Sunday, August 16, 2015

I Don't Need To See "Stonewall" To Know It's Offensive

I apologize for the lateness of this post with regard to the subject matter, as I've been having an overall aversion to writing lengthy things lately for some reason.  Anyway, the film "Stonewall" comes out in a little over a month, and has been embroiled in controversy, especially after the trailer came out, which seems to portray the first act of vandalism of the historic uprising as having been performed by a white cis gay man, unnecessarily whitewashing an already-compelling story to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience that apparently only identifies with queer people when they're cute white gay guys.  A lot of people have already talked about this, notably Miss Major Griffen-Gracy (who was actually at the riots and has an Autostraddle interview you should read that includes not only this film but also several other aspects of Stonewall misrepresentation).  I'm not going to deeply address why whitewashing and ciswashing and gender-flipping in casting are problematic because you should fucking know better already, instead I want to talk about one specific thing that is being used to attack critics of "Stonewall."

That thing is the shrill whine of white cis gays crying and moaning that people are boycotting a "well-meaning" movie showcasing queer history "when they haven't even seeeeeeen it yet!"  That's the basic thought process behind the whining done by the film's director upon hearing that this movie was being boycotted.  We haven't seen it, so for all we know the trailer could be entirely misrepresenting everything and we're missing out on a delightful and thought provoking film that "deeply honors" the people of color who were really involved by... some mechanism yet to be explained.  It's often pointed out that there are, in fact, quite a few people of color cast in the movie, and the creators have stated that Marsha P. Johnson (one of the main players in the riots) is "heavily featured."

Screen capture from "Stonewall" featuring several characters,
white cis male character "Danny" monopolizing most of the space.
The insistence that we wait and see the film before making any judgments is based on some things that we, as viewers who haven't seen it, don't know.  These include:
  • We don't know for sure if Danny is being portrayed as having actually started the riots with a brick through a window or if the preview just selectively chose a shot of him throwing a brick for the promotional materials.  I'll be clear here: I'm putting this up as a courtesy.  If Danny didn't start the riots in the film, then the creators of this need some fucking better advertising, because literally everything they put out implies this.  From the About section on their Facebook page: "With the toss of a single brick, a riot ensues and a crusade for equality is born."
  • We don't know how much screen time is given to Marsha P. Johnson and other trans women of color and how well-represented and accurate their characters are.  Again, I'm putting this up as a mild courtesy to the creators, because I see no indication that Marsha is anything but a side character in this film.  Not to mention, being "heavily featured" is not the same as being actually respected.
And... that's pretty much it, as far as relevant information.  This is what detractors are basically telling us we need to find out before coming up with an opinion.  Two things that are a little vague in the trailer (although I'm guessing our assumptions aren't as inaccurate as Roland Emmerich and Jeremy Irvine want us to believe, see above about the "single brick" comment).

Here's the problem, though:  We don't know everything about this movie, but the things we actually do know are really goddamn shitty.
  • We know that the main character is a fictional white gay man.  This is fact.  It's in all the descriptions of the film.  We know that he has the most depressingly canned backstory one could possibly think up for an LGBT film (midwestern white boy rejected by his parents, moves to big city, meets up with street-smart kids who are worthwhile because they teach white people valuable lessons).  Telling the story of a real-life event through a fictional character with relative privilege compared to the real participants in that historical event is extremely obnoxious, and quite frankly happens too often (remember Dolphin Tale, which obliterated all but passing reference to the little disabled girl who was central to the real-life event and replaced her with an abled boy?).  This is reprehensible.  It's disgusting.  There is no excuse for it and we don't need to see the film to know that this is a problem.
  • We know that they cast men to play the trans woman characters in the film.  There is no excuse for this, and it alone reason enough to boycott this movie.  And it wasn't a fucking unknown problem, did this guy not see any of the backlash behind Dallas Buyers' Club for casting Jared Leto?
  • We know that the promotional material all centers Danny.  Screencaps used to advertise it often feature Danny central and ahead of trans and/or people of color characters, as a focal point.  This makes sense because all descriptions of the film show that it is basically the story of this fictional Danny guy, which I already explained two points up.  Trying to explain this away as being a movie trick editing problem where the preview doesn't accurately depict the film is absurd, but even if it weren't, keep in mind that this is the stuff they're literally using to promote this film.  This is the stuff they're using to say "Hey, this is a worthwhile film, come watch it."  This is ludicrous even if the story did center actual involved people.  I'm reminded of the Sapphires US movie cover that prominently featured the white man Chris O'Dowd front and center--along with his name--while the actresses portraying the Sapphires themselves were washed out in blue in the background with no cover credits.
One of the interesting things about the whole situation is this:  These are all things that have already been talked about before about other films.  The problematic nature of casting cis actors for trans roles isn't new.  It's not the fucking nineties anymore.  People are becoming more aware that trans people aren't some tiny shred of the world population that only produces an actor once a millennium.  Whitewashing isn't a new critique, either, and it's certainly common enough that Emmerich can't possibly have not heard about it at least once.  And people know that promotional material--regardless of the content of the movie--is the pre-release public face of that film.  And yet it still was made and advertised that way.  That's disturbing.

But I know that some of you--if you've even read this far--are already cooking up your certified list of canned excuses for why this movie is still OK.  For you folks I have the following list of also-kind-of-canned responses to the excuses I see people continue to make for this movie:

"The cast is really diverse!"

Alright, maybe the film did better than some peoples' perception of Stonewall (there are people out there arguing that Stonewall was literally started by white cis gays "because crossdressing was illegal" and that talking about the trans women and people of color involved is "politically correct").  That doesn't change that the whole story is oriented around a white gay man who didn't exist, that it centers him, and that doing this inherently downplays the contributions of actual people who really existed (and in some cases are still alive, such as Miss Major who as I mentioned above has condemned the film).

"But we need representation!  Don't let perfection be the enemy of good!"

I know some of you are going to absolutely hate me for saying it, but white gay men don't need more overall media visibility.  They are already grossly over-represented when queer issues are brought up.  They are The Default Queer.  When queer rights and freedoms come up, mainstream discourse without fail will trace it all back to wealthy white cis gay men and wealthy white cis gay male interests no matter how irrelevant they are to that situation.  Although there were white cis gay men at Stonewall, they weren't the easy targets others were, and many of them were entirely disinterested in rocking the boat to preserve their white male privilege.  Even today, it's white cis gay men in particular who have tried demeaning and halting progress made by trans people, by people of color, by any queer people who are not them.  The people who were central to Stonewall--poor trans and gender variant people of color--are vastly underrepresented in the same media and often disrespected when they are represented.

"But we need to make our history known!"

This is such a bullshit argument I can't believe people are actually using it.  Seriously.  You can't take a pivotal moment in queer history, change the entire focus of it, whitewash it, and then say that's totally cool because otherwise people won't know about Stonewall.  Because they're not learning about Stonewall!  It gives me chills (the bad kind) to know that there are going to be queer people learning about Stonewall from this fictional story, and that all the involved people think they're performing some great service to queerdom for it.

So a fun fact... a lot of younger queer people have not heard of Stonewall.  I've in fact had to explain Stonewall to probably about a dozen younger or newer queer people--especially gay men--whose understanding of queer history starts and ends with same-sex marriage, which they perceive of as having been flagshipped by white gay cis men.  This is one reason among many why people are comfortable saying asinine shit like that gay people "paved the way" for trans rights, or that gay is "the new black."  In other words, you make it perfectly fine for white cis gays to remain totally and utterly oblivious and obnoxious when it comes to their own history, smug in their belief that everything queer always has and always should revolve around them.  There's nothing about that that outweighs the utter disappointment that is this movie.

In conclusion, it literally doesn't matter one iota that people haven't seen the movie yet.  The things that we know about it already render it irredeemable, without nearly enough benefit to justify it overall.