Without wishing to completely reprise arguments which have been raised here previously, I would nevertheless like to reflect upon what strikes me as a stark irony in the comments posted by the British actor Tracy-Ann Oberman this week following the release of a film trailer for a biopic on the composer Leonard Bernstein. Tracy-Ann Oberman is apparently upset at the use of a prosthetic nose by the actor Bradley Cooper in the film, writing on Instagram that if Bradley Cooper “…needs to wear a prosthetic nose then that is, to me and many others, the equivalent of Black-Face or Yellow-Face.” She went on to indicate that she believed that if Bradley Cooper could not perform the part without such a prosthetic then “…don’t cast him – get a Jewish Actor.”
The idea that wearing a prosthetic whilst acting is somehow discriminatory seems to me to be ever so slightly ridiculous. Has Tracy-Ann Oberman never worn makeup to assist her portrayal of a character? Has she not worn costumes appropriate to the person she was playing? I wonder too if she has ever affected an accent in her search for verisimilitude… perhaps after all, Ms Oberman only plays roles where she is required merely to play herself? (Does that even count as acting?) Given her comments, I can only assume that Ms Oberman has a very low opinion of actors who use makeup and prosthetics… I would be interested to hear her opinion of Gary Oldman’s use of a fat-suit and facial prosthetics when he played Winston Churchill, (a role for which he won an Oscar in 2017).
However, the irony of her comments for me lies in the nature of intimating racist behaviour whilst using an evidently racist statement herself. What on earth does Tracy-Ann Oberman mean when she says “Jewish Actor”? Is she suggesting that Jewish people have large noses? Surely the suggestion that Jewish people have large noses is a racial slur… no? (It may be pertinent to point out at this stage that being (or not being) of Jewish descent, is not a consideration for the definition of racism.)
Beyond Tracy-Ann Oberman’s crass generalisation concerning noses however, I believe lies a question concerning the categorisation of people and the danger this represents towards the encouragement of Ethnic Profiling. The word Jew does not have a single definition, it can refer either to the practice of following the religion of Judaism or to a person who claims ‘Hebrew descent from the people of Israel’. So which of these definitions is Ms Oberman employing? In either case, Ms Oberman seems guilty of a clear generalisation – either those who follow Judaism, or those who claim a genetic link to Israeli Hebrews, have large noses. Both perhaps?
How would Ms Oberman feel if an actor with Israeli Hebrew heredity with a small nose were to play Bernstein using a prosthetic? Would that be OK, or would that too be inappropriate? How much heredity would the actor need to possess? Would it still count if the actor was half-Jew? Perhaps we could extend to a quarter Jew? Or can you only be truly considered Jewish if you have a large nose? What happens if they have lapsed on the religious front? Perhaps they didn’t visit the synagogue this week? Crumbs, maybe they ate a bacon sandwich when they were on holiday? Shit – we need a full life history here before we can give them the job!
The very present danger here is that this sort of categorisation of people into groupings (ethnic or otherwise) requires clear guidelines if it is to be applied in any objective way – otherwise there is no certain way to indicate whether or not a person belongs to group X or group Y. What follows is first judgement and then discrimination. The presence of guidelines automatically means that judgements have to be applied; we start measuring people, and as soon as we start measuring people, we start finding that some people don’t measure-up.
This ‘labelling’ of people is exactly the sort of prejudice that so many groups have faced throughout history, and which continues to be used to deny people opportunities throughout their lives.
I suspect that in this case Ms Oberman did not intend to be racist – and that for however genuine may be her outrage towards this situation, her comments concerning Jews were simply inelegantly stated. Such inattention however, can lead to judgement and discrimination and I for one would not like to see a world where people’s opportunities were determined according to their religion or the shape of their face. You shouldn’t need to be a Jew to play a Jew, just as you shouldn’t need to be a man to play the role of a man.
If we go down that road (either deliberately or through inattention), we risk perpetuating a society where one’s choices are determined by the ‘category’ we are assigned at birth. Surely, Ms Oberman is not advocating that?