Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone? Why Are We Letting Starlets Play Legends?

What Women Really Think
Sept. 28 2012 8:55 AM

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone? Why Are We Letting Starlets Play Legends?

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Zoe Saldana will play Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic

Photograph by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

It's not news that the women Hollywood puts on screen are whiter, skinnier, and more affluent than the actual women who buy tickets to see those movies. But in recent weeks, something even more disturbing has happened: Studios have announced a number of biopics about female singers, who will be played by actresses who are dramatically skinnier and far less talented than the actual women they'll be portraying.

First, there was the news that Zoe Saldana, an exceedingly thin rising action star of Dominican and Puerto Rican parentage, would play soul singer Nina Simone, whose dark complexion and weight were both significant parts of her image. Simone's daughter, Simone Kelly, has said that the color of her mother's skin and the shape of her nose played important roles in shaping her mother's identity. Saldana can dance—she was signed by an agent who spotted her in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and she played a ballerina in Center Stage—but there's never been any particular indication that she can sing, much less that she's possessed of the kind of pipes that made Simone's music so extraordinary. But really, what qualifies her for the role is that she's one of the most visible, bankable young actresses of color working today. "I suspect that what's happening here is that they want a 'name' to play Simone," wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. "In that sense, what we're seeing here is something more systemic."

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That same desire for a "name," though fortunately not the racial issues, are all over the casting for the adaptation of Girls Like Us, which explores the careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. As Dodai Stewart notes at Jezebel, Taylor Swift has been tapped to play Mitchell despite an absence of demonstrable acting talent. And live, her vocal chops haven't always stood up to the test, either. She was badly off-key when she and Stevie Nicks performed together at the 2010 Grammys. The casting for King and Simon are somewhat better: Alison Pill will be freed from her servitude on The Newsroom to play Carole King, and Mad Men's Jessica Paré, who started off this last season by serenading Jon Hamm, will play Carly Simon. But there's a definite whiff of the cynical in the casting of Swift, a hope that her fans will turn out for anything, no matter the subject matter. Not exactly a vote of confidence in the material.

It's bad enough that so many of the fictional women deemed marketable by mainstream movie productions are bland and homogenous, based more on what executives think will sell than what stories demand. But it's especially depressing to see real women, beloved icons in their own right, cut down to Hollywood size. It's apparently not enough to be a musician, a civil rights activist, or an environmental advocate: these days, you have to be a starlet, too.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.