In the Time of Plastic Representation
Kristen J. Warner
On August 4, 2017, Jay Z released Moonlight, an eight-minute music video culled from his album 4:44. Directed by Alan Yang, cocreator of Netflix’s critically acclaimed series Master of None (Aziz Ansari, 2015–), Moonlight samples NBC’s Friends (1994–2004) as its original source material. A pastiche of the blockbuster sitcom, the video replaces all of the characters from the original series with their black Young Hollywood counterparts. While the photography, costuming, and mise-en-scène of the title credits are shot-for-shot identical to the original, one change aligns with its “new” cast: it switches the iconic Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You” (1995) for Whodini’s “Friends” (1994).
This Moonlight moves beyond being a superficial send-up when the Friends filming halts and the cast walks off set for a break. Ross Geller’s black counterpart, played by comedian Jerrod Carmichael, greets fellow comedian Hannibal Buress and asks his opinion of the project. “Garbage. Terrible man. Wack as shit. Episodes of Seinfeld but with black people. Who asked for that?” Carmichael explains that “when they asked me to do it I was like alright this is something subversive, something that would turn culture on its head.” Buress lands the fatal blow asserting, “Well you did a good job of subverting good comedy. You gonna do black Full House next? Family Ties?” Resuming the Friends filming, Carmichael ultimately slips away from his character, too aware of his real identity to perform any longer—just in time for his Rachel and fellow actor Issa Rae to quietly whisk him away from the series and to an “exit” door of sorts.
This music video asks, even if it does not fully answer, critical questions about the intersections of representation and employment for black actors. How do they balance taking jobs that seem facile all the while attempting to imbue the parts with depth through subversive performances that may not be as easily perceived as intended? It is Buress’s query about “who asked for this?” that strikes me as central, because his question presumes that there is a desire and an initiative to remake existing source material with the least amount of changes to attract different audience demographics. Swapping in and out racial groups with little adjustment to the parts themselves retains the original work as the primary driver and as a result marks the changes as superficial. The original work maintains its universality in this instance by proving that “anyone” can be a member of the Friends cast. As a consequence, the performances feel like hollow experiments produced in a laboratory; they feel plastic.
It stands to reason that Jay Z and Yang’s desire in Moonlight‘s meta moment is to create this response of discomfort, amid the realization that neither playing nor watching white characters metaphorically dipped in chocolate on screen can deliver the progress that was implicitly promised by watchdog groups like the NAACP who for years have sought to strategically diversify the labor force in meaningful ways. However, in this moment, when consumers of black media proudly state that “representation matters,” disavowing (black) Friends-like texts may be impossible because alternatives are few.
This season, “representation matters” is a catchphrase circulating in conversations around diversity in film, television, and theater. From social media campaigns—such as #representationmatters, in which parents attach the hashtag to inspirational photos taken of their children dressed as fictional (and nonfictional) black heroic characters, posing them against their onscreen doppelgangers—to Mattel’s offering of a collector’s Barbie of Ava DuVernay—complete with the mise-en-scène of a director’s chair to establish that all little black girls need to see DuVernay’s image in tandem with a chair to believe they could work in film—the weight of visual identification is being felt. Add to this list the infamous and popularly cited #OscarsSoWhite, initially designed to poke fun at the lack of diversity among Academy Award nominees, but now a seeming catch-all for diversity deficits writ large, the impetus in each hashtag is to remind and activate consumers to demand more representative visual imagery from the entertainment industries.
To many men and women of color, as well as many white women, meaningful diversity occurs when the actual presence of different-looking bodies appear on screen. For them, this diversity serves as an indicator of progress as well as an aspirational frame for younger generations who are told that the visual signifiers they can identify with carry a great amount of symbolic weight. As a consequence, the degree of diversity became synonymous with the quantity of difference rather than with the dimensionality of those performances. Moreover, a paradoxical condition emerges whereby people of color have become more media savvy yet are still, if not more, reliant on overdetermined and overly reductive notions of so-called “positive” and “negative” representation. Such measures yield a set of dueling consequences: first, that any representation that includes a person of color is automatically a sign of success and progress; second, that such paltry gains generate an easy workaround for the executive suites whereby hiring racially diverse actors becomes an easy substitute for developing new complex characters. The results of such choices can feel—in an affective sense—artificial, or more to the point, like plastic.
Black representation, as it’s been understood in a popular sense, has been dominated by the circulation of mediated imagery yielding deleterious effects for the groups depicted. The fear of the effects of such “poor” representation has resulted in a set of binary, nonscientific, underdeveloped metrics—positive and negative—that constitute a nebulous catch-all system wherein the characteristics that define each pole on the spectrum shift depending on the era and the expectations of the audience.1 What marks a representation as “positive” or “negative”? Responses are often aligned with class (good job, education, community minded), behavior (hypersexual, well-spoken, “woke”), or with characterizations of character that either successfully assimilate into normative culture or fail to do so. However, such a scale oversimplifies the complexities of black identity that require audiences, pop-culture critics, and scholars to invest in screen characters through experiencing nuances developed over time and ironically reinforces the stereotypes that operate as industry shorthand.
If, then, stereotypes function as a kind of shorthand for building characters and if the only additive needed to make the parts “positive” is to provide them a respectable occupation, then whatever other problematic traits that were initially associated with that stereotype can pass scrutiny unchecked. The result of such a calculus is the production of thinly written characters of color with a mirage of depth added by audience members and pop-culture critics who labor to thicken the characterizations in public discourse.2 Discourse, for example, surrounding their importance to film and television history gives these wavering characterizations a steady platform to lean against and be perceived as solid and weighty. Such a style of writing-by-stereotype-reversal also cannot include the kinds of complex characterization that would offset colorblind casting, resulting in another set of pitfalls that reinforce long-held tropes.3 Strategies that attempt to overlap negative images with positive ones in a quest to present a respectability of social imagery do not eradicate either.
The fight between these representational strategies is always at a stalemate, leading to a third strategy with a simplified mantra: “representation matters.” If this maxim appears to extract the value-charged attributes of positive and negative representation in favor of appreciating all characterizations more equally, upon closer inspection, it actually integrates those positive/negative binaries into its new grid of characterizations. Representation “mattering” then becomes a dual and dueling set of expectations for people of color. In the first instance, every image deemed valuable must be accessible for identificatory suture. In the second instance, each image must be counted as a signifier of progress that affirms black importance and success.
The hunt for representational affirmation can lead to erroneous interpretations. For example, after the release and inevitable success of Disney and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), viral Internet memes attributed a lion’s share of the film’s popularity to the fact that a black man and a white woman were cast as leads. While technically true, the claim obscures the larger fact that the actual star of this film—and a significant reason why the producers did not have to pay these largely “unknown” stars significant salaries—was Star Wars itself, and its status as Disney’s intellectual property. An expectation of massive return on investment, given the profitable track record of the Star Wars brand, is presumably the reason Disney bought it from George Lucas in the first place. Perhaps it is precisely because the risks were mitigated to such a manageable level that the producers could imagine diverse leads.
Let me be clear: while I do not share the popular expectation for mediated imagery to matter, its overdetermining of black images as the marker of societal progress or regression makes any image acceptable on its face, obliterating context and sidelining any consideration of depth. Thus have images in the era of representation matters become hollowed, malleable signs with artificial origins. Their artificiality connects to a condition that could be termed “plastic representation.” Plastic, in the denotative sense of a “synthetic material…that can be molded into different shapes,” supplies a useful starting point for unpacking just how plastic representation operates as a place of synthetic malleability.4 Plastic is an ever-shifting artificial material whose purpose is shaped by its essence. There is no great depth in plastic, nor is there anything organic.
My notion of plastic representation is connected to the colloquial musical concept of “plastic soul,” originally coined by black musicians to describe white artists singing soul music. David Bowie used the concept of plastic soul to self-deprecatingly describe his approach to rhythm and blues music. In a 1976 interview, he asserted:
But let’s be honest; my rhythm and blues are thoroughly plastic. Young Americans, the album “Fame” is from, is, I would say, the definitive plastic soul record. It’s the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.5
Bowie’s plastic soul is an artificial product composed of malleable fragments of black ethnic music that, when sung through his voice, feel instantly familiar—but only according to his terms and adaptability. In other words, plastic soul approximates blackness enough to stand in as a superficial version of the real. In the case of Bowie, his seeming awareness that plastic soul is the gap between the artificial and the real, highlights the difference between setting out to make plastic and accepting plastic as the standard. Thus, hiring Luther Vandross and recording in Philadelphia added a specific flavor but not enough to overwhelm Bowie’s style. Bowie’s interest in making an R&B record, then, signaled a move to locate elements that recreated the sound of soul music while still adhering to his own style.
An operational definition of plastic representation can be understood as a combination of synthetic elements put together and shaped to look like meaningful imagery, but which can only approximate depth and substance because ultimately it is hollow and cannot survive close scrutiny. Utilizing this concept, I locate two types of minority visibility that exist both in front of and behind the camera: a plastic representation that approximates a superficial “visual” diversity and another that supplies a culturally specific contextual version.
What does plastic representation look like in practice? For brevity, I focus on one of its primary functions. Plastic representation uses the wonder that comes from seeing characters on screen who serve as visual identifiers for specific demographics in order to flatten the expectation to desire anything more. In this instance, then, progress is merely the increase of black actors on screen in both leading and supporting roles. The problem with such a line of thinking is that quantifiable difference alone often overdetermines the benchmarks of progress and obscures the multifaceted challenges inherent in booking roles as well as securing work on writing staffs, directing gigs, or even reaching executive gatekeeper status—thus privileging the visible (actors) over all other cinematic and televisual functions. Employment, while a critical factor in the lives of minority creative laborers, becomes the only gain when plastic representation is the failsafe. Of course, skill sets and work experience matter and are part of what is considered for these jobs in writing, directing, and in executive suites. However, the cultural and historical experiences of the minority labor force should be equally important contributions to how the work is produced.
When pressured, networks and studios can and do diversify their casts, just as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will expand their voting body by inviting more people of color to the membership—until 2020, anyway. While visual diversity is still not a regular occurrence, it’s not impossible to achieve. It is always impressive to see that greater numbers of people of color are finding employment and inclusive spaces within the film and television industry, but greater numbers indicate, not necessarily progress, but rather a simplistic fix to a systemic problem. For this industry, actual progress would involve crafting a more weighted diversity, one generated by adding dimension and specificity to roles, and achieved in tandem with diverse bodies shaping those roles at the level of producing and writing.
When asked to share his feelings on the possibilities of diversity now that Hamilton, the multiracial, colorblind cast musical in which he starred, had become a critical and financial darling for Broadway, Tony-award-winning actor Leslie Odom, Jr. asserted: “What we really need to pay attention to is the next two seasons.” Speaking to the ways that plastic representation can become the default for casting people of color, Odom continued, “Colorblind casting is great. You know what’s better than colorblind casting? Roles that are actually written about you. Roles that are actually written about your experience.”6 Odom posits that colorblind casting (the practice of writing characters without including race in the description) is a helpful start but not the realization of progress. It is an important reminder that the practice, while certainly beneficial to people of color in terms of gaining employment, ultimately produces normatively white characters who happen to be of color. Again, there is a danger of valuing quantity more than dimension, a dynamic that epitomizes the artificiality of plastic representation.
During the Television Critics Association summer tour of 2016, FX President John Landgraf celebrated his network’s plan to increase diversity by encouraging their predominately white showrunners to hire directors of color and white women.7 Landgraf’s announcement, while signaling an excellent plan to further racial parity in the television industry, still echoes the sentiments of the ease of visibility. Keep in mind that it is less complicated to increase diversity in director roles than in other areas of production, from showrunner to writing staff, because directors work on a freelance basis and can be moved into the labor cycle more easily. Moreover, his pledge to increase the number of marginalized directors for FX series is contingent upon his predominantly white male showrunners agreeing to buy into the scheme. Thus, part of the selling of this endeavor must be that the identities and experiences of those hired for these jobs are not commensurate with the task they’ve been hired to complete. Put simply, hiring a director who discursively “happens to be black” reduces any anxiety that their cultural experience will invade or reshape the way they do their work for a white showrunner. Flattening directors of color into markers of quantifiable gains may ensure their employment, but it also renders diversity as an artificial additive and not a substantive contribution.
Plastic representation operates as a system that reifies blackness into an empirical system of “box checking.” It is a mode of representation that offers the feel of progress but that actually cedes more ground than it gains for audiences of color. When audiences, cultural critics, and even industry professionals buy into the subtle but popular belief that social progress occurs when the focus of representation is placed solely on the racially visible difference of above-and-below-the-line talent, it means that for industry gatekeepers and executives, less time has to be devoted to developing and appreciating the meaningful cultural and historical differences of those bodies.
My aim here is not to disparage the joyous effect and identification that arise from seeing a version of one’s self on screen; to the contrary, I believe the desire should be expanded, not only to see a version of one’s self on screen but for that identification to resonate and connect with the histories and experiences of the culture that the character’s body inhabits. Pursuing and embodying the cultural specificity of characters of color is harder work and requires a shift away from thinking only in positive and negative evaluative terms. Resonant characters that are complex and nuanced may not resemble the respectable characters so often proffered as the social cover for racial integration and as proof that black lives matter. The true indicator of the progress that is desired lies in showcasing how all those specifically black lives exist and thrive as themselves, not as the ones whom they happen to be cast to represent.
Returning to Jay Z’s Moonlight video, Buress’s question “who asked for this?” takes on greater depth when interpreted through a plastic lens. The demand for visible difference means that even if no black audience specifically asked for a black Friends, the legitimacy of the text and the very clear casting of the black counterparts reinforce for that audience that some measure of progress, no matter how hollow, has been attained.
The pathos of such a victory is that in celebrating the overdetermining of visual diversity as a substantial gain as opposed to the overly modest concession it is, any meaningful progress is curbed; instead, the goal posts of expectation are moved to more comfortable places for those in power who can make those changes. The consequences of ceding the ground where black audiences and critics once demanded meaningful representation are that, when an inch of progress is returned, it feels like new. The most tragic consequence of all, however, is that all the images in the world (so-called positive or not) cannot overwhelm the centuries of work that has already been done to sear a regime of racist representation that casts all black difference as savage, childlike, heathenistic, asexual/hypersexual, atavistic, angry monsters into the cultural imaginary. The rationale for solely demanding plastic representation is understandable as a sanity-preserving tactic that can also build esteem and confidence, but it is not nearly enough. Meaningful, resonant diversity is a more difficult, underdeveloped approach that requires all stakeholders to think harder about what on-screen difference looks and feels like. But if representation truly matters, then it is an approach worthy of pursuit. Plastic is not enough; demand more.
1. I have written previously about the pitfalls of the positive/negative trope. See Kristen Warner, “They Gon’ Think You Loud Regardless: Ratchetness, Reality Television, and Black Womanhood,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 30, no. 1 88 (2015): 129-53.
2. I have written previously about the ways black female audiences labor to create a dimensional character with whom they can identify. See Kristen Warner, “ABC’s Scandal and Black Women’s Fandom,” in Cupcakes, Pinterest, Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early 21st Century, ed. Elana Levine (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015).
3. I have written about colorblind casting as an industrial strategy to enable more physical diversity at the level of auditions and the subsequent consequences of the practice. In my book, I argue that while the casting practice of not writing race into the roles for which actors audition is filled with good intentions, the parts are often written normatively, that is hegemonically white. As a consequence, when the part is not adjusted for the person of color who is hired, they become vulnerable to unintended stereotypes and tropes attached to the cultural and historical experiences tethered to their bodies. See: Kristen Warner, The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting (New York: Routledge, 2015).
4. Dictionary.com, s.v. “plastic,” http://www.dictionary.com/browse/plastic.
5. Cameron Crowe, “A Candid Conversation with the Actor, Rock Singer and Sexual Switch-Hitter,” Playboy, September 1976, www.theuncool.com/journalism/david-bowie-playboy-magazine/.
6. “Tony Actors Roundtable: 7 Broadway Standouts on Diversity and Rude Audiences,” The Hollywood Reporter, June 1, 2016, www.hollywoodreporter.com/video/tonys-actor-roundtable-7-broadway-898509.
7. Maureen Ryan, “FX CEO John Landgraf on the ‘Racially Biased’ System and Taking Major Steps to Change His Network’s Director Rosters,” Variety, August 9, 2016, http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/fx-diversity-directors-hiring-ceo-john-landgraf-interview-1201831409/.
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Header Image: Jay Z’s Moonlight, an eight-minute music video directed by Alan Yang. Featuring (left to right): Jerrod Carmichael, Tessa Thompson, Lil Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish, and Issa Rae. ©Tidal