It didn’t have to be this way. Netflix could’ve made informative docuseries about great queens, providing a commendable public service. Instead, African Queens focuses more on attaching racial attributes to Ptolemaic Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VI to capitalize on diversity. By parading itself as a docuseries, historical fact is now getting in the way of a politicised truth that represents what certain filmmakers want the past to have been, rather than portraying history as it is.
The uproar in Egypt following the controversy is completely justified. Cleopatra VI was predominantly of Macedonian Greek ancestry and was born in Egypt. Hollywood’s attempt to erase her identity naturally provoked a reaction from Egyptians. Although racebending is not inherently harmful when the actor’s ethnicity aligns with the historical or cultural context of the story, it has perpetuated the trend that has haunted Hollywood since its beginning: the casting of white actors to portray people of colour or whitewashing.
Bending over Backwards
Racebending refers to the changing of an established character’s race or ethnicity. The danger of mistaking diversity for inclusion is that it deprives storytellers of realising original ideas. It signals a film industry that does not encourage new stories or a Hollywood that is reluctant to explore them because of the confines set by blockbuster filmmaking. Furthermore, there is something inherently disturbing to use an actor’s race as the sole measure of progress, rather than embracing great, original stories involving members of minority communities.
The live-action remake of 1989’s The Little Mermaid (a loose adaptation of the 1837 Danish fairy tale of the same name) stars Black actor and singer Halle Bailey as Ariel. Wouldn’t it be more thrilling to narrate an original story rooted in African folklore? Disney had numerous stories at its disposal for adaptation. For instance, Mami Wata, a water spirit celebrated across Africa for centuries, comes to mind The water spirit is often portrayed as a beautiful woman with a fishtail and curly Black hair, a large snake — a symbol of divinity — wrapped around her body.
Taking the Bait
Hollywood exploits diversity through its favourite commercial tool, queerbaiting. Queerbaiting refers to a marketing technique for fiction and entertainment in which creators hint at, but then do not depict, same-sex romance or other LGBTQ+ representation. These deceptive techniques work to create higher engagement and pull in audiences only to disappoint them with little to no meaningful representation.
Recently, Netflix’s Wednesday has been accused of queerbaiting after prominently teasing gay scenes in its marketing but largely avoiding actual queer storytelling in the show itself. Prior to the show’s release, Netflix threw a “Wednesgay” party featuring queer performers and drag queens to hook LGBTQ+ audiences into watching a show where none of the main characters is really queer. To add insult to injury, Netflix seemingly hid replies mentioning the words “gay” and “lesbian” in response to its tweets promoting the Addams Family spinoff.
Although Hollywood would like you to believe that queer representation in entertainment has improved significantly, there’s nothing to write home about. For instance, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker featured the first ever lesbian characters in the history of the series with a blink-and-miss kiss between two female characters in the background. In 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, the marketing of the film hyped up LeFou’s sexual orientation, which amounted to an end-of-the-film dance with a henchman. Basically, these scenes are an easy way for the studio to cut out for international markets that either want to censor the film or deem it inappropriate.
What is Proper Representation?
Media representation can be helpful in increasing self-esteem for people of marginalised groups, but it has to be done the right way. Authentic diversity can break down barriers, open us to new ideas, and even be a source of inspiration. We’ve seen how Black Panther proved to Hollywood that African American narratives have the power to generate profits from all audiences. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won an Oscar through its incredible message for anyone who aspires to be more than themselves, and films like Coco. And Wonder Woman and Everything Everywhere All at Once prove that inclusivity wins when representation receives care and respect.
Proper representation of the queer community has always been more remarkable in international markets. Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together is a masterpiece that paints a sharp emotional insight that we can understand and empathise with. Elsewhere, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a subtle and thrilling love story that explores the nature of desire. On the television front, the growing movement in Boys’ Love storytelling across Asia has become a source of escapism for the queer community. These examples serve as an antithesis of Hollywood’s policy and practice of making perfunctory gestures toward the inclusion of members of minority groups.