Getting emotional and factually analyzing a crappy system (and how Amber Riley can do both at the same time)

You may remember seeing the recent video (or one of the GIF sets made from it) where Amber Riley talks about the difficulty of getting roles as a black, female actor of size where the character doesn’t hate herself.

Here’s what Riley says in the video (there’s an extended version out there, but I’m focusing on this short one because it’s been the most widely covered one). During the first bit of the video, we see that she has been crying. We see her with wet eyes, wiping away tears while she continues to talk in a calm voice.

Hollywood is a very hard place to be in. It really is. Being the person that I am, you know, being the size I am, being a woman, being a black woman, there’s not a lot of roles for us.

After I did St Sass, I kept on auditioning. I was being offered the girl who sits in the corner and, you know, eats all day, the girl who wanted to commit suicide because she was fat. It was never anything that I felt had a good ending. I never wanted to play a character that hated herself. I wanted people to know that those aren’t the only kind of roles for women like me, normal girls.

Going to audition and having the casting director say, “I think you need to lose a little weight,” I didn’t understand why people couldn’t accept me for who I was. And the rejection started wearing on my self-esteem. And that’s just when I, me and my mom decided to stop. I’m just gonna be in high school, gonna be a high school student.

I’m not going to conform, and hurt myself, and do something crazy to be a size 2.

My parents always instilled knowing that you’re beautiful, and knowing that you’re fearfully and wonderfully made, and no one can tell you who you are, you know who you are.

I’m a healthy person. I have great friends around me that are positive. And I think that’s the key to life, is make your own path, set your own rules. Because there is no set rule, no set look, no set anything, you make your own rules in your life, and you make your own decisions.

So far, this is like a pretty touching and empowering video, right?

However, I came across the source of the video yesterday. And the way it was presented there makes me want to say things. Because there is this headline:

‘Glee’ star Amber Riley gets emotional about body image on ‘This Is How I Made It’ — EXCLUSIVE VIDEO

Which is first of all factually WRONG. Riley doesn’t “get emotional” (we’ll get to that bit in a minute) about her body image, she cries about a movie industry that offers only self-hating roles to fat, black, female actors and where casting directors tell her to lose weight, an industry that was always repeating the message to her that there’s something wrong with being fat, black and female.

Is the distinction clear? She doesn’t cry about her body, she cries because she’s been told repeatedly that this body was wrong and because she couldn’t get good roles because of that attitude towards her body (which eventually impacted how she felt about herself and the body she was originally FINE with).

But, see, Amber Riley “gets emotional” (and that’s still putting it gently – the same thing has been called “breaking down in tears” elsewhere) and this apparently turns her factual critique of a size-ist system into a personal issue of hers. By focusing on her emotions instead of the words accompanied by them, the story is suddenly reframed into one where she was presumably too weak to withstand the constant fat-hate, and too stubborn or lazy to conform to the Hollywood norm for attractive female bodies. In other words, she disqualified herself from being a successful actress, and it’s all her own fault.

When in reality, she took great care of herself by leaving that system when she realized it was negatively impacting her. When in reality, she showed great willpower by staying determined to not perpetuate a wrong system (which she intelligently analyzed) through accepting the role of a self-hating character, no matter how much she wanted to act.

This is a perfect example of how the expression of feelings by women is used to render their factual arguments invalid. (Here’s a great article that discusses the different kinds of emotions expressed by men and women in public political debates (and in general) and how that impacts how their statements are read.)

But we’re not done with the Riley video website, yet. Because there’s still the introductory text for the video:

In this week’s episode [of the MTV series This Is How I Made It], Glee star Amber Riley, who plays the confident Mercedes on the Fox hit, discusses her struggles with body image within the entertainment industry and how she never wanted to conform to the industry’s unrealistic standards. “Hollywood is a very hard place to be in. It really is,” admits the actress […].

Once again, this is NOT an accurate summary of what Amber Riley actually said. First of all, the use of “admit” once again turns the stating of facts (Hollywood isn’t exactly welcoming to fat women and black people in general; this creates pressure that can impact one’s self-esteem) into a purely emotional (and therefore invalid) “feeling.”

The quote also juxtaposes the “confident” character she plays on Glee with her real-life persona, who, as we are supposed to read this, clearly is not so confident after all. This tells us both that the character Mercedes Jones is actually unrealistic as a role model (because if not even the actress who plays her is really confident, how can a girl who goes to a sexist, racist, fatphobic high school in Lima, Ohio ever be confident for real?), and that Riley herself is less than that character.

By the way, this presumed opposition between Mercedes Jones and Amber Riley doesn’t even make sense because Mercedes has had a storyline about the pressure to be thin so she could be what she wanted (in her case, a cheerleader), and Riley clearly comes across as very confident indeed about who she is and how she looks. If you doubt it, check out this equally recent video, especially from 1:34 onwards (in which she also implies that one’s looks aren’t what a person should be judged on in the first place). And pay extra attention to how the perception of her changes with the presence of an audience that applauds her for being who she is and saying what she says and doing what she does.

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