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Tom Hanks gets empathy wrong

Tom Hanks
Actor Tom Hanks arrives at the People's Choice Awards 2017 in Los Angeles, California, U.S. on January 18, 2017. |

Tom Hanks recently declared that if "Philadelphia," the movie that earned him one of his Oscars, were made today, it would no longer be acceptable for him, as a straight man, to play the gay lead. This comment has provided low-hanging fruit for conservative critics. It is, after all, ridiculous that a profession predicated on its members earning their livings while pretending to be people they are not should become prissy about certain types of role-playing.

Hanks has likely not reflected at any great depth on the significance of his statement. He is simply engaging in some well-intentioned pandering to current political tastes, doing little more than reciting the liturgy of the powers, a public performance that reflects and reinforces the cultural and political priorities of the day. Hanks is not motivated by a fear that gay actors are not getting roles in Hollywood movies. He is motivated by the desire to avoid, in his words, “inauthenticity” — presumably a critical comment on the dramatic representation of the suffering of gay men by a straight actor.  

To respond to Hanks simply by pointing to the absurdity of requiring actors to have personally experienced what they represent on the screen is legitimate, but it also misses the broader significance of his assertion. His comment is not simply absurd; it is also very revealing about our current cultural politics.

Hanks’s comment is a function of the fact that perceived victims of the old norms for sex and sexual behavior now enjoy a privileged status in our culture. As a result, even a straight man playing a gay man in a piece of fictional drama risks being seen as indulging in an act of imperialist aggression, an appropriation, and subversion of another’s victimhood. And Hanks is far from innovative in his liturgical response. Eddie Redmayne has offered similar repentance for playing the lead role in The Danish Girl. And other storms — for example, Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of Othello — indicate a similar squeamishness with actors and roles that touch on the current nature of racial politics. So far, so predictable. But Hanks’s comment reveals not simply the priorities but also the contradictions of our culture’s politics.

Acting surely depends upon empathy: The actor has to be able to empathize with the character whom he plays in order to represent him to an audience. That is possible because of our shared human nature and this explains why, for example, we can read the Iliad today and find it powerful and moving. I may not be a Greek or a Trojan, but when I encounter a story about love, betrayal, passion, conflict, anger, and revenge, it moves me because the characters are human and there is nothing in their deeds or experiences that is so alien to me that I cannot understand it at some level. And this is possible because, for all of the things that separate me from ancient Mycenaean civilization, I, like the characters in the epic, am a human being and able to empathize with them. We share a common human nature.

Great plays, great movies, and great actors are great in large part because they are able to make the alien actions and experiences of other people in other places and contexts relatable for the audience. The reason why Hanks’s performance in "Philadelphia" was powerful had nothing to do with his personal identity and everything to do with the fact that he was able to empathize with his character and use his acting ability to draw out empathy from the audience. And this was possible because the character, the actor, and the audience members are all human beings and all share a common human nature. 

This brings us to the contradiction inherent in his new position and, indeed, in identity politics in general. It is rooted in empathy: Hanks clearly feels for the suffering of gay men with AIDS and does not want to trivialize or exploit that suffering in any way. And he feels this because he, like them, is a human being and thus empathetic to their plight. Yet in declaring that it is inappropriate for a straight actor to play a gay man on screen, he negates the importance of the shared humanity that makes him empathetic in the first place.

The answer, of course, is a return to a robust consensus on what it means to be human. If we do not have that, then empathy becomes detached from any solid foundation and can be weaponized by whatever lobby group seizes control of the dominant political narratives. That leads to silliness and absurdities, such as a famous actor decrying the fact that his profession requires him to act. But it might also lead to something worse, to a society that allows cultural, racial, and sexual particularities to overwhelm the basic humanity that we all have in common. Thus, far from being a positive sign of moral progress, Hanks’s ham-fisted attempt at empathy is actually the function of rather sinister developments in our wider culture.


Originally published at First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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