Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The selling of cute

At the risk of drawing your ire, let me just say this:

The little girl on the left is cuter than the little girl on the right.


Now when I say cuter, I mean conventionally prettier. The little girl on the left has a heart-shaped face, a wide smile with even teeth, sparkling eyes and long hair. The little girl on the right does not.

The little girl on the left captured millions of hearts around the world during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics when she appeared to sing Ode to the Motherland. The little girl on the right actually did the singing. And now both of them are at the centre of a media firestorm over a decision by Chinese officials to replace the original singer with a more aesthetically-pleasing ringer.

"It was for the national interest," said the ceremony's musical director. "The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression."

Are you shocked? You shouldn't be. It was the type of decision people in North America make every day, no every hour, on your behalf, in an effort to provide you with maximum bang for your entertainment bucks.

I work in the film and television business. I work to help produce the shows that you and your family enjoy in your living room and at your neighborhood multiplex. My husband does too and he works closely with actors, both children and adults.

Oh, the stories we could tell you.

People constantly lament the emphasis on one's physical appearance as it specifically applies to young women, but in the entertainment business physical appearance is everything, no matter what your age or gender.

If a character is written as a frail old man, the actor will be chosen and stylized to exactly match the director's vision of what type of frail old man will best resonate with audiences and make the project a success. If the character is an awkward teenager, the actor will be chosen and stylized based on the same criteria. And if the character is a young woman, well... same thing. And that's what everyone writes about, isn't it?

Show business is a business. It is a business where vast sums of money depend on whether an audience warms to a character. In the family friendly films many of us watch regularly, millions and millions of dollars ride on the audience identifying with a character often portrayed by a child actor.

Make no mistake: before that child is cast, countless others are subject to a painstakingly thorough and rigorous scrutiny of their physical appearance and everything else. The "winner" is the one best able to project exactly in the fashion in which producers have calculated will maximize profits.

It is no secret that the opening ceremonies in Beijing were largely designed to impress Western audiences and to demonstrate to the Chinese people that their country was capable of pulling off an extravaganza that met or surpassed the standards set by North American entertainment producers.

Instead of being upset over the decision to showcase the cuter child, perhaps we should ask ourselves why Chinese officials thought it was necessary.

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57 comments:

Kash said...

Agreed. But personally I think China's "image" issues run deeper than just physical appearances. I was there last year with my uni visiting Chinese methods of teaching junior high math. We were escorted into three schools in one day to observe classes. All of us were impressed with the lessons we saw. A few days later, one of our grad school guides confessed to us, that all the teachers we saw were hired for that day, and the lessons were staged....

April said...

When I was in "the biz," 9 out of 10 of my breakdowns included the words "off-beat looking." But I also don't think it's just the Western image China was projecting. There seems to be an overwhelming need for perfection, too. 'Member all those people who killed themselves because of the lead paint recall? We are all to blame.

Mary Lynn said...

Much as I think this incident was sad for the little girl with the lovely voice who was told she wasn't cute enough to sing, I find it rather hypocritical of everybody to be pointing their fingers at China and saying tsk, tsk. In another country, the girl with the best voice probably would have been passed over for another girl with a voice that was almost as good, but with looks that were deemed to be cuter.

China has hardly cornered the market on judging based on appearance.

TheMama said...

I had steam pouring out of my ears when I first heard about this.

I will absolutely agree that their motives and our own need some serious attention, but I have to agree with Kash. There's way more to it than that.

They've put up false walls in front of the stores and less attractive buildings. They CGI'd the fireworks during the opening ceremonies. Journalists are still being restricted from open internet access, despite China having promised the IOC that they would not do exactly that.

I am mad, but at this point, I am not surprised, and that disturbs me far more.

Kyla said...

I guess I see it a little differently. If she wasn't cute enough, fine, they should have chosen someone else altogether, to sing AND be seen. They shouldn't have exploited HER voice and given the credit to someone else.

The Rambling Housewife said...

Great point, really. I suppose that might be the correct way to think about it.

Either way, it's ridiculous though--both children are beautiful.

ALL CHILDREN ARE BEAUTIFUL!!! :)

Barrie said...

Interesting post. And I'd like to hear some of your "behind-the-scenes" stories. :)

Mandy said...

First, let me say that I think what China did, and what Hollywood does daily (Hollywood being the gold standard that the rest of North American media generally aspires to imitate) is a mistake. We only have to look at the impact on men and women in our society to see that. Am I complicit? Probably. I watch mainstream movies and tv. I support the industry generally.

What I think is interesting is watching British tv, movies and theatre where the emphasis seems to be more noticeably on the ability of the actor, rather than on his/her physical appearance.

In my opinion, the problem with the Olympics goes deeper than just impressing Western society. I think that Beijing promised an openness (internet access) and an environmental level (blue skies) that they are neither ready, nor willing, to truly embrace.

Don Mills Diva said...

To pretty much all of you...

I couldn't agree more.

I could write reams about China's issues, but I wanted to focus in on this one incident which I believe has caught people's attention precisely because deep down we know it is a reflection of predominantly Western mores...

Kelly
xo

~Jobthingy~ said...

and we wonder why there is so much self esteem problems everywhere right

Amy @ Milk Breath and Margaritas said...

I've seen A LOT of movies where I thought the child cast was not very cute and wondered why they chose a less-than-adorable child (was the kid really a better actor?). Now I can't think of examples of course.

The thing I'm most annoyed by with China (today at least) is cheating in women's gymnastics - putting 14 year old girls in with fake passports saying they are the required 16 years of age. And if the government produces a passport, I guess there is not much anyone can do.

slackermommy said...

I'm with Kyla. Having that little girl take credit for another child's gift is appalling.

Girl said...

Yet again you leave me speechless. I wonder what "not pretty" girl must be feeling to have to weather this horrible storm... it almost seems like a kick in the whoha over and over.

anglophilefootballfanatic.com said...

I'm still pretty mad about the gymnastics team being "underage" and the govt covering for them. It's sad that the Chinese are willing to cheat just to get more medals.

Don't Taste The Cat & Other Fine Mommy Moments said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
flutter said...

it is everywhere all the time, from cradle to grave.

Texan Mama@WhoPutMeInCharge said...

Whoa okay, first of all, what is wrong with the little girl on the right? Does uneven teeth and short hair make a child unattractive? If so I better get my 8-year-old to the cosmetic surgeon. I THINK SHE IS DARLING. And for the 3 minutes she'd be singing, who's gonna remember? It's not like she was FREAKY WEIRD LOOKING OR SOMETHING. But now, because of this, people WILL remember.
And, as parents, I think it's important to remember that it's not so much what the people look like on TV but more, what we say about them to our kids. When our kids see us watching tv, and watch with us, they pick up on the things we say. "Whoa, she's really fat." or "That girl is so cute." or "His hair is too long. Looks like a hippie." or whatever. I try to just steer clear of any comments. If my daughter asks something I just say, well that person looks different than us but God still made him/her beautiful in their own way. When kids are very young, these are when the issues are buried into their hearts. The media DOES have a big impact, but our impact as parents is bigger. We should use that impact to our child's benefit.
And, DMD, I can't imagine how hard it is to work in your industry. I couldn't do it. I imagine it is very superficial. Must be hard, considering you appear to be very sincere and very genuine, to hold your tongue around others.

Melisa said...

Great post. I was enraged about this initially but after some thought I came to basically the same conclusion: this happens all the time over here. Totally sad, no matter which angle you look from.

caramama said...

My husband just shrugged and said, "That's entertainment."

I don't like that China and Hollywood picks "prettier" children/people, but I'm far from shocked and outraged about it. Maybe I should be.

What has me so upset about this is what Kyla said. Remember when we found out that C&C Music Factory had a "prettier" woman lip synching for them? I'm upset for the same reason. Don't give a person credit for someone else's hard work and talents!

And the real singer is still an adorable girl.

Lisa@verybusymomwith4 said...

This is such a sad story. I wish I could say I was surprised by it :(
I pray the 'not as cute' little girl has a strong self esteem.

Corey~living and loving said...

Sometimes it just makes me sad that society has come to this on all levels.

I know this happens all the time....and it always makes me wonder about the impact it has on the people in volved as well. What did they tell the little girl who could sing? what did they tell the little girl could just pretended? sigh......what do we do this to eachother?

painted maypole said...

excellently put.

and exactly why I don't have a career in film and television. Stage, although still very judgmental on looks, is a bit more forgiving.

Amy said...

That is just disturbing. Perhaps it happens all over in our commercialized society,(though of course I don't agree with it) but I think its different when its a direct result of a government striving for a perfect nation.

kittenpie said...

Not the first time someone else's voice has been used with a more "attractive face," either.

But really, I think the kid on the right is pretty damn cute, too.

Tracey said...

What upsets me the MOST about this isn't that they chose a "cuter" kid to represent their country, it's that they waited until the LAST MINUTE to change course. And that they couldn't find an adorable girl that could ALSO sing well. I mean, come ON. Gimme a break!

But the best part is that the ENTIRE WORLD gets to see the 2 girls, side by side, just days after it happened. And, instead of looking well-represented, China looks idiotic by trying to pull such a poorly executed scam on the world.

Way to go, China. As if you didn't have enough problems with the world's view on your policies and procedures...

Rachel said...

This blew my mind when I first heard about and continues to rankle me every time I read about it.
I'm disgusted with the fact that they 'needed' to do it, it just drives me crazy.
Personally, I think the singer, the girl who was 'hidden' is more endearing than the 'face' they chose.
But that's just me.
You did a good job on presenting this hon.

Burgh Baby said...

I think Chinese officials (and lots of people in the entertainment
\industry) overestimated our need for "cute." Both girls are absolutely adorable, which is more than I can say for several American Idol finalists. Would I like Clay Aiken better if I didn't have to look at his (currently) scary face? Probably not.

Stomper Girl said...

You know, when I watched that I was thinking that the girl they chose was just about the perfect epitome of Chinese cuteness, and they'd dressed up so perfectly too, with the high pigtails and the gorgeous red dress. I didn't get an "aww, so cute" response at all, I was just impressed with their perfect casting choice. And I have to say that while I thought the voice was pure, I didn't really care for the singing as such, but that had a lot to do with the song...

Whitenoise said...

With movies, the audience is complicit in the deceit. We know we're being had. The opening ceremonies were for an event that bans performance enhancement, that celebrates "amateur" sport, that is supposed to represent all that is true and good in the human race. Not the same thing.

Just Janice said...

My heart goes out to the little girl who actually did the singing.

Stacey said...

My initial reaction was outrage, but I've calmed down a bit now.
Would it have been more acceptable to cast the pretty girl and have her sing as well with a less than pretty voice?
She has her gift, ie. her appearance, and the other girl has her gift being her voice.
I'm more upset by the deception rather than the substitution based on appearance. That happens everywhere, every day.

Elaine A. said...

What. A. Shame. They probably did do it partly because of us Westerners and that just breaks my heart.

Sort of on the same subject but a positive spin. Can I just tell you now how excited I was to see a plus-size model in a People style mag the other day modeling underwear? Maybe we are making some progress?

So sorry for the little girl who actually sang...

Jen said...

As others have said, with the examples of the passports and the staged teachers, China has been notorious for this type of thing. They feel a need to dishonestly impress us, apparently.

I think both girls are adorable.

Kathryn said...

I'm saddened but not surprised. This kind of thing has been going on forever. Same reason Audrey Hepburn played Eliza in My Fair Lady but Marni Nixon sang the songs.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I hadn't heard any of this. There is no doubt that things are much easier in this world if you are conventionally attractive.

angie said...

I love how you tackle issues so forthrightly. (is that even a word?)

Laura said...

Well written.

Really makes you think. And it also makes me fearful of the world my children will face.

I can only hope that I can help my little girl develop a true, strong sense of herself and a to not be jaded by society's vision of ideal.

Thanks for sharing and getting us all thinking.

The Storytelling Girl said...

It's interesting that the "less cute" girl gets all the sympathy. I imagine being accused of taking credit for someone else's talent will make the "cute" girl feel just as bad.

Vodka Mom said...

Excellent post. I LOVE to think, as well as laugh. Great job.

www.startswithanx.com said...

Whatever the reasoning, I'm glad it was exposed. Just as glad as I will be when the Chinese gymnasts are exposed.

nomotherearth said...

I honestly think the girl on the right is cuter, so I don't know what they were going for.

Like Maypole, things like this are the reason that I don't have a career in film. And the reason that I left a certain Toronto university after first year that was way more concerned with looks than they were with acting talent. (Well, that and I wasn't asked back because I don't look like I could be cast in 90210..luckily I had already decided to relocate.)

anti-supermom said...

I totally wanted to blog about this too, but I'm glad I didn't. You did a much better job!

My sentiments exactly.

Denise said...

Yes, but was it necessary for the Chinese government to issue new i.d.'s to the Chinese gymnasts?

IRISHKAT said...

Mt SIL is a model for Ford and owns her own talent and modeling company so I hear the scrutiny all the time. I am shocked tat she is the hair for Andie Mc Dowell on the Loreal commercials. Can't she show her own hair?? Obviously not, though she won't complain because she gets paid to swoosh her hair!

Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

I read this on another blog, and she had not posted which was supposed to be the "cute" one. Honestly, who could tell? Makes me feel queasy.

You did a great job with the subject matter here.

Cee said...

It's so frustrating that it's that way! But it seems worse to use one child for her singing talent while trying to hide her in the shadows of a "cuter" child. And for the sake of "national interest." It just grosses me out. (the fact that it's done everywhere doesn't make it seem right).

Leanne said...

I think they're both cute. Good post.

womaninawindow said...

That last statement is a whopper! I think you're right. I also think/hope that we're moving into a phase where the imperfect gets to shine just a little brighter, a little more often. But then that too is all about being motivated by sales...

Queen of My Domain said...

I was a bit shocked when I first heard this story although I guess I shouldn't be. I naively thought that the best talent would be show cased instead of all the propaganda we have been forced to deal with. My husband and I have joked about how much we want to go visit China just because of the opening ceremony. I mean if they can do that nice of a job then it MUST be a great country contrary to everything we know.

Zoeyjane said...

I'm just going to applaud. Why don't people say that more often?

Noodle said...

I'm so glad to have read this perspective. It brought to light our own society's standards that I either didn't recognize or chose to ignore. Thank you.

kgirl said...

So gross. And you're right - this might be a slightly exaggerated example, but it happens all the time.

imbeingheldhostage said...

Hah! I just deleted an entire diatribe. Now I'll just say, well put. You didn't need my rant, you said it all.

Jaina said...

Wow, very well written. I am just hearing of this-I don't have cable so sadly haven't watched much- but I'm just hearing about this and it makes me very sad for the little girl who was hidden from view. But especially after what you wrote, it makes more sense. It's a sad testament to our times, but I can understand it as such.

moosh in indy. said...

the moosh is actually my neighbors kid. I just borrow her because my real kid isn't as cute.
OMG-ARE YOU KIDDING ME CHINA?

Jo Beaufoix said...

It's so sad as that little girl will carry that with her for the rest of her life, that she was the kid not pretty enough to represent her country. She's so adorable as well. But I kknow you're right, society does it a the time. :(

Drama Mama said...

Yep that's a bummer that that happened- Sux bad if you ask me!