racism and colorism in musical theater + fandom
I’m about to lose some followers, but hey, that happens!
First of all, I just wanted to say that this isn’t a call-out post!! Rather, this is a space in which I point out some things I’ve noticed, and where you can tell me whether my conclusions seem fair or not.
To start, I want everyone to take a moment to look at this post, as well as the comments and reblogs. The original is about DeMarius Copes’ livestreams getting overrun by fans asking for Ben Tyler Cook; the additions are about similar situations with other actors.
First of all, that’s just disrespectful. However, it’s also worth noting than in almost every case, it’s a white actor being favored over a black actor (in the only exception, it’s a Latinx actor being favored over a mixed-race black actor in Hamilton. More on that later.)
Bottom line: it’s time to talk about racism and colorism on Broadway and in fandom.
Of course, it’s always been happening on Broadway, but now that a lot of it is subtle/internalized rather than overt, I think we need to get better at recognizing it. With more and more diverse shows taking stage, it’d be easy to get complacent, but I think our work is far from through!
Let’s look at three shows that have been through enough casts, and that have big enough fandoms, that it’s fair to look for patterns in terms of fan engagement and character depictions. First, The Book of Mormon:
Okay, honestly, this one is kind of self-explanatory. I’m pretty sure we’re all aware of it on some level. I’m talking about the exclusion of the villagers in fandom. Honestly, it makes no sense because other than the major characters, all we get of the Elders in terms of individual personalities is…two verses of “Turn it Off” and one line about pop-tarts? And yet, fandom is able to come up with so much material for each of the Elders.
Whereas with the villagers (especially the women!!!), we get a ton of witty lines and rich backstories and high drama and psychological complexity, but hardly any fanworks are devoted to them.
The show itself is a satire of colonialism and racism. Now, how well the show accomplishes that end is definitely a valid topic of debate, but my point is this: if you’re constantly favoring the white male characters and actors over everyone else, you’re missing the entire point of the musical.
That being said, WHERE are my Mafala moodboards and Kimbay headcanons? Also…where’s the fandom for literally any of the black actors who have ever been in the show…? Do we even bother to learn their names?
And now let’s take a look at Les Misérables. We’re in different territory here because unlike in The Book of Mormon, none of the characters are explicitly written as POC. Thus, it’s critical to look at which characters are being portrayed by POC.
Broadway’s first black Éponine was in 1997. Its first black Javert was 2006. And its first black Valjean was in 2015 (but as an understudy, not as a principal). To my knowledge, Broadway hasn’t seen a black Cosette on yet; the first black principal Cosette in any major English language production only took the stage this year, on West End.
My point is this: if you put the characters on a spectrum of “grittiness”–we could even say aggressiveness–that’s the exact order that we got black actors cast in those roles. And that’s pretty much the frequency with which we get POC in those roles, too.
And this pattern of “casting” extends to fan depictions of characters, too. On the whole, fandom does an BRILLIANT job of reclaiming stories and making them more representative of the world around us. However, in fanart, I see lots of POC Éponine, Grantaire, and Javert (which I love!!!), but predominantly white Enjolras, Valjean, and Cosette.
A clear message is being sent: a black woman can be the tough girl on the streets, but not the angelic love interest. And when a character is described as a drunken cynic, we’re totally able to picture them as a POC, but when a character is described as a charismatic leader, a “flower,” and a god, we’re only able to see them as a white person.
(Also, don’t think it escaped my notice that Victor Hugo explicitly calls both Éponine and Grantaire ugly. Enjolras and Cosette are described as beautiful.)
((On a lighter note, I am begging all of you to just LOOK AT KYLE SCATLIFFE. Also, HIS VOICE. MY HEART.))
Oh, and on the note of Enj, since he’s arguably the fandom’s most popular character: I know we’re attached to him being blond, but 1. POC can be blond!! and 2. might I suggest that POC can have beautiful hair, too?
Even in shows that are written to be diverse, there are still very uncomfortable racial dynamics going on. Let’s look at Hamilton: both its casting and its fandom.
For one thing, Eliza. She’s very often Asian and/or lighter-skinned, while Angelica and Peggy/Maria are often black. Are Asian women only allowed to be the the devoted (and passive) wife, but never the sharp-witted older sister or the beautiful seductress? (And as in the case with Cosette, are we again less inclined to see black women as goodhearted redemptive figures?)
I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing some mild stereotyping going on here. Like, I love Miss Saigon, too, but can we stop perpetuating the cultural narrative of naïve Asian women giving everything they have for a man, and then getting abandoned?!
A bigger issue that I see, though, lies with the fandom. For those of you who don’t know what colorism is, that’s totally fine!! It’s definitely not talked about enough. Colorism is the favoring of people with lighter skin, and importantly, this can happen even within and among marginalized groups.
And here’s why it’s a problem in Hamilton. This thread about Hamilton fandom’s favoring of certain actors over others puts it much better than I can (and deserves WAY MORE NOTES). An excerpt:
Also, y’all…this is kind of off-topic, but kind of not. Can we make an effort to properly spell and pronounce Oak’s name?
If any of these examples were isolated incidents, I would hesitate to cry racism. However, when it’s a pattern repeated across so many shows and across so many fandoms, we have to look more deeply at what’s really going on.
A single instance of casting is not the problem. Of course an Asian woman can play Eliza! Of course Enjolras can be white! The problem is that they’re not also being portrayed any other way.
Writing or drawing a character as white is not the problem!! Seriously, depict characters however you see them! The problem is that they’re not also being depicted as people of color.
Having favorite actors who are white is not the problem! Of course you can love whichever actors you find talented and attractive! The problem is many, many fans not also having favorites who are people of color.
If, in fandom in general, a character is never portrayed a certain way–if, in fandom, actors of certain races or skin colors are consistently less favored than their white colleagues–that’s when we need to stop and examine why.
We can’t ask for diversity and then, when we get it, proceed to consistently ignore people of color. Representation doesn’t exist to clear our consciences as we continue to fangirl over white boys. Representation exists to give people the chance to see themselves reflected by an art form that claims to be universal.
I know that it’s sometimes not intuitive to picture POC in certain social roles. We’ve internalized so much toxic media representation, and the aforementioned casting patterns have only perpetuated that. But fandom is the place where we reclaim and rewrite the story, isn’t it? Let’s enable ourselves to imagine better representation than what we have.