Monday, June 2, 2014

Normal Representation: How One Casting Choice Can Make a Difference

I recently watched HBO's film The Normal Heart. Please note, this post has some spoilers.

I was wary about the film, because Ryan Murphy directed. In spite of my negative history with him, I really liked this film. It's no secret that I'm in love with Matt Bomer--there are four pictures of him on my bedroom Walls of Fandom. I also believe that the media should bring attention to AIDS whenever possible. It hasn't gone away because it's more treatable, and this generation needs to know how terrifying the height of the epidemic. The importance of awareness cannot be overstated. Around the world, people are still affected by the virus. Not everyone--indeed, not the majority--has access to medical treatment. In many, many cases the stigma shown in the film is still alive and well--if not worse, and with horrifying, violent consequences that are as bad, if not worse, than the virus itself.

But this film is not about the state of AIDS today. That's important to remember. It's about the beginning of the epidemic, in the time when those affected were (generally acknowledged to be) white, upper-to-middle-class men.

NB: I'm not here to discuss whether or not another film directed at this demographic is necessary, merely to discuss what the film does and why it does it.

The film reflects this reality. It has three female speaking roles, and one important scene that has three additional women in the background. There could have been more. There should have been more. Even in a film that is highlighting the homophobia behind the stigma against AIDS, the focus on  cis-males is bi-erasure. Not to mention the fact that in this period plenty of gay men were closeted, potentially infecting their unwitting wives and/or girlfriends. I'm not saying you have to spend a ton of screen time on a subplot, but mentioning that tragic angle would have been a way to add depth to the film while adding female roles.

Enough could-have-beens. Let's talk about what is: the third most important character in the film is a strong, intelligent, woman. She is not a love interest. She's a doctor. She's a fighter. She is not afraid to treat people with AIDS, the way the majority of healthcare providers in the film are. She understands that the virus is probably transmitted by sex, and while there is a touch of the problematic in her staunch advocacy of celibacy--repressed woman in a world of highly-sexual male characters--her reasoning is sound. All in all, we get more backstory for her than we do for the main character's love interest. That backstory that contracting polio as a child and the paralysis that resulted.

This woman, you see, is a wheelchair user.

I know, I know, a celibacy-toting wheelchair-user, but hey, sound reasoning! And she is arguably asexual, this is another layer of good representation!

Except...It could be better representation.

You see, this character, this female, disabled character, who talks about sex, and takes no crap from her patients, from the establishment, from the freaking TV-repair guy. This awesome, unique character... played by Julia Roberts.

Julia Roberts is a great actor. However, before I knew anything about her role, I almost dismissed the film based on her casting. Having a former romantic comedy lead playing a token women in a film about gay men? It screamed Lifetime movie to me, not highly-intelligent film. I'm glad I was wrong, but even though I hope this film gets her an Emmy nomination my misunderstanding of the film's aim due to her involvement is only one reason why she should not have been cast. There is no reason the role needed to go to an able-bodied actor. I can come up with an argument for every argument an able-bodied person could come up with for this choice. Needing to cast a big name in the one major female role? Nearly ever role in the film is played by a name--Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer--These are actors that bring in both male and female viewers. Casting an unknown, or relative unknown, in this part wouldn't have hurt anything, and it could have provided an amazing opportunity for a disabled actor.  There are no other limitations that could have affected character's casting. She didn't even have to be a specific age. In a film set in 1981, anyone could have had polio as a child. That virus wasn't rare until 1967, and the last recorded case wasn't until 1979. An actress need only be old enough to be out of medical school. That's it. That's all. From what I've gathered, the disability itself was a choice made by the filmmakers. Maybe they made it after Roberts's casting, and that's their explanation. Nothing justifies it entirely.

The excuse that Hollywood--and, in fact, Ryan Murphy--constantly falls back on whenever able-bodied actors are cast in disabled roles is the need to show characters walking (or hearing, or seeing) in a dream sequence, a flashback, or what have you. When it's important to character arc, I get it. I'm not opposed to Kenneth Branagh playing FDR in Warm Springs, for instance. But this time, the excuse doesn't hold weight. And yet, I can pinpoint the place the filmmakers will point to if challenged. There's a scene--I almost want to call it "the scene" because I feel like I've seen it in every film that does this able-bodied-actor-disabled-character thing--where Roberts's character, Emma, reveals that she can walk with crutches, but she doesn't practice enough. Cue Ruffalo helping her "practice," her falling back into her wheelchair, etc. It's a negligible moment, really. An excuse to get the male and female leads touching, which is unnecessary at best, offensive at worst. Fine, it shows the physical weakness of an otherwise strong female, and in doing so highlights the parallel being made between polio and AIDS. But here's the thing--it could've been done by a disabled actor. I know plenty of people who use wheelchairs a majority of the time, but can use crutches. Hell, many of them--like Emma--could walk more, but are out of practice. They have other priorities. They choose to use wheels, and put their efforts toward fighting other battles, just like this character.

I'm not saying an able-bodied actor cannot play a disabled actor. In some cases, it's necessary (see above re: acquired disability.) And no doubt there's someone out there who wants to drag this argument down the slippery slope of, "well, should all the gay characters be played by gay actors?" And you know what? Ideally, yes. And no. One's sexuality shouldn't matter in casting, because sexuality is fluid, and the Kinsey scale exists. But the thing is, gay actors in Hollywood play gay characters. They play straight characters. In this film, gay actors play gay characters. Not that discrimination doesn't exist. Not that that casting is done perfectly, but I do not think we are in a place where Matt Bomer would have been considered too gay to play his role.* I do think that it's highly possible that no disabled actors were considered for this part. And there are disabled actors. There are plenty of them. And if people with disabilities who are aspiring to the become actors could turn on the TV and see themselves in roles like this, there might be more.

As I said, The Normal Heart is not about the state of HIV/AIDS in today's world. It's about a time when the virus was known as "gay cancer" or "Gay Related Immune Deficiency." Like other media about the era, The Normal Heart focuses on the white, cis-male gay community of New York. Unlike RENT, or even Angels in America, it makes no attempt to venture into the world of those who became HIV+ via shared needles, or anyone below the poverty line. There's a clear focus on the homophobia that kept policymakers from addressing the growing numbers of people infected with the virus, and the monied gay activists who were pushing back. Both sides, though, make their point by stating beliefs that heterosexuals cannot be infected, or had only been infected in Africa. Again, this provides a blatant example of white privilege, and bi-erasure, but it comes in the interest of making a bigger point--the privilege enjoyed by white upper-to-middle class males--even those who were gay--did not exempt them from this.

This point, I think, is made especially cleverly in the introduction of the second female character, a woman named Estelle. She comes to volunteer for the AIDS awareness movement after her best friend--her gay friend, who took her shopping and to Broadway--has died. In spite of the stereotype, his death is no joke, and her loss is not less because she is an "ally." Her introduction serves as a reminder that no one is safe from the virus--not the  gay best friends, not the closeted military men who vacation on Fire Island, no one.

The Normal Heart is not a film that does a lot of things that haven't been done before. What's important is that it's doing these things now--almost twenty years after RENT premiered on Broadway. It's bringing awareness to an issue that hasn't gone away, and the cast list is an attempt to draw in an audience who hasn't heard the message before. I get that. But Julia Roberts's target audience has likely heard the story. And I think that reaching a young, disabled audience is important in a time when people in the white, middle class world are "living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease" (to quote RENT), specifically this disease. Although the characters who contract AIDS in the film do not survive long, the filmmakers took care to show the way they became disabled in the interim. There are walkers, wheelchairs, and crutches, all of which highlight the connection to Emma's disability. And, yes, this is meant to remind the audience of the similarities between AIDS and polio; but not just in the way the diseases were treated by the government. The parallel also gives the audience a hint toward the future of AIDS in this demographic. As the films title-cards remind us, it takes place from 1981-1983, but it is airing in 2014, and the landscape HIV/AIDS has changed, but the virus has not gone away, no matter how much policymakers still wish it would.

People who are HIV+ in this day in age are becoming part of the chronically ill. Many identify as having a disability. Like Emma, they live with physical limitations that are worse some days than others. Thanks to medical professionals and  activists like those in this film, HIV/AIDS no longer brings a death sentence in the Western world, anymore than polio does. And so, like polio, the history of HIV/AIDS has a place in disability history. If nothing else, it provides historical justification for the overlap that often occurs between queer theory and disability studies in the academic world. But, in my opinion, it does much more than that. The fight beginning in this film is one that is still being fought by disabled and chronically ill people. A fight about healthcare, and access, and awareness. A fight against stigma, against shame, against guilt. A fight to be heard, to be loved, to be accepted. One that requires the kind of passion, and indefatigable strength that this movie promotes.

There are going to be people who dismiss A Normal Heart because most of the characters are upper-middle class, cis-, white men. The few nods to diversity include a smattering of female characters--one of whom is disabled--a couple characters who identify as Jewish, two who are visibly non-white, and some who become disabled. The big names on the cast list come from superhero movies and a TV show designed around hipster man-pain and first world problems (and I have to say, I liked Jim Parsons, and I despise The Big Bang Theory.) But, in a way, this lack of diversity is the point.

The "Normal" Heart. Usually, I dislike the word normal, but here I think it's used in a very specific way. Normal. Average. The target audience and the characters are "normal" in the contemporary sense. Sure, they love other men, or they're Jim Parsons-type geeks, but they're not many standard deviaitons away from the norm. It is not an ideal to be an outlier. The is targeted specifically to the privileged audience. It's not about eclectic, romantic starving artists whose culture--to a degree--celebrates the burn out. It's about men who have just begun to dream about having the lives and families of their straight counterparts, but will lose that chance. A generation of "everymen" wiped out in a viral war. Through the film, the characters come to realize that they, with their "normal" hearts--can love. They can speak up. They can fight. Just like anyone else. And if they don't, if they don't embrace their normality, but also their individuality, they will be on their way to becoming a chilling statistic  the government didn't want to acknowledge.

This is, in a way, where Julia Roberts's character Emma comes in. She's an outsider in this gay, white, privileged world, and at one point she accuses Ruffalo's character Ned of being afraid of her. Everyone, she says, is afraid of her. In the context of the film, this is perhaps true, not because of her or even disability in general, but because of what it represents. Her wheelchair, and the virus that preceded it, foreshadow the wheelchairs and walkers that in turn represent the physical toll that AIDS takes from its victims. In becoming sick, characters become like Emma, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. They may be physically weakened, but like her they must fight other battles. Felix focuses on his love for Ned. Others fight for awareness, or allow their friends to do so. In losing some of the physical vitality that defined these privileged men in the opening scenes of the film--oil soaked babes on Fire Island--they become less ideal everyman, more real everyman. They exist as individuals, they can love deeply, and they have expanded the definition of "normal" to include not just privileged, promiscuous healthy, men but also sick, passionate, frightened men and women for whom "heart" is far more important than "normal."

I keep thinking of the other example I've seen of GRID being featured in mainstream media. Grey's Anatomy did an episode several years ago (6x15 "The Time Warp") and in about fifteen minutes of screen-time managed to establish the parallels between a white, closeted man being ostracized by everyone, including doctors, and the show's characters, a white female and black male doctor. The three of them are united by their shared experience of isolation, and the doctors treat and comfort the man in his final days. Obviously, the film wants to say something similar about the connection borne of illness and oppression, but I think it did a better job at showing the way the isolated group starts breaking apart--attacking itself, as it were--than it did in showing that power can come from connection as well as from fighting. Yes, there is some suggestion of that through Ned's brother and Emma, but I think it could have been better.

Through enforcing this normal, everyman mentality, The Normal Heart serves to remind this generation that this disease, the one they have come to associate with drugs, and Africa, and poverty, and the occasional heath class scare tactic, affected their world. There's a blatant "there by the grace of God' theme, highlighted in the juxtaposition of characters who seem immune to the disease, for no discernible reason. AIDS does not discriminate, any more than the polio virus discriminated between households in the forties, no matter how much effort the housewives put into cleaning their houses and keeping their children inside. However, nothing else in the film suggests that it seeks an audience of the June Cleavers of today. There are enough household names on the cast-list to bring in both male and female audiences of all ages.**

I hesitate to outline a problem without offering a solution, even in a two-thousand word manifesto about an HBO film, so let me say this: I think it might have been a good idea to convert this project into a mini-series. It bothered me that Emma got more background than Felix, mostly because of her symbolic role, and that although Felix has been married with a child and Ruffalo had sex with a woman, we get no acknowledgment of the possibility of bisexuality, no further history on Felix, no explanation as to why he had no family at their quick hospital wedding. As it stands, I don't know why his son was mentioned, except to highlight yet again the fear and isolation faced by the gay community. A longer arc here might have allowed the inner-circle of the film to expand a little, to once again redefine the definition of "normal." Perhaps to show the beginnings of AIDS spreading to a wider population and the relief, guilt, terror, compassion  and anger this would have ignited.

A mini-series also could have fixed some of the implications surrounding the woman-in-the-wheelchair being painted as a prude, simply because she is adamantly insisting that if sex can kill you, the reasonable solution is not to have sex. A few opportunities to show her expressing sympathy about this, or being in a relationship, or--hey--being asexual but with an actual conversation about how she does understand that other people want/enjoy sex, she has had the opportunity and did not enjoy it, no she wasn't raped, and look if chocolate could kill me, I'd stop eating it. They could have fleshed out a trait that at once gives a character depth but also errs toward the stereotypical.

Finally, with more time, we could have seen more of Ned and Felix's relationship. The couple-y time we saw on screen was absolutely fabulous. I want more of it. I don't think I'd cut anything to get it, because I think the film weaves its arcs pretty well, but I would have loved more of them.

Barring that, they could have just cast a person with a disability, ideally a PoC in Emma's role and I probably wouldn't be complaining.

I wanted The Normal Heart to do more, mostly because it does so much by not doing things. Casting a disabled actor in Emma's role would have further reminded the audience of how deliberate, how important, the rest of the casting choices were in terms of the message of the film. Again, I really, really liked this film. But every time I will mourn the decision that could have made me love it.***

*I do think it's possible that had Bomer been explicitly out when he was cast as canonically straight (but bisexual in my head) Neal Caffrey in White Collar the media might have considered him "too gay," but that's another discussion. Also, his sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood, so I imagine, I think, I pray, it was known and not considered during casting.

**Again, I'm generalizing here, but I think it's easy to parse the way in which many choices were made about this film to draw in certain audiences. Ruffalo brings in the superhero-loving audience, Parsons the hipsters, Bomer anyone with eyes. A good amount of people tune in because it aired during the Game of Thrones time-slot. I just can't imagine how Julia Roberts helped bring in their target audience. She hasn't done much to attract young women (or men) recently, and I don't believe they were working hard to bring in my mom's demographic. A young woman would have done more to bring in the straight males/queer females (and, really, the latter is the group I think they'd want and be less likely to get because of the lack of females.) Additionally, I imagine the amount of "OMG you have to watch this!" that would have ensued in the disability/feminist/social justice world had they cast a disabled unknown would make up for the Pretty Woman fans who tuned into a premium cable channel to watch an honest film about AIDS.

***There are other choices that would have made it better, too, of course, like casting more ethnically and racially diverse actors. A PoC woman with a disability would have gone a long way to address multiple issues!

1 comment:

  1. You know that this was an adaptation of a play right? And that, if Wikipedia is to be believed, ' "Emma' was modeled after Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who treated some of the first New York cases of what was later known as AIDS' --

    None of which goes to whether Julia Roberts was the best choice to play her, but does suggest that the polio and the celibacy-support were not just whimsical choices by the director.