On ‘Damonsplaining’: Why I think Matt Damon had a point about diversity in art

Image Credit – Matt Damon and Effie Brown on "Project Greenlight" by HBO

The media and Twittersphere have loved discussing Matt Damon’s views on diversity ever since the now-famous incident on HBO’s Project Greenlight. But there’s a crucial nuance to Damon’s argument that I fear many have missed.

Damon, I wholeheartedly believe, was talking about creative freedoms.

For the most part, the media accused Damon of “mansplaining” (or “whitesplaining”) diversity in Hollywood to black female producer Effie Brown. And having “lectured” Brown on diversity, Damon proceeded to make a statement that was deemed a “non-apology” by many on Twitter:

My comments were part of a much broader conversation about diversity in Hollywood and the fundamental nature of “Project Greenlight”, which did not make the show. I am sorry that they offended some people, but, at the very least, I am happy that they started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood. That is an ongoing conversation that we all should be having.

But a problem with this situation is that no one’s talking about the issue in terms of creativity – and I believe this to be the most important aspect of the debate.

I’m not so ignorant as to assume that race and diversity simply “aren’t issues”. However, these political and philosophical approaches to the argument fail to acknowledge the creative process. To me, creativity must be discussed on its own terms – after all, without creativity, both communal and individual, we would lack any basis upon which to communicate in the first place.

A leftwing idea has gone unchallenged for far too long in creative industries: The idea that white people can’t make art about what are assigned as black issues. This has branched into other areas, placing limits on who has the right or ability to be involved in works about everything from race to disabilities to women’s rights.

These ideas are not only idiotic, but utterly contemptible and damaging to society. Creative people of any race, gender and orientation have the right and ability to make any work about any subject.

Writing in Salon Brittney Cooper, professor of women’s and gender studies, and African studies at Rutgers University, put forward an eloquent argument that I would urge you to read.

Cooper rightly asserted that many white people flag the “merit card” in order to trump conversations about “diversity”. To be clear, I agree with her on this point – white people do get defensive and use the “merit card” if they think that their positions of power are threatened by efforts to increase diversity.

Diversity Masks by George A Spiva Center for the Arts

Source: Diversity Masks by George A Spiva Center for the Arts

Where I vehemently disagree with Cooper is on the following:

The idea that our experiences of race and gender shape and inform how we perceive narratives and how we tell stories, makes many, many people uncomfortable.

These notions of universality are the problem, because universal is code word for “white”. I’m not saying that there are not commonalities of human experience in which we can all share. We can. But as a black person, I have been taught to find myself and my experiences in a range of “classic” stories about white people, whether “Tom Sawyer,” or “Of Mice and Men,” or “Lord of the Flies”.

Firstly, I disagree with this because I think all artists (regardless of race, gender and orientation) strive, on some level, to achieve universality. Of course our experiences shape us – I don’t dispute that. But creative people, however unconsciously, seek the kind of audience that transcends any and all divisions.

In fact, I would argue that the lack of diversity within narratives today (ie the reason most protagonists are white males) is, at least in part, due to a fear of “having no right” to include minorities in stories.

Even the most liberal and progressive artist can be afraid that their whiteness prohibits them from writing non-white voices. White artists become crippled by the fear that a badly written phrase or a misinterpreted shot will be deemed racist. I believe this fear should be quashed, not perpetuated.

Another argument Cooper makes is that:

Brown’s point, that whiteness can sometimes be a critical blindspot when handling the lives of people of colour, is something white people struggle to accept.

To a critic such blindspots are indicative of an incompetent artist. For this reason, I do not believe this to be a wholly valid concern. Cooper and Brown both fear bad quality art, and I assert that any artist worth their salt would be too acutely anxious about blindspots to allow them.

Now allow me to flip the issue on its head for a moment: Take the example of Steve McQueen, the black British writer and director of Hunger – a movie about the 1981 Irish hunger strike. By applying the aforementioned logic, McQueen had huge blindspots which should have stopped him from writing or directing the film.

Though some may argue McQueen’s ethnicity allowed for empathy with another oppressed group, he was nevertheless a British man making a movie about an Irish issue. This of course brings up all manner of tense colonial history which, on the surface, should prohibit him from making the movie – after all he’s a member of a guilty party.

More recently, George Miller put forward such a strong female lead in Mad Max: Fury Road that many thought it would have been more aptly entitled Furiosa. Miller is not female, and he does not live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Yet, his film included a brilliant female protagonist and a fantastic wasteland.

If we had always been paranoid about blindspots, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness would not exist – after all, who could possibly understand both sexes well enough to dream of a world without them? The work of Henrik Ibsen would also not exist – after all, how could he understand his heroines? And Django Unchained would never have been made – after all, Quentin Tarantino is white.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, by Warner Bros Pictures, Kennedy Miller Mitchell, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures

Source: Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, by Warner Bros Pictures, Kennedy Miller Mitchell, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures

The truth is that creative people are inspired to talk about challenging issues and no limits should ever be placed on what they are deemed to have a right or ability to produce.

I reject any suggestions that artists should limit themselves – if I find myself compelled as an artist to talk about the genocide of Native Americans, or voice my disgust about the media’s treatment of Islamic peoples, or lament the rise of racist nationalism in Britain, I surely must.

What surprises me is that Cooper, an academic, seems to ignore the fact that it it not uncommon for an “outsider” to have an excellent perspective on a given cultural or sociopolitical topic.

This is because the inherent degree of separation necessitates extra research, care and diligence. A good example of this is found in literature where, to paraphrase literary theorist Roland Bathes, the academic or reader is alive whilst the author is dead.

It’s because of all of this that I can understand Damon’s point. I willingly concede that words are important, and that Damon chose his poorly. But equally people cannot assume that the race, gender or orientation of a creative person prohibits their ability to empathize. That kind of psychic segregation harms everyone.

Should more opportunities be afforded to minorities in creative industries? Absolutely – I’m sick of white male protagonists, if for no other reason than it being a stale conceit that no longer reflects our world. But equally, to infer that writers, directors and other creatives only have the right or ability to tackle issues that affect them personally is an immense assault on art itself.

Image Credit – Matt Damon and Effie Brown on “Project Greenlight” by HBO

J. C. Servante

J. C. Servante

Freelance writer, reviewer and blogger. Politically speculative. Can be found at donkeyokay.com

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