. But many consider recognition from Vanity Fair a curse. A good number of these fresh actors never make it beyond the work that got them cover recognition in the first place – actors like Skeet Ulrich, Fairuza Balk, Gretchen Mol, Rufus Sewell, and two-time cover girl Selma Blair. But these cover-starring choices aren’t just about hot names with potentially successful careers; it’s also a matter of hotness and whiteness.

This year’s cover features the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Rooney Mara, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Adepero Oduye, Elizabeth Olsen, Shailene Woodley, Felicity Jones, Lily Collins, Paula Patton, and Brit Marling. Superficially, the list is pretty solid. The magazine has chosen carefully, applauding the current influx of dynamic young talent from the indie world (Oduye, Marling) alongside more mainstream picks like Woodley and Collins. The roster is an improvement over their previous “Splendor in the Grass” cover, which looked more like an old, forgotten photograph of late-90s teen stars than a look into formidable talents. It’s also great to see both Oduye and Patton make the cut in a magazine with a tendency to forget women like Gabourey Sidibe, Jennifer Hudson, or Freida Pinto. But Vanity Fair tarnishes the mix with its continual habit to shift women (and men) of color to the right.

As Jezebel points out, Vanity Fair’s placement of its cover talent is more than just coincidence, it’s become an almost absolute tradition. When the magazine dares to include actors who aren’t white, they are put on the middle or right-hand panel of their fold-out, three-panel covers. In 2011, Anthony Mackie made the middle panel while Rashida Jones made the third. In 2010 there was Rebecca Hall on the middle cover, but chances are, both the magazine and much of the populace don’t know she has mixed ancestry. (Mother Maria Ewing is Dutch, Scottish, Sioux, and African-American.) In 2008, Zoe Saldana and America Ferrera rested on the middle and right frames, respectively. Chris Rock made it front and center in 2007, but one would hope he would when the right panel was, literally, a bunch of penguins. Between 1995 and 2006, actors of color either weren’t included or were pushed to middle and right panels, save the 1998-1999 anomalies featuring Djimon Hounsou and Thandie Newton front and center on the left side.

In other words, Thandie Newton is the only actress of color to make it on the front panel of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Issue over the last 17 years.

Was I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry so tantalizing that Jessica Biel should trump Zoe Saldana, who was co-starring in James Cameron’s then-upcoming epic, Avatar? Was it the critical perfection that was Four Rooms that made Tim Roth cover-material in 1996 while Will Smith, who already had a successful rap and television career, and had already broken into Hollywood with Bad Boys and the upcoming Independence Day, was at the very right of the spread next to Jonathan Schaech, David Arquette, and Skeet Ulrich?

With the exception of Mia Wasikowska, the rationale for the actresses on the 2012 cover is very obviously Academy Award material. Jennifer Lawrence earned a nomination last year, and this year, Rooney Mara has a Best Actress nod for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while Jessica Chastain boasts a nod for her supporting role in The Help. But it’s no stretch to notice that Chastain is there for The Help while co-star and co-nominee Octavia Spencer is not – not even on the second or third panel. Spencer’s performance has already won her a Golden Globe and a SAG award, yet she doesn’t merit a spot in the magazine’s Jazz Age photo shoot, one where she’d fit in quite nicely alongside Mara and Chastain. It certainly seems like a missed opportunity to fail noting the spread of fresh-to-the-spotlight talent infiltrating the Academy this year.   

One might note Spencer’s age – she’s 39 – but that’s moot. A number of actresses in their mid-late 30s have appeared not only in the mix, but also on the front panel. Paula Patton is in her late 30s. The 2005 cover featured an almost 35-year-old Uma Thurman and almost 36-year-old Cate Blanchett. Diane Lane was 39 for the April 2004, “Send in the Gowns” issue, and in fact, Julianne Moore was in her 40s when she appeared front-and-center in that issue. Likewise, one might argue that length of time in the industry is a concern, but that didn’t stop Vanity Fair from putting 20-year-career Jennifer Connelly on the front alongside 13-year-career Kirsten Dunst in 2002’s mix of young talent. But I digress.

As the magazine frames it, they wanted to pick “Hollywood’s most precocious beauties” for this issue. It’s quite ridiculous and nonsensical when you look at the ages of the actresses involved. There’s nothing developmentally premature about a skilled actress in their late twenties (Felicity Jones), early thirties (Jessica Chastain), or late thirties (Paula Patton). Perhaps Patton is the bone thrown to audiences to make the mix seem more inclusive, or maybe her age became irrelevant because of her beauty.

Understandably, Vanity Fair isn’t responsible for overturning the industry, but it is – along with much of the system – responsible for helping it continue. Including Oduye, Patton, or even Spencer on the front cover wouldn’t tarnish the magazine or its reputation, but it would go a long way towards recognizing and nurturing the contributions of women who aren’t white – while also pleasing an increasingly disgruntled audience. As Flavorwire wished a year ago: “next year, in the spirit of progress, we’d love to see a Hollywood Issue that dares to spotlight even a single non-mainstream, non-white, non-young, or not conventionally super-hot actor before the fold.” (Though I think we’d all happily take a gorgeous, mainstream, non-white actress.)

The magazine has nothing to fear; there is no distinct precedent of Vanity Fair predicting tomorrow’s big star or the actress with the most staying power – something that would sadly make any inclusion of diversity slightly problematic since Hollywood success continues to be an uphill battle for actresses of color. A smidge of diversity can only help. Recognizability helps popularity and the influx of film offers; we rarely see a woman of color in the middle of casting wars juggling a mix of high-profile projects, which in turn makes them less relevant to magazines in the age-old circle of struggle.

The real rub in all this is complicity. Vanity Fair knows this pisses people off. They just willingly wear blinders. They ignore the masses who complain each year; they ignore the increasingly diverse landscape; and they ignore their own offerings to the discourse on race in America. In the late ‘90s, the magazine talked to Fran Lebowitz about race. The entire piece would be an excellent lesson for the magazine today, even after all these years, but two thoughts distinctly stick out:

“Getting in the door is pretty much the entire game, especially in movie acting, which is, after all, hardly a profession notable for its rigor. That’s how advantageous it is to be white. It’s as though all white people were the children of movie stars. Everyone gets in the door and then all you have to do is perform at this relatively minimal level.”

“So by the time the white person sees the black person standing next to him at what he thinks is the starting line, the black person should be exhausted from his long and arduous trek to the beginning.”

Vanity Fair is not alone in ignoring great lessons, thoughts, or discourse it publishes. To this day, discussions about equality are often seen as niche endeavors, opinions to be shared but maybe not adopted. These are blips that momentarily break through the daily cacophony of media and the Internet. It doesn’t help that we’re living in a sea of “keywords” that never consider context. This column itself has been victim of that – discussions of sexism nestling next to headlines about hot babes and boobs because both discuss “women.”

But is it too much to ask publications to really take to heart thoughtful and intelligent criticisms, not to mention the smart minds of the interviewees they find to notable enough to include in their pages? Reason would suggest that if you consider someone smart enough for a 3-page interview, they might say something worth noting.

IN THEATERS

Declaration of War

France's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, the excellent Declaration of War, started a limited run in New York City last week. Written (with co-writer Jeremie Elkaim) and directed by Valerie Donzelli, the film follows a couple’s whirlwind relationship as they meet, fall in love, have a child, and subsequently struggle to deal with the news that their young son has a brain tumor.  It’s a dramedy, but not down the same cancer comedy road of that other 2011 film, 50/50.

Donzelli instead captures the essence of a couple who declare war on the sadness that threatens to ruin their partnership, for better and for worse. Employing a rather whimsical French feel similar to Amelie, the film rips through layers of social protocol and manners to settle on the wry reality of sickness. There is a beauty to the pair’s journey; some moments pull them together into a singular unit while others rip them apart. Unlike the usual Hollywood fare that loves a more black and white trajectory, Declaration of War is about reality, digging through continual moments of success and failure, where nothing is neat, and happily ever after is only one small part of a larger whole.

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black is Daniel Radcliffe’s story. You might be tantalized by sites like IMDb that list Janet McTeer as the second-listed star before Ciaran Hinds, but her contribution is but a very small portion of a larger hole. It’s an unfortunate tease, but luckily the film really delights in the classic ghost story build of tension and creepiness, and is no better than the moments where McTeer steps on screen. In maybe 10 minutes of film she quite singularly steals the show as a woman mourning the loss of her child. One can only hope that after scene-stealing turns in this and Albert Nobbs that someone will start pushing her into the spotlight.

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