Hollywood Whitewashing and Double Standards
Some may be familiar with the term, “whitewashing”, which is used by online communities to describe instances of characters of color being portrayed by white actors in live action films. As many will be quick to point out, Hollywood is a business. A business whose largest domestic segment is middle-class white people, which is why Hollywood films are crafted to appeal to this demographic (Stoddard 27).
Studio executives also believe that crafting a film for this demographic requires white actors, since they are deemed more relatable for other white audiences. However, racially homogenous China is Hollywood’s biggest international market. This is despite the fact that Asians comprise less than 3% of Hollywood’s lead roles. Although a country like China may look past the race of actors to enjoy a film, it is assumed that American audiences cannot do the same. White actors are deemed as normal and universal.
Predictably, instances of whitewashing often result in online debate, where some argue that whitewashing is no big deal since “It is acting after all” or that any critics should just “let the movie be”. For many readers, they have either used these arguments before or heard them from someone else. In many ways these arguments echo a valid sentiment: we should be color-blind. Let’s not judge someone’s race, only their talent or marketability. However, it is a fact that Hollywood is more willing to take risks on an unknown white actor over a minority one, indicating that white is inherently viewed as more marketable (Stoddard 373). This also means it is easier for an unknown white actor to get roles that can eventually lead to them becoming a marketable box-office talent. Also, the true test of this color-blind theory is if it applies to instances of actors of color playing notable white characters.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
The most recent example of whitewashing controversy that can be used for comparison is Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), where ancient Egyptians are portrayed by white actors. Like Ridley Scott said, he couldn’t get the movie made if his lead actor was “Mohammed so-and-so”. Scott previously said that Egypt was a “confluence of cultures”, which is what explains the white actors. However, the Mohammed comment makes it clear that minority actors were never considered for the part. In addition, the only roles that went to minorities were those of servants, guards or soldiers.
Seti (John Turturro, background) presents the future leaders of Egypt: Ramses (Joel Edgerton, left) and Moses (Christian Bale).
Although the instinct may be to argue that Exodus is a mythical tale, Scott said that he did not want to treat Exodus as a fantasy, since real historical figures like Ramses II are portrayed. The race of Ancient Egyptians is still contested and the purpose of this article is not to say that the casting is necessarily incorrect. The purpose is to study how Exodus’s casting is defended with arguments such as “best actor for the part” and “marketability”, while instances of race changing in other films are criticized when minorities are cast.
For many who grow tired of online debate about these issues it is easy to become defensive and fall back on the “just a movie” argument. However, it is also interesting to compare the reaction that a film receives when a minority actor portrays a white character. In the case of films like The Hunger Games, Fantastic Four (2016)and Star Wars Episode VII (2016), there is even greater excuse for changing the race of actors since the stories are not inspired by any historical figures or conflicts. Yet instances of black actors getting roles in these films resulted in a flurry of online racist remarks. Along with the aforementioned films I will also be referencing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) to study how audiences react differently to whitewashing, than they do to instances of minorities playing white characters or inhabiting roles that they deem more appropriate for white people.
The Hunger Games
Rue, from The Hunger Games, was described as having “dark brown skin and eyes” in the book. The author also said that Rue, and the character Thresh, are “African-American.” However, Twitter provided a refuge for hundreds of angry fans after they either heard about the casting of a black actress (Amandla Stenberg) for the part. A Canadian fan began identifying racist tweets about the casting by using “#hungergames”, and he eventually compiled hundreds of tweets and posted them on his Tumblr, Hunger Games Tweets. If audiences were truly color-blind, would they write tweets like “Why is Rue black?!?!” Or “I was pumped about The Hunger Games. Until I learned that a black girl was playing Rue.”
Another defense mechanism is probably to argue that these are just a few idiots online. Why bother analyzing them and thinking they represent anything significant? The problem is that hypothetically, these people who criticize this casting could be the same ones denying any discussion of casting discrimination when a character gets whitewashed. This isn’t just one troll, these are hundreds of people from only one case study. As the website’s anonymous creator, “Adam” says, “That tweet was very telling in terms of a mentality that is probably very widespread.” It is important to acknowledge and understand the double standard present in audience reactions to race-changing.
Color-Blind Racism and The Fantastic Four
Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch
Although the increased discourse of color-blindness is ideal in theory, groups such as the American Psychological Association have denounced it because they realize that people who claim to be color-blind are more likely to support racism. As a result, scholars have coined the term “color-blind racism” to describe this new, superficially post-racial mindset.
Color-blind racists view racism as an issue of the past, which leads to a denial of racism and a belief that all races receive equal treatment. With this mentality it is easy to ignore any alleged whitewashing, since color-blind people don’t acknowledge discriminatory casting. For a colour-blind racist, race should be a taboo topic since they believe acknowledging race perpetuates racism. The discussion of racism is only relevant to a color-blind person if the act of alleged racism is deemed damaging to whites, which demonstrates the racial bias of this colour-blind veil. To colour-blind racists, whiteness is normal, while color is seen as threatening or subversive.
To color-blind racists, the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four can then be interpreted as an example of minority privilege. Instead of seeing Jordan’s casting as a selection of the best actor, color-blind racists see this casting as an example of minorities getting special treatment. The belief in minority privilege then frames whites as the targets of “reverse discrimination”.
Although there are numerous examples of whites playing people of color over the past ten years, color-blind people will ignore or rationalize these changes and then focus on the fewer examples of minorities playing white actors. While 30 Days of Night (2007), Dragonball: Evolution (2009), Prince of Persia (2010), The Last Airbender (2010), The Lone Ranger (2013), Pan (2015), Aloha (2015) and others are defended for various reasons, The Fantastic Four becomes an easy target for colour-blind racists.
Like Rue and The Hunger Games, Twitter provided a refuge for racist comments when the casting was announced. The Fantastic Four casting is incorrect; Johnny Storm has always been depicted as white. However, if audiences were truly color-blind then Michael B. Jordan’s race would not be a problem for the casting. Online comments would not say the casting is an example of “political correctness”, or that it is “racist”. Shouldn’t there be more comments arguing that race doesn’t matter, and that studios simply pick the “best actor for the part?” Even if his sister is white in the film, that should not bother someone who is truly color-blind, since they do not see color. Jordan is already familiar with the complaints. As he said in May, “Some people may look at my casting as political correctness or an attempt to meet a racial quota, or as part of the year of ‘Black Film.’
Quick Comparison: The Hobbit and The Last Airbender
Avatar:The Last Airbender (ATLA), set in a fictional world, was a particularly interesting case of whitewashing since the casting was sometimes defended by arguing that the fictional world makes the intended race of the characters irrelevant. Even though the creators have described the series as a “fictional Asian world” and said that they wanted to create a fictional world like Lord of The Rings, but use their love for Asian cinema to take it in a different direction. The show and its depiction of Asians was also a source of confusion for some since Asian characters were not depicted with the stereotypical markers audiences are used to in Western TV and cinema, such as slanted eyes and yellow skin. Since the show was influenced by Korean animation, ATLA’s animation style reflects the practice of avoiding these markers.
ATLA’s Asian character. Aang (front) and the Inuit characters Katara(middle) and Sokka (Back)
Some audiences may see the characters depicted in anime and assume that they are not meant to be Asian since they lack these markers as well, but these characters are judged by Western standards. Another way to think of it is by using the example of a stick drawing. If we draw a stick person in a country that is mostly white, such as America, England, France etc. we will assume the stick person represents a white person unless we give the figure stereotypical markings e.g. brown skin, curly hair.
In Asian countries, such as Korea or Japan, where the population is over 90% homogenous, they will assume the stick figure represents an Asian person. This principle also applies to their animation. The confusion only arises when their animation is exported to other countries, where audiences get hung up on the appearance and ignore any other signs of an Asian world, or an Asian-inspired one.
People will decry the presence of black extras in The Hobbit, a world inspired by European mythology. Yet people will also defend the casting of white actors in The Last Airbender, a world inspired by Asian and Inuit architecture, clothing, mythology and philosophies.
Pictures displaying the whitewashing of the Inuit characters, Sokka and Katara.
(Some may be quick to get defensive, ignore the brown skin and point to the blue eyes as a sign of whiteness. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, there are individuals who have the ability to manipulate the element of their tribes or groups: earth, water, air and fire. The eye colour serves as an indicator of a character’s element. In the show the Air Nomads have grey eyes, the earth nation members have green eyes, water tribe members have blue eyes and the Fire Nation have orange eyes.)
These blatant double standards cannot be ignored. Double standards where criticism of whitewashing is ridiculed as the work of “unemployed” people with nothing better to do, while minority casting generates rants about the negative influence of political correctness.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
The last example I will use from this article, and the second one from this year alone, is John Boyega’s casting in Star Wars: Episode VII. When the first trailer for the film debuted Boyega was briefly glimpsed in a stormtrooper costume.
At this point, we could not be sure whether his character used it as a disguise, like Luke and Han did in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. However, many disgruntled fans believed he was meant to be a clone of Jango Fett, like the soldiers from the prequel trilogy. The only time Jango Fett was pictured without a face-concealing helmet was in the prequels, where he was portrayed by Maori actor Temuera Morrison.
However, the producer of the television show, Star Wars: Rebels, indicated that the last of the clones would be “old and grey” by Episode IV. Any stormtroopers pictured in Episode VII will be people recruited from the general population. This means that Boyega’s character is not meant to be a clone of any previous character. However, the damage control came too late for Boyega, who also witnessed a flurry of online racism that led him to tell critics to “Get used to it.”
According to a 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, 1 in 10 films have a minority lead. This is despite the fact that America is becoming more diverse and despite the fact that Latinos comprise the largest portion (over 25%) of American moviegoers, even though they are only 16% of the population. Additionally, only 7% of Latinos identify as white as of 2010. This demonstrates that the out-dated notion of needing a white actor to draw in a bigger audience is overstated and only serves as an excuse to limit the roles available to minority actors, and in some cases, take those roles away and give them to a more “marketable” white actor. This only creates a cycle of unemployment where minority actors are not given the same opportunity to display their talent, since they are not seen as marketable or relatable enough.
Directors and actors who are involved in whitewashing rarely voice a critical opinion of the casting, with director Cameron Crowe being one of the few to openly criticize his own casting choice. While Joel Edgerton said he empathized with those who opposed the Exodus casting he also added, “it’s not my job to make those decisions…I got asked to do a job, and it would have been very hard to say no to that job.”Additionally, few actors speak out against instances of whitewashing, possibly because they fear backlash from potential employers.
Meanwhile, the few instances of minority actors receiving a role that could go to a white person are met with an onslaught of racist comments. From The Hobbit, to the The Fantastic Four and Star Wars, people will throw out the same arguments about representation and racial accuracy that they would ignore if a character was whitewashed. With this warped mindset, it becomes easy to see “reverse-racism” as the real problem in the film industry, and even America as a whole (Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich 192).
Is race-changing ever a right thing to do? That is not the question of this article. The question is do we react in a consistent, logical way to instances of race changing. Or are their obvious preferences in what we choose to care about?
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Originally published at moviegrapevine.com on July 24, 2015.