On Racebending: We Are More Than A “Twist”

So, quite recently, this “racebending” tweet has been making the rounds on Twitter:

It’s a set of images taken from Let There Be Doodles (or LTBD for short), and at first it seems like a pretty simple concept: what if we took Disney princesses and made them a different race? It looks pretty. It looks interesting. As LTBD themselves described it, it’s “fan art” and “a twist to [their] character”.

And oh, the white people were indeed mad:

“the white tribe”
Had to happen sometime.
Canadians: they’re American, too.

You get the idea. The replies to this tweet were a mixture of POC support, confused white people (“why would this make me angry, I love it”) and straight up racists like this. With all that’s been going on with Exodus, Black Annie and Idris “future James Bond” Elba, this was a hell of a timely take.

Pause for a moment and admire this beauty.

We’ve had many conversations on diversity in the past year. #WeNeedDiverseBooks; the horrifically anti-Asian Lucy; what diversity is and isn’t (not something like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, for example); this utter mess of an interview on Nickelodeon programming recorded, no doubt with increasing horror, by Pilot Viruet, and my subsequent take on it (sorry, Mathew Klickstein). I’m a strong advocate for diversity. I’m a queer, non-Western man of colour writing for a primarily English-language market, in genres (horror, weird fiction and steampunk) dominated by straight white men from the UK and USA.

The thing about race, though, is that it’s more than skin deep.

You see, if you change someone’s race, you’ll need to change their entire story, too. You’ll need to change the way people interact with the character, you’ll need to change the character’s culture, change their values, their identities and maybe their personality. I’m mostly fine with doing this for fictional, fantasy characters like Elsa in Frozen or Ariel from the Little Mermaid. I’m cool with replacing these white characters with people of colour (POC), provided the necessary changes are made.

I take issue, though, with the careless replacement of one set of POC with another. A lot of these stories are cultural. Mulan, for example, is deeply rooted in Chinese traditions of filial loyalty and sacrifice. Mulan, upon hearing that her father is to be conscripted into the latest war against the Huns, pulls a Katniss Everdeen, disguising herself as a man and volunteering in his stead. It’s a Chinese story, anchored in Chinese culture and given a bit of that old Disney fantasy touch to spice it up. If Mulan was recast as a member of an entirely different race, then, more than a few things would need to change.

LTBD’s “Native American Mulan” (Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/333970128591994496)

Mulan might no longer be called “Mulan”. She wouldn’t have ancestral guardians living in a Chinese temple, or a wisecracking, overprotective dragon sidekick. If Mulan or her family weren’t at least partly Chinese, keeping these and other Chinese/East Asian cultural references would actually be offensive; it would not only demonstrate blatant disregard for Chinese culture, but also for whatever race and its associated culture(s) she’d been recast as!

Let’s just imagine this “Mulan”, recast by LTBD as a mono-racial Native American, praying for guidance in a Chinese (likely Taoist or Buddhist) temple with all the fixings.

A screengrab from Mulan’s “Reflection” scene. (Source: http://reprogoddess.wordpress.com/2011/10/09/paganism-in-media-disney/)

It would be incongruous, and it would also be racially, culturally ignorant. I’d venture towards calling it cultural appropriation, too; it would look like a palette-swap of different races and cultures, thrown together because they look “exotic”, for the sake of an ignorant non-Chinese, non-Native American audience.

Like this, but with real people. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MarioLuigi_MarioBrosSprites.png)

It gets a little more tricky, though, if we talk about people from more than one culture. What about Black Asians, or other mixed-race folk? What about that Korean kid raised by white, adoptive parents as Chinese? Like, I have mixed Chinese-Malay friends who go to mosques, adhere to Malay-Muslim customs like the Ramadan fast and a halal diet, and still visit their families (on both sides) for the Chinese New Year. LTBD’s racebending excludes people like this, too, because race, again, is more than skin deep.

Let’s say, for this case, LTBD’s “Native American Mulan” was mixed. She’d have cultural influences from both her Native American and Chinese heritage. It would still be wrong, then, to portray her as entirely belonging to either race, or either culture, or to pick and choose from both indiscriminately; her character and actions would need to be consistent with her heritage on both sides. Certain aspects of each culture might be incongruent with aspects of another culture; using the Chinese-Malay example, if they’re Muslim, as the majority of Malays are, a Chinese-Malay person wouldn’t be ordering many pork-based Chinese staples like guo tie (pinyin: guōtiē, fried pork dumplings) at a Chinese restaurant or have a Taoist/Buddhist altar in the house. If your racebending doesn't recognise things like that, even if your new character is “mixed”, it looks ignorant and racist.

I’d stretch out and say a white character recast as a person of colour, too, would be offensive, if (if!) they’re not handled properly. Like, this brown Ariel, also by LTBD:

Pictured: not a good idea. (Source: http://lettherebedoodles.tumblr.com/post/80372626961/a-whole-new-world-so-this-week-i-decided-to)

Alright, so you’re going to turn Ariel brown and have her wear henna and a bindi but do you know the significance of these things? Are you creating a white character in brownface, rather than a genuine brown character? That’s another danger of racebending. It’s easy enough to write a newly-recast character of colour like a white person if you don’t know what you’re doing, and it’s even easier to recast a character as a POC, complete with whatever you as a white person/outsider think that race and culture should look and sound like, without realising the significance of that “aesthetic”.

So yeah, I’m all for diverse recasting, especially when it comes to white characters in non-historical settings. I wouldn’t recast Mel Gibson in Braveheart as a POC, but I’d certainly swap out the Doctor from Doctor Who, for example.

Also the Doctor… Watson. (Lucy Liu, Elementary. Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/14/victoria-coren-lucy-liu-sherlock-holmes)

I’m just saying, y’all need to be careful. Race isn’t skin deep, so don’t be lazy about it. If you want to make changes, fine. Make all the changes. Make sure whatever you end up with works, whether you’re changing a character’s race entirely or recasting them as mixed-race, going from white to POC or from POC to POC. Make sure only the white people get mad, because the rest of us aren’t just a “twist”.

Bobby Sun is Chinese and intends to remain that way. LTBD has posted a response to previous pushback against their work, which can be found here.

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