In each genre of film or television, there are certain character stereotypes.
In romcoms, for example, there’s the best friend, who the main character turns to for advice about their disastrous dating life, while in action films there’s the love interest who usually isn’t vital to the story, but serves to make the protagonist look cooler.
In mainstream media there’s often a horrific lack of diversity – and when there is diversity it’s usually highlighted in stereotypes. The world of film and television is rife with misogyny and racism which is often evident in the production itself, but the problem starts before the acting; it starts with the casting.
Casting notices are the kind of thing anyone outside the acting or producing world would probably never think about, but if you were to start looking in to them, you’d see they were extremely problematic.
When a person plays a character who is centred around their appearance, it can create an impression about that appearance – and that can in turn contribute to stereotypes.
These issues start at the point of casting, and to further shed light on the problem UNILAD spoke to Lynne Rosenberg, an actor, writer and producer from Brooklyn, New York.
Through acting, Lynne became all too familiar with offensive casting calls, especially for female roles. They were littered with examples of objectification, misogyny and body shaming, and so she decided to share some of the most ridiculous ones with the world.
The 38-year-old created a page called Cast And Loose and posted the offensive, thoughtless and downright idiotic casting notices online; below are some of the worst she found:
‘The human is background and prop’. What an honour!
In 2014, Lynne decided she wanted to talk about the issues of casting notices in a more direct way, and so she created Cast And Loose Live!, a stage show which explored various themes of representation problems. She also later developed a format where writers from under-represented communities could create response pieces to the language.
From there, the actor began doing a one-on-one version of the project in her living room, where professionals in the industry would read some bad breakdown text on camera and talk about issues they had faced, as well as their opinions on broader issues, and any optimism they had for things getting better.
Cast And Loose has since evolved into a TV interview show titled Famous Cast Words, in which stars from the stage and screen discuss representation and inclusion issues facing the entertainment industry. The show is set to start airing later this year.
The 38-year-old recalled to UNILAD the most shocking casting notices she’d ever come across, and explained how they can impact the actors considering the roles, saying:
One of the ones that started it all referred to, ‘An Asian woman who doesn’t have the hard features of other Asian women; she is more elegant and sophisticated and knows it.’
Another referred to a character as ‘A young Levar Burton at heart; aware he’s the token black friend, but totally cool with it.’ The glaring racism of both really shook me.
One of the most disturbing things I ever saw was for a television show on a premium cable network. The character’s name was listed as ‘Young Porn Actress.’
In the scene she is ‘seen filming a porn rape scene,’ but later in the breakdown it says, ‘We don’t need a good actor here as it is just one line.’
Casting notices are all like: looking for REAL WOMEN!!! NOT MODELS must be size 0 & hot (big tits a plus)
— Alyssa Limperis (@alyssalimp) April 30, 2019
And later, ‘…hair color not an issue as long as she’s willing to do the nudity required. Should be thin and have a decent figure, though.’
Imagine you’re a young woman in your early 20s, and your agent sends you out for this role. You have to decide if the exposure from a popular network television show is worth it to you to pretend to be raped, knowing the production team doesn’t care if you’re talented, only if you’re willing to take your clothes off.
This is a decision women in the industry have to make, in one form or another, on a daily basis.
She went on to say actors can sometimes feel defined by the types of roles they’re eligible for; for example whether they’d successfully land the ‘thin’ or ‘sexy’ role.
Speaking about her own experiences, Lynne said:
When you spend your life trying to figure out if your identity fits into a series of archetypal boxes the industry seems to keep replicating, then without a deeply grounded, compassionate, and forgiving sense of self, the experience can be degrading and reductive. Even with a strong sense of self the words can get into you.
But it’s also about the absence of words, or what words don’t apply to you. I believe I am beautiful, sexy, and desirable, but I am also short, thick, stocky, and funny; in the eyes of the industry as it currently stands, these are markers of ‘best friend’ or ‘sidekick’, not ‘love interest’.
Unless I know the content writer to be a change-maker, if I see the words ‘beautiful’, ‘sexy’ or ‘attractive’ then I know they don’t apply to me. No matter how much work I have done in 13 years of therapy, that still hurts like hell.
The reality of casting notices:
Kyle: a deeply affected youth who has experienced the trauma of a broken home. He struggles to cope with the variety of emotions that trouble him due to the loss of his mother. Must have very strong acting skills.
Kelly: Should be hot
— Tyler N Thoreson (@realtylernathan) May 7, 2018
While the people writing the casting notices are certainly part of the problem, Lynne pointed out one of the biggest reasons they can be so offensive comes down to the lack of time and consideration put in to the project.
In the fast-paced world we currently live in, there is an expectation everything has to happen rapidly. As a result, creators don’t bother with a careful construction of language.
However, the 38-year-old argued it is possible to do things differently, explaining:
I don’t think it has to be this way, because I’ve seen it not done that way, and the product comes out just as good, often better.
If you’re treating your characters with time and respect – even if you’re working in archetype – then you will treat how you cast with time and respect.
Casting notices can also end up offensive because creators fail to acknowledge a real human being has to relate to the role. It’s easy to be dismissive of a fictional character, but the person portraying them is very much real.
When you see acronyms like MILF appear in breakdowns – which are instruments of employment – you realise how skewed the system is.
Imagine a recruiter for a financial firm looking for an analyst who is a ‘stone cold MILF’ – which is real language from a real casting notice.
While there are still many casting notices made up of offensive language, the actor believes things have improved in recent years, especially with the help of the #MeToo movement and the continued push for equality and respect for women in the industry.
Lynne explained how online streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, have opened up opportunities for shows which stray from more traditional formats, allowing creators from a broader range of representation to get through the gatekeepers – or become the gatekeepers.
The network system seems to be stuck on rehashing known quantities – show length, cast structure, act format.
But the digital networks are young enough to allow for innovation in storytelling, and therefore innovation in who is creating the work. If you change who is in the writer’s room, you’ll change the words that come out of its door, and problems in casting start in the content creation.
Many breakdowns you’ll now see with the character’s pronouns, or they’ll be listed as, for example, ‘female-identifying or non-binary’ as opposed to what might previously have been listed as, ‘woman’. It’s a small shift but it’s meaningful in terms of an industry recognizing its role in these conversations.
Although there is a long way to go in terms of moving away from stereotypes and embracing all actors regardless of appearance, we are moving in the right direction.
Lynne cited Master of None, Insecure and High Maintenance as projects where casts are representative of a much broader cross section of humanity, and commended Issa Rae, Mindy Kaling, Katja Blichfeld and The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons for working on the kind of inclusive content we need to be seeing more of, like the Netflix series Special.
It’s vital to break away from the problematic system because otherwise, as Lynne points out, it becomes a vicious cycle.
She told UNILAD:
The language in casting calls reflects the language of the characters we are creating, and recreating, to tell ourselves stories about what and who we are.
The stories we tell ourselves about what and who we are then reflect who and what we then become. It’s a two way street – if we write better characters we will evolve as a culture; if we evolve as a culture, we will write better characters.
Right now, this offensive language reflects back to us how we are treating and viewing underrepresented communities and voices.
The actor added although people may feel the need to take even degrading roles in order to help their career, refusing to accept these kinds of positions will ultimately translate to empowerment on the screen.
If some content creators are able to produce successful shows without offending its actors, then the rest of them should be able to as well.
Yet the issue is still so pervasive, it was even the topic of a BBC comedy short last year:
It’s time to take a stand against the offensive stereotypes that have suffocated actors and their characters for so long.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to [email protected]
Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.