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The Lack of WOC Representation in Film: Sofia Coppola

The Lack of WOC Representation in Film: Sofia Coppola
an article by Cathay Lau

TW: Suicide, Death

Dear Asian Youth,

With the recent success of Chloe Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ which earned her the title of ‘Best Director’ at the Academy Awards, I was reminded of the lack of representation for women of colour across mainstream media. Particularly media directed by women themselves through one of the biggest female names in the Wester film industry today: Sofia Coppola.

My first experience with the works of Sofia Coppola was her directorial debut,‘The Virgin Suicides’, a coming-of-age film which narrates the lives of the Lisbon sisters and the events leading up to their deaths. The film covers themes of religion, adolescence, girlhood, loss, and love. I found solace in all of these concepts during my most transformative years through reading novels and listening to stories. Unfortunately, there has always been a void in Western TV and film which has seldom given me the privilege of seeing individuals like myself on the screen. The aesthetics and messages that Coppola utilizes in her films are captivating, feminine, and unique. Coppola's knack for bringing her own touch to the sensibilities of her characters makes her films unique and special. She brings light to the ‘female gaze’ which is all too often thrown away for the inherently sexist and misogynistic ‘male gaze,’ which is centered around manic pixie dream girls and women who settle for the "nice" guy. Anything from Amy Dunne’s ‘Cool Girl’ monologue in the film and novel ‘Gone Girl’ basically describes the ‘male gaze’ to a T, which Coppola is a beacon of hope against due to her inevitable status as a woman.

‘Marie Antoinette’ starring Kirsten Dunst is a film that, in my opinion, captures the dreamy trademark that Coppola stamps on her films the most. However, this film, like the majority if not all of her films, is white-centered and completely lacking in diversity. It seems that the opportunity to include women of colour in a world where they can also be perceived and portrayed through a female director's eyes is never even entertained for Coppola. This is particularly exhibited through her choice to remove an enslaved housemaid named Mattie and replace her with a mixed-race teenager named Edwina for a white teacher in ‘The Beguiled’, a film about a soldier who finds refuge in an all-girls boarding school and is vied for by them. According to Coppola herself during an article for Indiewire, she “did not want to perpetuate an objectionable stereotype where facts and history supported my choice of setting the story”, bringing forth the discussion of where fiction and factual history meet. Although certain aspects of Coppola’s determination to disregard historical events in her films is commendable for the sake of art, I do believe that there is a suspicious pattern found in her perpetual casting of white individuals in her roles. It seems that the lack of diversity and focus on women of colour despite historical accuracy is telling of Coppola's desire to illustrate exclusive beauty which can only be portrayed on screen through a young, white, blonde haired woman.

Additionally, Slate writes that Coppola has “sought to imbue the old Southern way of life with false nobility”, bringing forth another aspect of Coppola’s decision for the film which perpetuates an image of the American South which is false and disregards the plight and hardships of slavery. To ignore reality in hopes for a more aesthetic or ‘gripping’ storyline harms not only the individuals involved in the film industry, but the audience as well. People of colour and their experiences in history are not an option for entertainment. Directors can cast people and women of all races and ethnicities without altering their storyline because, to be quite blunt, a person's skin colour does not affect the plot. They affect the plot through their ability to act and portray messages through screen.

In some aspects, the lack of representation that I have found on screen has led to some wonderful discoveries, however seldom. I have found empowerment through watching Viola Davis on ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ due to the sheer fact that she is also a woman of colour. I have found great comfort in watching Sandra Oh in ‘Killing Eve’ due to her central and pivotal role as Eve herself. These women of colour have provided an opportunity for individuals like myself to see our own capability within fictional worlds, whether it be through watching a successful criminal lawyer like Annalise Keating or a determined MI6 agent named Eve Polastri. Unfortunately, occupations such as these have all too often been linked with white, cisgender male figures such as Mike Ross from Suits or James Bond. Both TV shows have respectfully been commercial successes with cult followings, which is another aspect of the Western film industry which I fail to understand due to their lack of investment in seeing more women of colour on screen.

It seems that every couple of years or so, we are encouraged to wait in silence for the next ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ film of the year, which pales in quantity when compared to the perpetual onflow of white dominated films that come out every month. How many times will people of colour have to state the power of representation before the Western film industry believes them?

- Cathay Lau

Editors: Bri S. & Zoe L.

Cover photo/art source:

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