2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Richard Dyer’s ‘White’ and Writing About Race

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In Richard Dyer’s integral essay “White,” he presents a thesis that whiteness has been treated as invisible and a code for normality on the screen. As a result, depictions of people of color are made only in relation to this invisibility, rendering them as the other. In his writing, Dyer suggests a need to treat whiteness as a race in order to remove the binary of normal and abnormal and to establish an equal representation on screen. As long as whiteness was recognized as invisible, it would continue to be seen as the default experience.

Contemporary cinema still feels the burden of this reality, as evidenced by continued outrage over casting of non-whites. In 2012, The Hunger Games fans were in an uproar because they did not imagine that one of the most beloved characters, Rue, was black. Commenting on the phenomena for The New Yorker, Anna Holmes wrote, “I am thinking the same thing: of our culture’s association of whiteness with innocence, of a child described without an accompanying adjective, of a child rendered insignificant and therefore invisible because of his or her particular shade of skin.” Rue, who was written as a black girl, was surmised to be white because of her perceived innocence. 

The default nature of whiteness could easily be attributed to similar acts of outrage such as casting choices like John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and form of default assumption based on race and gender could be seen at the heart of the Ghostbusters backlash (notably, the most vitriolic hatred was targeted at Leslie Jones, a black woman). The undercurrent of these arguments holds that whiteness is invisible, where all other races are visible and therefore less relatable. 

Bell Hooks would take this argument even further, suggesting the colonial oppression in treating whiteness and exploring the idea of whiteness through the gaze of the black experience. In her book Black Looks, Race and Representationshe writes, “In white supremacist society, white people can ‘safely’ imagine that they are invisible to black people since the power they have historically asserted, and even now collectively assert over black people, accorded them the right to control the black gaze.” This power dynamic implicitly renders the gaze of non-whites as less authoritative and less reliable than that of whites. 

This control remains sewed into the collective imagination as the controlled gaze removes the presumption that whiteness also operates as a race. The hierarchy of these assumptions prevents any meaningful shifts in consciousness to allow for wider changes in representation onscreen. Dyer writes, “Power in contemporary society habitually passes itself off as embodied in the normal as opposed to the superior.” Whiteness, understood as default for innocent or normal, prevents any meaningful progress from being made. Rather than being outright about their asserted superiority, these structures are framed so that maintaining this status quo relieves artists and critics from the overt feeling that they are being racist or preserving inequality.

The role of the critic in this climate is two-fold. Writers should not infer the conditions of normality and similarly offer space to writers of different genders, races and experiences. As much as critics write for themselves and for each other, the presumption that criticism has been long dead since the rise of the internet seems to be just another means of silencing dissent. The idea that only white, male critics deserve space seems rooted in the same space that allows for whiteness onscreen to become normal.

While many critics shy away from discussion of politics, it lies in the misapprehension that criticizing a work’s politics or representation presents a binary where it cannot be good. It also suggests that shying away from politics somehow means you are apolitical. This line of thinking represents the worst interpretation of those looking to disrupt the status quo, as it similarly upholds standards that allow for the defense of reprehensible criticism of artists. Rather than Roman Polanski being a great artist or a rapist, he can be both. Does that mean you should support his work in a capital-based system? That’s for you to decide, but the binary of good or bad only ends up perpetuating more misinformation than progress. The same logic can similarly be applied to films or patterns in pop culture.

Representation in criticism not only makes sense in supporting a diversity of voices (which, as long as they’re good writers, can only be a good thing) but similarly offers opportunities to films and filmmakers who disrupt the concept of normality. On a small scale, and in response to the BBC Culture’s list of Greatest Films of the 21st Century, Female Film Critics broke down the numbers and why increased parity in criticism leads to more opportunities and greater representation. In that poll alone, women were more likely to support female filmmakers than their male peers: “Of those 55 women critics, 44 (or 80 percent) included women directors on their lists, whereas only 61 (or 50 percent) of the 122 men did so.”

Depending on the limits of how much you choose to write about, focusing attention on films and filmmakers who challenge normalcy might be the easiest way to help change the direction of the industry. Focus not only on experiences different from your own, but on women or people of color who don’t get as much representation not because they’re not good enough, but because they have more to overcome. The industry remains flawed, and while criticism only has so much power, you do have the power to at least shift the direction of conversation ever so slightly in the right direction.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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