It is an unfortunate fact of life that we all must be labeled and put into boxes. There are the boxes we have to check off on any given form such as our gender or how much money we make. Sometimes the questions are easy: How tall are you? What color are your eyes? More often than not, however, the questions are complicated and can bring up bigger philosophical queries that are much more difficult to answer. Just yesterday I was asked to state my marital status, age, and race after answering a seemingly endless survey about my political beliefs. Thinking back on them now, those questions seem so personal to me, but our constant exposure to labels has me so jaded I barely batted an eyelash as I noncommittally gave my honest answers. It doesn’t matter where you go or where you come from, as part of society we are going to be categorized. Sometimes we are complicit in the process; often it is against our will.
As Americans, whether born or bred, we are clearly obsessed with labels. You can’t get out of bed without being forced to look at labels and brands, even if it’s just the ones on your sheets. Labels that others give us affect us daily as well. What happens when we don’t know which label to pick? How are we supposed to feel when we are forced to confront a box that clearly does not define us but is still capable of stereotyping us nonetheless? All-around Jill of all trades Viviana Leo actively explores these and other questions in her work as a writer, actress, and producer.
In Viviana’s newest film, White Alligator, a docu-comedy, the main character comes to New York to participate in a reality show she hopes will help make her a star. Like most plans, however, things take a different turn. Juanita Perez thinks of herself as the girl next door but soon realizes Hispanics in the New York film industry don’t have it easy. Like the actress who plays her, Juanita Perez is forced to change her name to sound more “white” to garner more roles. White Alligator is not only important and thought provoking, it is also funny. The humor is something Viviana hopes will draw audiences in; her goal is to have theatergoers leave laughing and hungry for changes in the film industry.
Many people think of New York City as this amazing Mecca that includes all races, ages, colors, and sizes, a place where the general population typically could care less about labels and perceptions. For the most part that is absolutely the case. New Yorkers barely blink an eye at things that would be absolute calamities in Small Town, U.S.A. At the same time, New York City is one of the epicenters of the entertainment industry, a business famous for its obsessive and harmful emphasis on looks. While it may be hard for many beautiful, talented, Caucasians in New York to find work, what about those struggling actors and actresses with different backgrounds? Where do they fit in in all of this?
Viviana Leo takes a closer look at these questions and many more in White Alligator, and I was lucky enough to interview her recently and talk to her about discrimination in the media. Ms. Leo is a graduate of Columbia University where she studied English with a concentration in dramatic literature. When I asked her about Columbia and her experiences there, she only had positive words for the Ivy League university. She told me that Columbia was focused on what you could do—what you could produce as an artist and an academic—and not on outward appearance or gender, unlike the harsh reality she faced after completing her Bachelor’s degree.
After leaving Columbia, Viviana attempted to gain recognition in the acting world in New York. She soon found roadblock after roadblock and felt that she was hitting a wall when it came to getting positive, realistic roles for women. The roles that she saw for Hispanics were frequently drug addicts, maids, and prostitutes. Viviana not only experienced these barriers as a Latina, she also found that many of her actress friends of other backgrounds faced similar constraints. Viviana related a story about taking an acting class with a friend from California. The two were having a perfectly normal conversation, but as soon as her friend went in front of the class to do her dialogue she had to put on an Asian accent to have the scene make sense. And these types of stories are not aberrations. (Ed. note: Viviana recounted in an email exchange, “Once, I was at an audition for a Spanish-language commercial and the producers provided a tub of dark foundation and asked all the girls auditioning to slather it on before going into the room. I deftly saved us all that embarrassment by saying out loud, ‘Nobody is touching that foundation because you don’t have enough makeup pads for all of us and this is now a hygiene issue.’”) Viviana struggles with the questions and ideas that certain races and ethnicities are continually cast in stereotypical roles. We’ve all seen them on the screen: Indian cab drivers or computer geeks, Asians honing their skills as martial artists.
Ms. Leo blames the stereotypical roles on many factors. Hollywood sets the casting trends; there is after all little difference between the roles in movies set on the West Coast versus those set back east. According to Viviana, roles are limited for any ethnicity. Many of the small boxes actors are put into are because Hollywood’s locus of power is comprised of an older generation of mainly white males. The roles for women are often restricted to the pretty wife or girlfriend of the funny and handsome male character. Actresses are forced to play the supporting characters in most stories. Viviana did say that things may be changing slightly with breakout females like Kathryn Bigelow (another Columbia alum) and Brook Busey (better known as Diablo Cody) but those types of leading women are few and far between. Women still don’t get the same chances that men do when it comes to acting, writing, or producing. The meaty roles for women still go to a small subset of established actresses who are proven box office mavens.
Viviana is one of the many artists striving to change the entertainment industry for the better. While there is no doubt our society has made significant progress, we still have many hurdles left to overcome beginning with racial barriers. Case in point: The entertainment industry is the only field where employers can ask a candidate where they are from, something that is illegal in other job sectors.
Viviana wants to change not only the way the entertainment industry views one’s ethnic origin, but she also wants to engage the public’s interest with more important and more universally relevant topics. She has also written a dark comedy about a very unfunny subject, abortion, (Blue for Boy), as well as Utopia, which according to Viviana is, “a film about our addiction to meat and the direction that’s taking us.” She is also planning on writing a script about people’s obsession with money, something we can all be guilty of at times.
Viviana wants to expose the negative aspects of the film industry in White Alligator. Ultimately she hopes to persuade producers and writers to give Americans more credit when it comes to actors and actresses playing characters that may not be the “typical” roles they are used to seeing on the big screen. (Note: Viviana recently wrote a compelling article outlining her filmmaking philosophy for Intellectualyst.)
There are many ways that we define ourselves, starting with the boxes that we are forced to check off. There are the boxes others put us into against our will. Then there are the boxes we often put others into without even noticing. Instead of mindlessly checking off all those stifling boxes, let’s all work together and remember the most important box we can check off is human being.
If we can change Hollywood, maybe we can change the world.