Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I Have a Voice Too



Dear Pitch Perfect movies,

I love you, but we need to talk about diversity.

Let me start by saying that I harbor more affection for both of you than a straight man in his forties probably should. Yes, I'm a weirdo: I sang choir in high school, was an a cappella groupie all through college, performed with The Richter Scales for eight years, and actually watched an entire season of The Sing-Off. It's kind of in my blood at this point.

Now, I do appreciate the presence of so many non-white faces in your cast, but I wish that at least one of them—any of them—was more than just a punchline.

I really wanted one of those persons of color to have a character arc in Pitch Perfect 2. Lilly seemed like a perfect candidate, since her personal growth was actually a plot point in the first movie; but no, she was rolled back to the old "I can't hear you" joke, which stings more than it evokes knowing laughter for some of us. And the new "ethnic" character, played by Chrissie Fit, is little more than a series of one-liners which feel exploitative even as they poke fun at #FirstWorldProblems.

It's doubly ironic that as an actress, Elizabeth Banks' commentator character hangs a lantern on every one of fellow commentator John Michael Higgins' blatantly insensitive on-air remarks, but as director, Banks seems to have a blind spot for the subtle but constant affronts suffered by all of PP2's non-white characters. I know, it's a very broad comedy (no pun intended), but still. Some of us don't get to laugh about certain things.

Here's what Wesley Morris had to say in Grantland:
The movie invites you to celebrate its diversity. The Bellas are, indeed, not all white. But none of the characters of color has been promoted to do more than act like a weirdo. The other new addition, besides Steinfeld, is a Guatemalan named Flo (Chrissie Fit), who caps every exchange with a tale of poor-migrant suffering. Hana Mae Lee returns as the mousy Japanese girl, Lilly, with no scatological boundaries. The songwriter and producer Ester Dean plays the black girl and lesbian, who, when she isn’t flirting aggressively, actually has to quip, “What kind of white shit is this?” Asking a question like that in a film about a cappella singing is like working in a barn and complaining about the hay.
There are other issues with PP2, to be sure: the whole thing is scattershot, what with having to work in characters who are no longer in school and wanting to play up romantic storylines at the expense of other, arguably deeper themes. Personally, I would have loved more of the "legacy" story between newcomer Emily and her mother, especially since (no spoilers) it figures into the musical finale. That payoff would have played even better if there had been more setup for it.

It's like Atomic Fangirl says:
Halfway through I felt like someone had slipped E into my water bottle. I knew where I was, I knew I was having a good time, but I didn’t understand a bloody thing that was going on.
On that level, it's about good storytelling, plain and simple. But at this point, at this moment in 21st-century America, consider that including token minority characters without being mindful of their place in the overall narrative can be more damaging than not including POCs at all. Are you thinking of those characters as fully realized people, or are you only using them to prop up some other part of your story?

Yeah, yeah, I know, Kobayashi Maru. No matter how sensitively you handle it, somebody's always going to complain that you did something wrong. But at least make the attempt and learn something from it.

And by the way, please own up to your mistakes when you make them. (Yes, I said when, not if. We're all human.) Don't double down on defending a weak position just so you can claim righteousness. No criticism is fatal, and growing as an artist is more important than sales "velocity" on release day or appealing to the "real fans" who worship with blinders on.

There are seven billion people on this planet. Don't you want more of them to love your work?

I'll let Geoffrey Stueven deliver some closing thoughts:
The tentative promise of that scene reaches its fulfillment a bit later, when the group gets its groove fully back, seated around a fire with each member declaring her plans for the future, then harmonizing with her comrades. Crucial moments of self-actualization follow. “I never pictured myself running a retreat,” says group alum Aubrey (Anna Camp), happy in her post-grad job, the implication being that she did picture it, eventually, and was pleased with the image. And future music producer Beca might be awaiting the validation of her boss, but her relationship with her muse, new a cappella recruit Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), is much more meaningful. Here’s the rare recent movie, mainstream or otherwise, that not only passes the Bechdel Test but also fails the opposite of the Bechdel Test: There’s no conversation between the film’s male characters that isn’t about a woman or at least seen through the prism of a woman’s aspirations.
It's true, by the way: Girls run the world. And watching these characters find themselves, realize their own unique abilities, and combine to form a winning team—that's as powerful as any superhero origin story.

I still love you, Pitch Perfect movies. But I'm not in love with you.

Let's just be friends, okay?

Hugs and kisses,
~CKL

Curtis
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