Whitewashing is not fun
When I was a junior in high school, my Spanish Literature teacher, who was as big and dramatic as a sailboat, glided into the classroom in a huff. She was a huge fan of Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits and a movie adaptation had been announced. The House of Spirits is a story tied to Chile and magical realism, but Artisan Films thought it best to cast Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Winona Ryder, Glenn Close and Antonio Banderas (the only Spanish speaking actor of the main cast). My teacher was incensed. Why didn’t they cast Latin actors? She didn’t use the term “whitewashing” but that is what she described. You might argue that 1993 movie executives were thinking more about acting clout and box office numbers, but if you look beyond that reasoning, you’ll find a catch 22 where Caucasian actors have more opportunities to act and as so have the most probability to win awards and earn money which in turn gets them hired over other actors.
Whitewashing is practically a Hollywood tradition. When a Caucasian actor is hired to portray a character of another race, that is whitewashing. I’ve mentioned two of the most popular excuses for whitewashing but let’s look at them more closely. Acting ability which translates to fame or visibility. The Caucasian actor is the best pick over all other candidates. Are Caucasians innately talented at acting? Was Liam Neeson the best actor to play R’as Al Ghul over any Arab actor in Batman Begins? Or is he more famous than any Arab actor in the United States? It’s not about acting ability, it’s about who is recognizable to US audiences. Which brings us nicely to the second excuse, money. Casting will always favor actors who fill theater seats. The reasoning being that more Caucasians see movies than any other race, so they get to see themselves represented in all the films and sometimes all the roles. Because they pay for the privilege. We don’t need a census to know that “minorities” are now legion and also have money to spare. Yet, time and time again people of color (PoC) are told they are not good enough to lead or even be in films.
Even when a movie is about PoC, there needs to be a Caucasian character to navigate the strange and exotic world of a Latin family or an African-American neighborhood. Caucasians are never asked to put themselves in the shoes of a PoC, but PoC have always had to identify with Caucasian characters in movies. The Caucasian character is universal, -apparently, almost archetypical- the very definition of status quo, of normalcy. Caucasian Johnny Storm is not a problem but African-American Johnny Storm throws into question the reality of a universe where space radiation can turn you into stone or fire. Engulfing yourself in flames without burning or dying is more believable than a biracial family. Whether you think casting Michael B. Jordan hurt or helped the doomed Fantastic Four reboot, the fact that it caused so much uproar says a lot about how comfortable US audiences are handing over a little of their privilege to those disenfranchised.
Still, the discussion around whitewashing has come to a head in a recent series of casting missteps. For Marvel Entertainment, the casting of Finn Jones, a Caucasian Brit, as Daniel Rand for the Netflix series Iron Fist despite a popular online campaign asking for an Asian-American in the role, is seen as a step backwards to the David Carradine Kung-Fu era. Like Donald Glover’s plea to audition for Amazing Spider-Man (he was never allowed to), Iron Fist as an Asian-American campaign gained some traction with the public, but produced results. Allegedly Marvel let Asian-American actors audition but once again a Caucasian actor beat out all the competition. Marvel falters again in Dr. Strange by casting Caucasian Brit Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan deity called the Ancient One, betting on the genderswap to distract from the whitewashing. In this case, the teaser trailer for Dr. Strange is a veritable study of Asian tropes and clichés, the most egregious being using Asian people as background props to exoticize the locations where Dr. Strange searches for his purpose. What’s in important is that Marvel has the responsibility to look at their stories and truly adapt them for a 2016 audience. A faithful adaptation of a story that carries over racist overtones and tropes is lazy storytelling.
This isn’t something new, for instance, Paramount Pictures, was the center of severe criticism for the way it chose to portray the Pan-Asian and Inuit characters of Avatar in their adaptation titled The Last Airbender (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2010). Not only did they chose to cast Caucasian actors for the movie, but missed the point entirely by diminishing the plot’s diversity and acceptance mantra that positioned it as one of the most acclaimed animated series of the decade. Having this precedent, the studio should have known better in their latter adaptations, for example, it continues to stumble with whitewashing with its latest project, Ghost in the Shell (dir. Rupert Sanders, 2017) starring Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Ghost in the Shell, it’s a cyberpunk(ish) manga that had it’s run for more than a decade (1989-2003 on an off and on basis) and which was later adapted to a popular anime series. One could argue that Scarlett Johansson is a popular actress, mainly due to her being considered a heavyweight action star, and she’s also a box-office success. Everyone understands why a studio would want her as a lead in a sci-fi action movie, but not in Ghost in the Shell. Not as a Japanese woman. Add to that, rumors that there were CGI tests to make Caucasian actors look more Asian and you have to wonder if anyone at any point had reservations about the whole thing. Whitewashing a story as well as a characters can destroy themes and context, Ghost in the Shell is an inherently Japanese tale, as Jon Tsuei (RUNLOVEKILL, Image Comics) tweeted recently, by westernizing you kill the metaphor of the relationship between Japanese people and technology. Much like the thankfully aborted Akira in Los Angeles adaptation Warner Bros. was planning.
Ghost In The Shell plays off all of these themes. It is inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.
— Jon Tsuei (@jontsuei) April 15, 2016
Thanks to social media we have a way to criticize whitewashing and we have an obligation to call it out every time it happens. It might seem trivial but fiction is not created in a genderless, raceless, vacuum and often it highlights society’s systemic prejudices. The erasure of Asian people from our stories is the same as the “Othering” they endure in real life. This is not something new and is definitely one of the issues of cultural appropriation that we endure in this media age. In the US, you can be a fan of martial art movies with Asian male and female leads, you can fetishize Asian women in porn, you can dance to K-Pop, you can eat sushi and watch Anime but you won’t see an Asian superhero in Iron Fist or in Dr. Strange.
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