Problems with The Martian

That’s really it for the “review” part of the review, but I’d like to point out the bit of problematic casting here. Weir’s book has a reasonably diverse cast, although that was largely for identification purposes.

I’m fine with Weir’s choices, less so for the casting of the movie. “Vincent Kapoor”, who’s supposed to be half-Indian, half-British (not broken down more than that), is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s ethnically Nigerian (Igbo, according to Wikipedia). “Mindy Park” is played by the white Mackenzie Davis—though her ethnicity is not identified in the book, Weir specifies his intent above, and “Park” is a very common Korean surname.

This has come a way from some of my past opinions. What changed? Turns out I’m learning a few things, which I’ll discuss in a separate post.

(In case it wasn’t clear, this is that post. The review is over here.)

The particular “past opinions” in question are probably best captured in a post from 2010 called “Re: Diversity (in film)”, and repeated with a bit more tension in my review for Cloud Atlas. The latter contains a quote that’s pretty symbolic of the view:

[W]hen a story is not about ethnicity, it shouldn’t matter what the ethnicity of the actors are.

So why does it? In a word, representation.

  • Having non-white characters on screen shows that they exist at all in the world.
  • Having non-white characters play more than bit parts shows that non-white people have stories worth telling.
  • Having non-white characters play non-stereotypical roles shows that non-white people aren’t stereotypes. (Example: Not all Asian characters have to be expert martial artists.)
  • Having non-white characters shatters the myth that (assumed white?) viewers can only relate to white characters.
  • Having non-white actors on screen shows that non-white people can be actors, both to viewers and to casting directors.
  • Having non-white actors broadens the acting pool, which is important since people do draw on their own experiences when acting. (Or directing, or writing, or…)
  • Having actors’ ethnicity match the characters’ helps break down the notion that different non-white cultures are interchangeable.
  • Having non-white actors on screen can change the default value of “cool” (and “hot”).

Each of these can quite directly help break down racist ideas and obstacles.

This great little story from a CE Murphy went mildly viral a little while back:

My son, who is 4, and I were walking along the street today and saw a man with his left leg amputated beneath the knee. My son spun around and looked at him, then said to me, “That man lost his leg! What happened?”

I said I didn’t know exactly, but sometimes people lost arms or legs through accidents or didn’t have them for other reasons.

My son instantly said, “Gobber (from How to Train Your Dragon) lost his arm AND his leg and now he has to use tools in their places!”

I kind of collected my jaw and said, “That’s right, and that man is just like Gobber. There’s a special word we use for those kinds of tools. It’s ‘prosthetics’.”

“Prosthetics,” said my son, with satisfaction, and on we went without any further discussion about it.

But then we got on the bus, and there was a young black woman with her hair pulled back in a big floofy afro ponytail, and my son, who has seen the trailers for the new Annie movie, said, in delight, “She has hair like Annie’s!”

Representation matters.

All of this should make it very clear why the reverse situation wouldn’t be so bad. That is, if Weir had written every character as a white man, changing some of the characters to be “more diverse” for the movie wouldn’t have really been a problem. White people don’t suffer from lack of representation in America, and especially not in Hollywood. And we don’t need more Red Dawns.

I still like the original idea:

When a story is not about ethnicity, it shouldn’t matter what the ethnicity of the actors are.

but that’s coming from an ideal world where no one cares about ethnicity the rest of the time. And we don’t live in that world.

EDIT: My friend H did point out that at least the cast of The Martian was not all white men, even in the movie. There’s still quite a ways to go, but as they put it, [it’s] “refreshing to see that not only white men got some representation as astronauts/scientists”. Other than Park, they didn’t really drop any of the non-white or non-male characters just for being non-white or non-male.

For related musings of mine over the life of this blog, check out the “Ethnicity” and “Discrimination” tags. Please do note that—as this post proves—my views do shift over time. I’d like to continue learning.