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