Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Rosie O'Donnell Makes Me Uncomfortable

Okay, so I'm talking to the Professor last night and she's trying to make some point that requires her to go off on some tangent about the Hallmark movie Riding the Bus with My Sister which stars Rosie O'Donnell as a developmentally disabled woman. I make the comment that I find Rosie O'Donnell playing a developmentally disabled woman to be distasteful and the Professor asks why and I realize that I don't have a well thought out reason why other than that if feels a little too much like minstrelsy to me. If it's not okay for O'Donnell to dress up in blackface and play, say, Whoopi Goldberg in that biopic, it seems to me that it's not okay for O'Donnell to play Beth Simon. I couldn't articulate it last night, but it's been nagging at me and I mulled it over while walking the dog and I think I can get at it now. It's true that actors take on personas and roles by definition of their job. And so, on the surface, it seems that it ought to be all right for any actor who can pull the part off to play the part. But. . . that's what gets me. An actor must be acceptable to his or her audience. Let me say that again another way: the audience must be willing to accept that the actor can play the part. Let's think about Birth of a Nation which featured white actors as black characters. Though there was controversy when the movie came out, it was over the depiction of African Americans in the film, not whether white actors had any business playing black characters; that was a common practice. But it was wrong, and here's why it was nearly impossible for people at the time to see it: because most of the white people involved assumed that they knew how to perform blackness, that the assumptions white people had about black people were right and insightful. White people could play black characters because white people--actors and audiences--assumed that they really knew what being black meant. Or think of Elizabethan actors, performing as women. Why did audiences accept teenage boys performing female characters? Because both the actors and the audience assumed that it was obvious what being a woman was and that they were as capable of performing femininity as any woman. (Yes, in both cases, there were taboos against having black and women performers, but it should be noted that the taboo didn't prevent the performance of blackness or womanness.) To me, O'Donnell's performance feels like something similar: that it's so obvious how developmentally disabled people are that anyone can have enough insight into their condition(s) to perform it. I'm just not so sure of that. I suspect we're being as blind to our own privilege--embodied in the belief that we know what a "type" of person is like enough to perform and recognize the accuracy of that performance without having really been in that position--as earlier audiences. And so, why couldn't a developmentally disabled person play the part? Do we really believe that Rosie O'Donnell is bringing more (or even as much) to that role than someone who knows what the character is going through?

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You obviously have not seen the movie, nor, I would guess, have you seen any of the promotional material for same. If you had, I am sure your response would be much more angry. I confess I have not seen the movie, but have seen the promotional material and have seen snippets of Rosie's performance and even an avowed Rosie hater such as myself was shocked at how low she was willing to sink. Her portrayal of the mentally challenged is much more minstrel than anything Al Jolsen did in his mammiest of mammy days, she believes that retarded people wear mismatched shoes and socks and talk like the deaf. Really she should be ashamed.

And what happened to Andie McDowell's career that she would be involved with this crap?

LE

5/04/2005 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the point why couldn't a developmentally disabled person play the part?

If we presume they made this show because of their concern for the developmentally disabled, at least in part, why not take that concern out of the nice thinking abstract and give the job to people that they're allegedly so concerned about?

I was reading something recently where a woman was talking about practical feminism, which she meant was not just supporting the ideas but supporting actual women in practical ways when they dealt with the relevant issues. So why not practical anything? If it really makes a difference, don't just tell me a nice story or theory about it, do something about it.

-SuperGenius

5/04/2005 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger the Professor said...

Well, I did see the movie and the Legal Egale does not know how right he is about the performance.
The only defense I could give is to point out that the movie was really bad in lots of other ways. They made all humans look shallow and stupid, not just developmentally disabled people. Of course, that's not much of a defense at all.

5/04/2005 01:43:00 PM  
Anonymous J. said...

I don't know which I find more shocking: The fact that someone admits watching, or the fact that someone thinks all humans aren't stupid and shallow.

5/04/2005 02:18:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Pick said...

It's funny, the preview for that movie got me a little pissed off, too. I think part of the problem is that Rosie O'Donnell tends to be an over-the-top kind of actress, anyway. She's not going to do anything that isn't big and broad, so if she's going to play someone with developmental problems, she's going to be right up there with Robin Williams in trying to overly sentimentalize the character.

Great point, Aunt B, about the minstrelsy of it. I think that's been an issue with most such portrayals of developmentally disabled people. Certainly, Dustin Hoffman as "Rain Man" was flirting with it, and it's interesting that his portrayal in that role is probably as much as any of us know about that particular type of person. He's sort of the Al Jolson of autism.

Meanwhile, there's Andie MacDowell, one of the sexiest women in motion picture history, playing in a film far below her talents.

5/04/2005 02:43:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

I'm sure I did see promotional material for this movie, but I didn't mention it because it would mean talking about yet another medical condition I have and I don't want this to become the blog of mystery illnesses.

That being said, I do have this condition where, whenever Rosie O'Donnell comes on my TV, my brain immediatly shuts down. I'm like the Tennessee Fainting Goats in that way. So, maybe I was seeing advertisements all the time, but I just never noticed. Thank you, brain!

5/04/2005 02:47:00 PM  
Blogger Twyla said...

Riding the Bus With My Sister: A True Life Journey is a wonderful book. When I saw the commercials for the movie, I was sick. They took something special and made it crap. Damn it!

And a developmentaly disabled person SO should have played the part. I refused to waste my time watching it. Thanks for the opp to vent.

5/04/2005 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

I'd heard that about the book, that it was really good. What a shame.

5/04/2005 09:22:00 PM  

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