The Right Not To Be Dignified

Up at The Loop 21 today, I consider the right not to be dignified in entertainment:

It’s natural to react to allegations that you are less than the normal, and to prove that you’re not just trying to be equal but better than the normal: more serious, more composed, more sophisticated, and yes, more dignified than the people who are degrading you. Condoleezza Rice told People magazine that when she was in college, she told a professor, “I speak French, I play Bach, I’m better in your culture than you are,” in response to the professor’s citation of a racist scientist who said that black people were biologically less intelligent than other races. It’s the need for that sort of refutation that animates a great deal of Sidney Poitier’s career—he could tame classrooms full of London students, outclass white newspaper publishers and gallery owners, and solve murders that white detectives couldn’t, even under constant threat.

Similarly, Tom Hanks’ performance as Andrew Beckett, a gay man suffering from AIDS and fired from his law firm in the movie “Philadelphia” is a sharp rebuke to the idea that it’s his bigoted heterosexual coworkers who are the true grownups. Members of the firm try to embarrass Beckett, setting him up as incompetent, suggesting he’s responsible for his own illness. But his resilience proves that having sex in a movie theater is less a cause for shame than being an ignorant bigot.

Equality means that not every role has to contribute to a single overwhelming message, that folks get to be individual, rather than collective. There’s nothing wrong with playing dignified roles. There’s nothing wrong with playing gooftastic, or criminal, or insecure roles. It’s when you can only do one that we have a problem.