Recently I wrote about the hegemonic nature of what is and isn’t considered a flaw in a movie or TV show: To wit, marginalizing women and minorities isn’t considered a flaw and has no negative impact on ratings and awards, while empowering women and minorities isn’t considered an accomplishment and has no positive impact on ratings and awards. Today I’ll take a look at how this dynamic plays out in a couple of pairs of works involving Benedict Cumberbatch: First, Sherlock and Elementary, and second, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
The basic issues are laid out in Racebending’s articles on Elementary and Star Trek. Have a look at those articles. It should be pretty straightforward to see how hegemonic flaws play into the reception of each of these works. Elementary and Sherlock are both well-regarded shows with plenty of devoted fans*, but Sherlock is definitely considered more or less strictly better. Elementary‘s groundbreaking casting of a woman of color in a lead role rarely gets presented as an area where it is superior to Sherlock; no review will ever say “despite its adherence to a conventional all-male, all-white main cast, Sherlock remains an excellent show.”
Indeed, people I’ve discussed the show with are quick to dismiss the idea that there might be anything innovative about Lucy Liu’s role and to criticize her as a character and an actress. There is a fair amount of blatant “Watson shouldn’t be Asian/female” animosity (my initial reaction followed this exact progression), but there’s even more pushback in the form of “I just don’t like Lucy Liu and she’s not right for the part,” followed up with an assurance that one is perfectly in favor of more Asians and women on TV in general but just doesn’t happen to like this particular choice. This is where we get into the really thorny ground. Yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to think she doesn’t do a very good acting job and to think that someone else would have done better. But it remains that Lucy Liu is female and Asian and that this is going to play into your thought process, whether you acknowledge it or not. Part of being aware of race and gender roles in the media is recognizing that you exist in the same environment and carry the same unconscious biases as everyone else.
And then there’s Star Trek: Into Darkness. In contrast to contemporary Hollywood’s penchant for spoilers in trailers, the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character as Khan was kept under wraps until the premiere. Racebending speculates that this was a deliberate move to avoid fan backlash; we’ll never know, but since it’s a spoiler, reviews don’t mention it and don’t discuss it. Cumberbatch’s performance is generally praised. If any reviewer found it inappropriate that he replaced a man of color, that opinion and any effect it may have had on the film’s mostly-positive ratings has been completely suppressed. (I’m glad to see that there has been a large fan backlash against Cumberbatch’s casting; canon purity cuts both ways.)
And here’s the real difficulty: It’s a wrench for me to say that casting Benedict Cumberbatch was a mistake. I love Benedict Cumberbatch. I get excited when I hear that he’s going to be in something. I would watch a movie that was nothing but 90 minutes of him reading picture books.
Cumberbatch does do a great job as Khan. Ethnicity aside, he’s pretty much guaranteed to succeed at any villain role that allows him to wear a long coat and talk in a baritone, and I could watch him and Zachary Quinto punch each other all day. In Sherlock, he and Martin Freeman are absolutely dripping with chemistry and their dynamic is completely contingent on their being male**. But there will always be many roles available for a handsome, talented white actor like Cumberbatch, and there will always be handsome and talented white actors. If we allow ourselves to make an exception and say that it’s okay to cast this one white guy as a person of color just because he’s perfect for the role, then we’re giving Hollywood a free pass to never give any role to a person of color (or a woman) as long as they can produce a white man who’s just perfect for it.
And why is it always a white actor who is so perfect that they couldn’t possibly cast anyone else? Ricardo Montalban was perfect for his role too. He was a handsome and talented actor. Hearing him say “soft Corinthian leather” is at least as pleasant as hearing Benedict Cumberbatch say “YES!”
How many talented minority actors could become powerhouses like Benedict Cumberbatch if they weren’t constantly overlooked in favor of white actors? When we allow our favorite white actors to take all the important roles, we’re not only doing a disservice to minority actors, but to ourselves. We’re the ones who lose the chance to enjoy and appreciate the bright new minority stars who never get a chance to make it big.
*Since there are a lot of personal biases in the Sherlock Holmes adaptation discussion, mine are more or less expressed by this review: It’s a good detective show and the strong character dynamics make it more entertaining than most of the material in the genre, but it isn’t a real triumph like Sherlock. Since I don’t like mysteries as a rule, Elementary is consequently a show I watch occasionally when I’m bored, whereas Sherlock is a show I anticipate greatly. But I can nevertheless recognize that Elementary is groundbreaking in a lot of places where Sherlock is conservative.
**In fairness, Elementary also strikes a unique dynamic: It successfully creates a buddy/sibling relationship between Holmes and Watson that simultaneously has good chemistry and no romantic overtones at all.