Actors have been lining up over the years to apologize for doing their job. That is, to act. Recently, Helen Mirren and Bradley Cooper have been taking fire for playing high-profile Jewish figures, and Mirren has been vocal in opposition to her critics. However, despite what many are claiming, cancel culture is not what’s driving these efforts to pigeonhole actors.
The sole purpose of acting is to act! To assume personalities, traits, and mannerisms unlike your own to fairly portray a character. Telling actors that they can only play roles exactly like themselves obviates the need for talented actors and threatens the viewing experience acting is supposed to create.
However, the effort to mandate that actors be type-casted based on their recognizable traits is not cancel culture per se. Cancel culture has six defining features, and while these cases share a number of those six elements, the two most critical are absent from the reported cases of actors apologizing for a prior role, like Tom Hanks, Eddie Redmayne, Kristin Bell, and Jenny Slate or those being criticized for roles they are currently portraying, like Mirren and Cooper.
Disproportionate punishment is one of those elements and is a key factor in all cancel culture events. These actors are not being disproportionately punished for their roles. Yes, some actors may be taking criticism, but they are not being fired, no one is boycotting their films, and their production companies are not apologizing for their participation.
Another key feature of cancel culture is the secondary sanctions applied to those who support the alleged transgressor. These sanctions which often take forms like boycotts, disparaging comments, and physical harm, instill fear in those who form a person’s support network. In these cases, no threats of secondary sanctions exist.
While some like Hanks, Redmayne, Bell, and Slater have canceled themselves, most actors likely believe that they should have the creative right to play any role they want and not be typecast to play roles that fit their gender, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other immutable trait. Regarding Mirren and Cooper, many if not most Jews deny that Cooper’s donning of a fake nose to fairly portray his character, the legendary Leonard Bernstein, is in any way antisemitic.
So, if it’s not cancel culture what is it? It’s intersectionality run amok. Intersectionality lies upstream from cancel culture in that it provides the philosophical underpinnings supporting a hyper-commitment to separate and unequal identities. Intersectionality is the disease and cancel culture is one of the symptoms.
According to intersectionality, the most privileged lie at the left end of the spectrum. With every attribute of oppression that one can lay claim to, female, black, Muslim, gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, disabled – you get the point – a person moves farther to the right.
The more attributes you collect, the farther to the right you move, and the more social power you are granted over those to the left of you.
According to intersectionality, those at the left end of the spectrum – the more privileged – are incapable of understanding or empathizing with those who lie to the right of them. Therefore, those on the left end of the power dynamic, in deference to those to their right, subordinate their artistic rights for the sake of sensitivity and inclusivity. Such a philosophy atomizes our society into warring identities in a zero-sum game.
This gets us back to acting. These actors are not being canceled. They are being told that they are incapable of portraying characters unlike themselves based on intersectionality’s assertion that only those that lie within a specific oppressed group are positioned to represent that group. Since Tom Hanks isn’t gay, he should never have assumed that he could fairly portray a gay man suffering from AIDS. In the new world, only a gay man suffering from AIDS should be cast in that role and Hanks should only be cast as a Bosom Buddy kind of guy.
Yes, one can wonder why, with identity politics raging for the majority of those to the right of white Christian men, two monumental Jewish figures are being portrayed by non-Jews, and it doesn’t raise an eyebrow. On the other hand, why should it raise an eyebrow, it’s acting, and Mirren and Cooper are exceptional at their crafts. I expect them to brilliantly portray Golda Meir and Leonard Bernstein. Israel and the Jewish people will be better for their portrayals.
Likewise, Tom Hanks’ portrayal of a gay man suffering from AIDS in the movie, Philadelphia, earned him an Academy Award and brought the plight of AIDS to the American people. Hanks had no reason to apologize and would never have done so but for the political sway intersectionality adherents now wield.
Drawing a distinction between what is and what is not cancel culture is imperative to properly addressing that phenomenon as well as addressing one of its animating philosophies, intersectionality. They are correlated but they are not the same. In the case of acting, we are dealing entirely with intersectionality and the effort to atomize society into competing identities.
Not only will the acting profession and viewing audiences suffer the consequences but so too will society. To safeguard freedom of expression, we must safeguard acting from the identitarian dogma intersectionality promotes. I stand with actors and their freedom to act, unconditionally.