Vanity Fair’s Hollywood cover: Does it solve Hollywood’s diversity problem?
Vanity Fair released the cover for their 20th Holiday Issue earlier this week and its quite different than what we’ve grown accustomed to in previous years. Like every year, the three-panel foldout cover features 12 of Hollywood’s finest – Jared Leto, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita N’yongo, Julia Roberts, Idris Elba, George Clooney, Michael B. Jordan, Margot Robbie, Naomie Harris, Lea Seydoux, Chadwick Boseman and Brie Larson – but did you notice what I noticed? For every white actor, there’s a black one. Sure, it’s “equality” but do we actually consider that progress?
Upon first glance this seems like a step forward in diversity. Vanity Fair has a history of excluding actors/actresses of color on their Hollywood issue, like in 2010 when they dubbed nine white women “It Girls” and neglected to include Gabourey Sidibe who won 20 awards for her breakout leading role in Precious that year. They also caught flack in 2008 when Zoe Saldana and America Ferrara were their only actresses of color and in 2011 for only including Anthony Mackie and Rashida Jones. After all the constant backlash I can’t help but wonder, did Vanity Fair only include these black actors to silence the annual criticism from the diversity police?
Honestly, I don’t have a problem with any of the actors chosen for this cover. Julia Roberts and George Clooney proved their worth long ago, and newer talents like Michael B. Jordan and Naomie Harris have continually been looked over, so it’s great to see all twelve of these actors get their praise, but it feels as though the magazine only included these dark-skinned actors to prove a point. Here are my observations about the issue that’s being dubbed “colorblind”:
1. There are just as many black actors as white actors
Okay so “the people” asked for equality and Vanity Fair did just that – made the number of black actors on the cover of this issue equal to the number of white actors on the issue. Fair right? Not quite. The equal numbers seem very forced, as though in a meeting the editors said, “They still complained when we gave them two black/Latina actors in the spread. Let’s make it even so they can’t say anything!!”. Though things are now “equal” it’s more like filling a quota than actually considering minority actors for their talent. This is not to say that the actors pictured don’t deserve their spot in the roundup, but what if Vanity Fair didn’t see it for Margot Robbie and Brie Larson? Would that mean two of the black actors would get axed to keep things “equal”? Not exactly fair. The actors chosen for this spread should be based on talent. It would be much easier to believe the race problem was being solved if there were a mix, not necessarily equal, of actors of all colors rather than a few dark faces to keep the public happy.
2. …and they’re all “black” actors…
We all know racial/ethnic categorizations change depending on where you are, who you’re talking to, what time of day it is and what color shirt you have on, but for the purposes of simplifying this particular conversation, we’ll break race/ethnicity into five categories – African-American, Asian-American, European-American, Latin-American and South Asian-American. We’re also going to ignore the fact that a handful of these actors weren’t born or raised in the US but they’ll get the “American” title right now for being in American films and this American magazine.
Considering people can be divided into these five categories why do all the actors who seem to have been plucked for their “diversity edition” seem to belong to only one minority ethnic group – the one which complained the loudest? While it’s possible this year there were no notable big-screen actors whose physical traits are easily identifiable as belonging to one of the other three groups mentioned (am I the only one here for Melissa DeSousa in Best Man Holiday?), was any effort put into looking?
Embracing diversity isn’t as simple as looking at the “others” as a monolith. When they heard “How come there’s only white people on the cover?!” did that translate to “You need to put black people on the cover!!”? Diversity isn’t as easy as making sure you include polar opposites, it’s okay to acknowledge that there are difference along the spectrum.
3. …who play struggle roles.
Vanity Fair may be breaking a Hollywood trend by acknowledging the talents of these actors but they are still continuing the celebration of black movies only when they remind us of darker days for people of color. Again, this may not be Vanity Fair‘s fault – it has been discussed that many of this year’s films starring black actors have been about “struggle”. The Butler, both Nelson Mandela biopics, and 12 Years a Slave all remind movie-goers of the history of peril blacks experienced in a white-dominated society. In the magazine’s defense, unlike recent award shows, they have acknowledged Michael B. Jordan who balances mainstream roles like That Awkward Moment with deeper stories like Fruitvale Station. It’s great to see all of these actors being acknowledged, but it wouldn’t hurt to see more actors recognized for something other than a struggle role, like Quvenzhane Wallis who’s remaking Annie this Christmas.
To be clear, I’m not upset about the cover. Though it’s a bit forced, the magazine has done a 180 degree turn from when they considered Emma Stone’s red hair and Kristen Stewart’s grungy attitude “diversity”. Hollywood itself still struggles to allow minority faces in front of the camera, so it’s only fair to acknowledge the media can’t get the train going if the industry itself won’t put a little gas in the engine first. No doubt the movie industry has progressed from the days when Black/Latina actresses were only maids and Asian actors were caricatures to be made fun of. Hattie McDaniel herself would probably be proud to see progress that’s been made since Gone With the Wind. Are we there yet? No. But have we at least pulled out of the station? I’d say so. 😉