Your Experiences Are Not Universal: On Films About White Men

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Jules Ozone

I’m an introverted feminist blogger. If you need me I’ll be in my room on my computer, laughing at my own jokes.

I watched Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and then the subsequent 2015 Oscars and heard, over and over again, how the film was considered to be such a groundbreaking, artistic work not only because of how long it took to film, but because it was just so goddamn relatable. I kept hearing the words “universal experience” being thrown around, reinforcing that the film spoke to so many because it’s reminiscent of everyone’s coming-of-age, not just the boy in the movie’s. The bulk of the remaining nominees for best picture were films about tortured white boy geniuses- The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, and The Imitation Game come to mind. I’m not saying that these stories aren’t important or compelling; they are. But I’m honestly kinda getting to the end of my rope with being asked to sit through films that are heralded as the most important of their time, but which, predictably, only cover the experience of one type of person: privileged white males.

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I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with movies that chronicle the experiences of white men. Obviously. The problem is that these films are not grounded in universal experiences or across-the-board relatable characters because they represent a tiny percentage of the population. When I watched Boyhood, I only found it reminiscent of my childhood because I recognized the selfish, self-absorbed, somewhat entitled male lead as the type of boy I was forced to deal with when I was growing up. We got to see the lead character’s sister grow up, but her experiences were always eclipsed by her brother’s. And the film was virtually devoid of people of color, which may not be a problem if this were the only coming-of-age film focused only on white folks, but that’s hardly the case. Imran Siddiquee from The Atlantic comments on this pattern:

…Boyhood is “the most engrossing coming-of-age movie in the history of the genre.” That assertion may be true, but it’s also true that the popular history of the genre has been largely limited to imagining the lives of white kids. In Flavorwire’s 2014 list of the best coming-of-age films ever, all of the top 10 are about white childhood. A similar list posted on the Sundance blog this year is even more specific, including only films about white boys. Boyhood may be revolutionary in many ways, but it’s frustratingly familiar in others.

These films that are centered around white, male, usually straight, often wealthy characters are supposedly neutral and universally relatable because they’re about just a regular type of person, whereas movies about women, folks of color, queer folks, etc., are presented as niche films, ones only interesting to the people represented in them. Blogger Clem Bastow comments:

…films about anyone who isn’t a white male genius languish in the background (or, worse, in development hell). They are subjected to a far harsher brand of criticism, as Martin Luther King biopic Selma has been, with director Ava DuVernay at the receiving end of a widespread awards season smear campaign thanks to the film’s fictionalisation of certain story elements (specifically, the representation of President Lyndon Johnson).

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Basically, director Ava DuVernay made black folks the focus in a film about the civil rights movement. Shocking, I know. Lyndon Johnson was not depicted as a white savior. He was portrayed as a white man who needed to be convinced of the political benefits of supporting black folks in the movement. This is a film directed by a black woman and with focus on the efforts of black activists, not about a white person in power’s generous influence on the movement, and I guess that’s uncomfortable for some white folks who are used to being at the center of every story.

Films about white men, whether awesome or shitty, dominate every mainstream movie genre, whereas films about folks from marginalized groups have to fight to even be recognized, let alone celebrated. Remember how fucking hard it was for fans to convince Warner Bros. that it would be worth their while to come out with a Wonder Woman movie? And even once the film was approved, it became difficult to secure a kick-ass woman director: since it took so long to get approved and because the movie’s production is destined to be challenged at every turn by meninist assholes, there is an immense amount of pressure on whoever directs it to make a cinematic masterpiece so that Hollywood will ever let us ladies pull this superhero shit again. That’s a lot of pressure. Wonder Woman could make or break the future of funding and publicity for female superhero movies, while white dudes are afforded enough respect from critics to stand on their own and not be forced to represent their entire demographic in the superhero genre.

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Look: I shouldn’t be surprised that the films that get the most funding, publicity, and award nominations are about white guys. The Guardian published this article with a damning set of statistics about Academy members and who they vote for: “…in the last 85 years of the Oscars, nominated producers were 98% white, writers were 98% white, actors were 88% white, actresses were 88% white and directors were 99% male. Those who vote in the Oscars – industry insiders and longtime film professionals – are 94% white and 77% male”. So we’re not exactly working a super neutral voting population, here.

But we need to talk about that. The movies we watch, like all media, can either shatter or reinforce the power structures that exist in society. I think it’s important to be suspicious when only certain types of movies with certain types of people are nominated for prestigious awards and lauded as being “the best of their time”. My boyfriend is a film nerd and he always tells me when a movie is known, in film circles, as being revolutionary or groundbreaking or landmark and although I do think many of them are those things, I also think that it’s time to examine who’s making those claims and whether they might be leaving huge groups of people out of the picture.

 

 

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