“When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”
This oft-quoted statement by poet Adrienne Rich focuses on the concept of “representation” in school curriculums and hints at why accurate portrayals of every group – and in particular underrepresented and marginalized groups – is so important to students’ self-esteem, identity development, and sense of belonging or isolation.
Home maintenance expert Mercury Stardust wants you to know that you’re worth the time it takes to learn a new skill.
This concept of “representation” and its impact on groups of individuals considered “different” or outside the mainstream is multiplied many times over on the macro level in media.
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From a very early age, I was particularly drawn to music. The music I favored was not, however, preferred by my peers, for I fell in love with what many call “classical music,” though it covers several styles and periods.
Beginning in the late 1950s through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, whenever I could, I watched the CBS TV broadcasts of the “Young People’s Concerts” narrated and conducted by my favorite television personality, the great Leonard Bernstein.
Clear and precise in his teaching and conducting style, he epitomized for me the qualities of a great educator: knowledge of his subject matter communicated with passion and combined with a pedagogical style geared particularly for his intended learners. He articulated a love of music, making it accessible to younger people & generations.
Most importantly, though, in my identity development process as a queer Jew, Leonard Bernstein presented to me a model and guide of an unapologetic, unrestrained, passionate, exuberant Jewish man.
Though I often heard comments that his physical “mannerisms” and speech patterns were “over the top,” his joy of music and of life itself was contagious and affirming for me. I was happy to learn eventually that he was gay or bisexual.
Though his life and image have been captured in the documentary film form, the TV streaming company, Netflix, is due to release the dramatized Maestro this fall, first in theaters and then on the platform.
Producers could have chosen from a significant array of talented world-class Jewish actors. Since Bradley Cooper with Steven Spielberg bought the music rights to the film in 2018, however, and Cooper wrote and directed the film, he cast himself as its star.
While Cooper has certainly shown that he is a competent (verging on brilliant) actor, the fact that he is not Jewish limits the potential for true “representation.” To add further insult, pre-screening publicity pictures and the film’s trailer show Cooper wearing a prosthetic nose.
Notwithstanding the fact that members of Leonard Bernstein’s family supported the film’s casting, the plastic schnoz makes him look like nothing more than Bradley Cooper with a silly-looking nose approaching that of a circus clown.
Cooper’s image resembles the antisemitic caricatures from the 18th century onward, the ones depicting the evil, bulbous-nosed Jewish bankers often representing members of the Rothchild family, with their hands grabbing into and covering the globe.
I find it truly offensive that in 2023, non-Jewish actors are still playing Jewish film characters. This sends the message that the public does not wish to see actual Jews on screen and that Jewish actors are either undesirable or lack talent (There goes the antisemitic trope that Jews own Hollywood!).
Jews, however, are certainly not the only members of marginalized communities who have been misrepresented in the classroom and in the media.
Blackface — when people darken their skin with shoe polish, grease paint, or burnt cork or wood and exaggerate their lips and other facial features — has been the mainstay of U.S. popular culture since soon after the Civil War. It dates back centuries to European theatrical productions, most notably to Shakespeare’s “Othello.” It is founded in racism.
“It’s an assertion of power and control,” says David Leonard , a professor of comparative ethnic studies and American studies at Washington State University. “It allows a society to routinely and historically imagine African Americans as not fully human. It serves to rationalize violence and Jim Crow segregation.”
The white man, William H. West (1853-1902), a U.S. blackface performer and minstrel troupe owner, hired both Black people and white blackface performers. In his “Big Minstrel Jubilee” at the end of the 19th century, he featured white blackface performers Billy Van, who called himself “The Monologue Comedian,” and Carroll Johnson, known as “The Artistic Comedian,” to the applause of a largely white audience.
Beginning as a radio program in 1928 through the 1940s, the characters on “Amos and Andy” were played by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. It was not until 1951, when “Amos and Andy” hit the small screen that they were replaced by Black actors.
White actors often played Latinx characters in film as well. For example, in the original 1961 film version of the 1957 Broadway play, West Side Story, Rita Moreno was the only cast member of Latinx background, though fully half of the roles were written for Puerto Rican characters. Even so, Moreno and her white “Puerto Rican” cast were mandated to wear skin-darkening makeup.
Steven Spielberg, in his 2021 remake of the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, cast twenty actors/singers/dancers who are Puerto Rican or descendants of Puerto Ricans, including a reprise by Rito Moreno, who at 89 years old played a different role in this version.
White actors have performed as Asians on film in racist stereotypes. One of the most offensive is the white actor, Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Truman Capote’s film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, replete with darkened skin and oversized buck teeth.
White British actor, Peter Sellers, played Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi in the 1968 film The Party, and Sir Alec Guinness (a.k.a. Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars) performed as Indian Professor Narayan Bodbole in the film adaptation of E. M. Forster’s Passage to India.
The Motion Picture Production Code banned any depiction of homosexuality and other representations that industry censors deemed not “presentable” and “safe” for the public at large from the early 1930s to the late 1960s. But when LGBTQ+ characters did appear on the screen, heterosexual cisgender actors often filled the roles.
On the small and large screen alike, this has been especially the case transgefornder representation in film. Ugly Betty performer Rebecca Romijn played trans woman, Alexis Meade; Scarlett Johansson plays trans man, Dante “Tex” Gill in Rub and Tug; Jeffrey Tambor plays trans woman Deborah Pfeffer in the TV series Transparent; Jared Leto played trans woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club; Felicity Huffman played trans man Kevin Zegers, in the film Transamerica; John Lithgow was trans women Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp; Hillary Swank depicts trans man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry; and the list goes on.
I understand that the role of actors often requires them to undergo physical and/or vocal transformations to ensure a more accurate and authentic depiction of their characters.
Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour and Brenden Frazer’s character in The Whale would have been laughed off the screen and would not have been considered for what turned out to be their Academy Award-winning performances had it not been for their prosthetic bodily metamorphoses.
Yes, Leonard Bernstein sported a prominent nose. When, however, embodied by a non-Jewish actor, it falls into the realm of parody, caricature, misrepresentation, and yes, antisemitism (a form of racism).
When released, Bradley Cooper’s vanity project, Maestro, will undoubtedly garner some positive reviews and will propel Cooper further into the galaxy of stars. Mazel tov!
This, however, begs a critical question: Why has the entertainment media industry not yet given equitable and just representation to minoritized groups and communities?
The film’s possible success raises a crucial point in equitable media representation: A positive and accurate representation of an individual or group is not enough. Those who perform and represent these individuals and groups truly matter. The social identities of the actors performing truly matters.