why are you white?

So I was bored last week and took a Facebook quiz that popped up on my timeline. And this is what happened:

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to which some of my friends responded with sarcastic comments on the whitewashing of Hollywood. And this reminded me of some online movements and discussions from the last few years that aimed to dissipate a long-standing trend in American film and television. In case anyone is not familiar with the notion, whitewashing of the Asian race dates back to the early 20th century, when stereotypes were exaggerated and emulated as traits to be worn by white actors to play the part. (Although many other racial identities are under the influence of whitewashing, I’m going to focus on one angle in the context of Asian roles; for more detail on the greater phenomenon, this quick video by John Oliver, Whitewashing: How is this still a thing? sums it up pretty well.) Although the wearability of whitewashing has evidently died down, it has come to take a slightly different, less overtly racist form. As some producers and directors believe that characters played by a white actor would sell better, roles that were created to be different ethnicities were given to big-name Hollywood celebs that had really nothing to do with the original image of the character.

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To name a few recent examples, The Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016) is a legendary sorcerer/martial arts master in Kamar-Taj, a fictional place created out of shots taken in Nepal. In the original Marvel comic, The Ancient One is fittingly an old Asian man who is able to traverse dimensions and change lives through enlightenment. In the Hollywood rendition, apparently this is an accurate description of Tilda Swinton.

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In other words, the movie is about “a white woman teaching a white man the secret mysteries of an Asian culture.” Hollywood adaptions of popular Japanese anime also evoked an uproar of angry fans who thought the beauty of the original character was lost in the evident miscast. Ghost in the Shell (2017), based on the British-Japanese science fiction anime about a policewoman in a post-WWIII cybernetic world named major Mokoto Kusanagi, who is turned into a character named The Major played by Scarlett Johansson alongside a mostly white cast with some minor Asian actors. The criticism on the casting escalated when multiple sources reported that the producers had tested CGI effects on the actors’ faces to make them appear Asian.

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Even just within the last two years, there have been a number of productions criticized for misrepresenting the racial identity of key characters that are more or less essential to the storyline as a whole. 21 (2008) is based on a non-fiction book about a group of students from MIT that join to create a blackjack team using their mathematical intelligence. The team in real life was mostly composed of Asian American men, but we see on the screen two lead characters Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth with a couple Asian friends in the background. Names of the real team members, Jeffrey Ma and John Chang were replaced by Ben and Mickey. The author of Bringing Down the House on which the movie is based was told by the director that “most of the film’s actors would be white, with perhaps an Asian female.” When confronted with the issue of whitewashing, 21‘s producers responded that they did not have access to any “bankable” Asian actors.

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Creators behind these whitewashed roles have spoken out against the backlash to defend their logic. Director Max Landis uploaded a YouTube video titled If You’re Mad About ‘Ghost In the Shell,’ You Don’t Know How The Movie Industry Works in which he says “there are no A-list female Asian celebrities right now on an international level,” giving rise to websites and Twitter campaigns against this rationale. Asian celebrities such as Margaret Cho, George Takei and Constance Wu have been leading active conversations that evolved into hashtag threads like #whitewashedOUT where people share their stories to reach a new level of awareness in consumers as well as producers. Digital strategist William Yu set in motion a campaign called #StarringJohnCho, a series of film posters with John Cho photoshopped as the main actor.

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Taiwanese-American actress Constance Wu tweeted a screenshot of a longer post, in which she stated: “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that a (sic) only white man can save the world […] It’s not based in actual fact. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time.” Public figures like Wu have been leveraging their social media presence to pop up on different kinds of news feeds and to share the message with a wider audience regardless of race.
Social campaigns like these against whitewashing aim to start an open discourse that will lead to awareness and hopefully change, rather than to blame the industry, the producers, or the consumers. It’s more than just a claim for apologies, but a re-claiming to be the main character of our own story. Although whitewashing has been a persisting trend in Hollywood, there were no effective means to a minority group of having influence over such a prominent establishment, until now– with the power of the hashtag and the increased visibility of diverse perspectives, we can hope to see changes in what used to seem like a fixed precept.

6 comments

  1. drewsimenson · ·

    Yeojin, I really liked this post. Are you seeing any evidence that the activity on social media is helping to spark some change to address this issue? Don’t get me started with the casting for the live-action movie “The Last Airbender;” the original (amazing) cartoon series is clearly all about Asian culture and yet the casting is all non-Asian actors… and the acting is terrible!

  2. CarbNatalie · ·

    This is a great post, the topic is not what I expected it to be based off the title (not sure what I expected but the FB quiz is way too hilarious/yet wrong). I like how you went about addressing this issue that has been around for so long and that clearly is something that people have a strong opinion on. I feel more knowledgeable after reading because I was ignorant to the fact that this was taking place in the film industry and has made me think about the films I have watched and the way that characters are portrayed. Reminds me of when Hermione Granger (Harry Potter) was casted as colored in the play version and people’s reactions were most generally upset by this however J.K Rowling made it a point to say that she never explicitly mentioned what race Hermione was, it just happened to be casted the ways that they were in the film and the play, respectively.

  3. aecharl · ·

    Really interesting topic. Being white myself, I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that so many actors and actresses are white in movies until reading your post. It is crazy that Scarlett Johansson was touched up with special effects to make her look Asian in a role that was not intended for a white female. I really enjoyed reading this post and I think it will give me a lot to think about. I particularly enjoyed the line where you pointed out that our heroes look like Ghandi and our sister who stood up to a bully for us. So true!

  4. This is a topic that I’ve been thinking about a fair amount recently and I have noticed some of the activity on social media regarding the topic. While I don’t think a nuanced discussion can be had in a blog posting comment thread, I think what is most worrisome is that bringing about change is likely going to be held back by being unable to hit Hollywood where it hurts the most: in their wallets. They really don’t have any incentive to cast Asians or Asian Americans in major roles if their movies with whitewashed characters continue to do fine at the box office, “bad press” be damned.

    I was surprised you didn’t mention the #ThankYouMattDamon on Twitter: https://mic.com/articles/168945/twitter-dragged-matt-damon-for-great-wall-whitewashing-with-thank-you-matt-damon#.2b8gpRIMy

  5. Nice post. A student last semester did an really great presentation on just this topic, and on how social media was (in part) being used to help correct it.

  6. talkingtroy · ·

    I loved your highlighting of the film 21 because obviously Jim Sturgess has more star-power and is more well-known than actors like John Cho. It dismantles one of the most common arguments for casting in this manner. Great post!

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