Bleaching The New World
Why Whitewashing is a problem for countries of high diversity (and not for the often homogeneous countries those diverse populations came from)
Whitewashing is a rightfully hot button issue in the modern American media scape. But it’s one which is intrinsically difficult for two groups of people to understand:
- White Americans*
The really funny and interesting thing, though, is that most of this lack of understanding comes from the same place —living in a reality of strong and frequent representation. Representation is the entirety of what this is about, really — and in every iteration, whitewashing denies visibility to those who are underrepresented in regard to the percentage they make up of their native populous and the main target market for a film or TV show. Instead, it gives more visibility, work, and representation to the over represented cultural and ethnic majority of that same diverse country.
This is illustrated in two key arguments or points I’ve seen brought up by friends, family, and commentators in relation to the current fire starter of the day, the American produced Ghost in the Shell, starring noted white person and pretty cool seeming actress Scarlet Johansson as a character originally named Major Motoko Kusanagi. Now this is not about the internal ironies and conflicts that arise out of whitewashing the lead role of this franchise, which is so fixated on the topics of Japan and Asia, identity in the modern world, and the blurred lines between human races, genders, ethnicities, and technology. It’s not about the valid points that this main character, who within some versions of the story has always been a human cyborg with an artificial body around a real brain, is (in some versions of the story) a character who despite having a brain which originates (again, inplicitly and only in some versions) from an unborn child who is not Japanese or East Asian, was placed from birth into Japanese looking artificial bodies, raised in an adoptive Japanese context with a Japanese name. These things do make Ghost in the Shell a particularly interesting nut to crack in relation to the issue of whitewashing, but the sum of them actually obscures the underlying problems and points of why whitewashing is damaging, and who it’s damaging to.
To look a little further at this, I’d like to distinguish between the two kinds of whitewashing which primarily occur in Hollywood and American Film, and how they have become less or more prominent overtime.
The first, and perhaps most infamous type, is something I like to refer to in total as “Facing”. Simply put, “Facing” is what occurs when you have an actor (almost always a white actor) playing a character of a different ethnicity or race from their own — often but not always accenting the performance through extensive make up. The most famous, known, and uncomfortable iterations of this type of whitewashing are Blackface, Yellowface, and Redface — white (or slightly more broadly, European) actors playing African, Asian, and Native American/American Indian characters, respectively. This type of casting and whitewashing causes the issues of misrepresentation and pseudo representation. Mickey Rooney becomes your idea of a Japanese man, Genghis Khan becomes an offensive and strange iteration of John Wayne’s hero archetype. Although these overt examples still occur, they are less prevalent and less problematic today compared to a more subtle iteration —
Now, what brownface is is the casting of white actors, particularly tanner and darker skinned white actors (Greeks, Italians, etc — in many ways ironically “more recent whites” who suffered the same sorts of treatment as other ethnic mintorities as recently as in the last half century), to play “brown” characters. Brown characters are those of races and ethnicities which are defined as “ethnically ambiguous” in the aesthetic context of the United States (Hispanic/Latino/Ibero, Middle Eastern/Arab/North African, some indigenous peoples) and people who are biracial or multiethnic. If you’re a person of color that people constantly ask who or what you are of, then you may one day have the lucky misfortune of being represented this way. This is very common, and hides under the insidious notions of “soft representation” and “aesthetic accuracy”.
Casting Emma Stone to play a very white looking person of a multiracial white, Polynesian, and Asian background is not actually justified by the person who that character is based on looking like Emma Stone, because she’s still not those things, and doesn’t actually give a person of that demographic a chance to represent that story, that experience, to their country at large. Also, although people of multiracial and multiethnic heritage can look like Emma Stone, thats far less common then looking like The Rock, Rashida Jones, or for an example of an up and coming star who actually has a very similar ethnic background to that of Stone’s character, Auli’i Cravalho. And while it is true that their are some unique challenges and burdens that very white looking multiracial and ethnic people face, they are only a facet of the splintered identity and authenticity issues that define the mixed heritage experience — and I say that as a multiethnic person. Similarly, Al Pacino is not really close enough to being Columbian to make him the best choice for Tony Montana. I loved Spotlight, and Mark Ruffalo was probably my favorite character in it, but that doesn’t change the fact that part of me is thinking “man, it would have been really nice to see an actual Portuguese American person from my little forgotten corner of ethnically and culturally Portuguese Ibero/Latino/Hispanic Americans” every time I watch the movie. Nor does it change the fact that the only time I remember seeing a Portuguese actor playing a Latino part in an American film is when Robert Rodriguez (skip rest of sentence if you don’t want to be spoiled for Desperado) cast one to play a Mexican drug lord and villainous brother to our Mexican vigilante and mariachi hero, who was, coincidentally, played by a Spaniard.
So that’s facing.
The other kind of whitewashing is the kind we (apparently) see in Ghost**, and that we also recently saw in Doctor Strange —which I like to call “Bleaching”.
Bleaching is exactly what you think it is; when a character originally written as a minority race or ethni city by the standards of the United States* has their race changed to white for the actual American iteration of a film or series. This usually happens for one of two reasons, both of which are based on poor logic — “covenience/marketability” and “respectful updating”. The two examples above represent archetypal example of both. ScarJo was cast as the Major to “appeal with star power” to American audiences, and Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One to “avoid crass Asian stereotypes”. In both cases there’s a seemingly justified or even well intentioned reasoning behind the decision, but they fall on their face pretty quickly under a critical eye. Other characters in Doctor Strange based on similarly outmoded Asian stereotypes were still cast as Asian characters, and simply written with greater depth and respect than in the source material. Scarlett Johansson is a big star, but her previous R rated (or in this case, as I stand corrected, a pg-13 “R-Lite” movie) sci fi and action outings have done sub par to fairly well at the box office, and films like Deadpool and Logan have recently shown that loyalty to source material, character, and good storytelling seem to be at least as if not more important than star power alone, and shows like Luke Cage, Netflix’s most watched last year, have shown that you need neither a universally known white lead nor a particularly well known source material to make a show with broad international audience appeal. At the same time, The Great Wall has shown that a white superstar in an Asian escapist action story is not a guaranteed formula for success. But bleaching is going to keep happening for quite a while, regardless.
And the reason is typified by the two arguments and observations I first mentioned above. The first, which I most recently heard from a mentor of mine, is that Japanese people in Japan don’t mind Ghost in the Shell’s casting seemingly at all, pointing to the aforementioned details of the original story and the fact that it’s an American version of the story.
The second, mentioned by some friends who are huge proponents of more diverse casting, is that Full Metal Alchemist and Attack on Titan’s live action Japanese casts are entirely Japanese people, “just as they should be, and that’s good representative casting”.
Both of these however, are based on forgetting one key crucial detail. These are all castings that go against the original texts’ ethnic breakdowns — both Full Metal and Titan’s characters are primarily written as originating from fictional analogs of Germanic, Nordic and Anglo Saxon European countries, and we already covered GitS’s original source and it’s fundamental Japanese character in detail— but they are cast, received, and interpreted through the lens of people who are Japanese and see Japanese people like themselves constantly in their own media and entertainment. Japanese people are so homogeneous that it’s literally a near impossible feat to create a full cast of western or western descent actors fluent in Japanese for a film based on material with characters written as such. Not only is the country 98.5% ethnically Japanese, but only one non Asian ethnic group — Brazilians — makes up more than 0.1% of the populous. And on top of that, like the billions across the world who love and watch American and British Film, they expect 95% of people in movies and shows from those country to be or at least appear to be white to them. And the remainder they expect to be Black, probably — since it’s all based on who we cast, as that ends up being who they see.
When we look at the issue of whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell, it boils down to the fact that it doesn’t affect Asian peoples (in this case Japanese in particular) so much as Asian-Americans. It’s important to note that this example applies to all American and Western films depicting and especially based on source material with integrally diverse or non-white characters — and how it affects people of all those various races and ethnicities — but right now, it’s important to stick to GitS. In particular, I want you to think of the film as one which, if it were to have an ethnicity like a person, would be Asian-American in heritage. Bare with me here. Like a a racially and culturally diverse person, a work of art, and perhaps particularly a work of fiction, is etched with the both the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of its sources and inspirations, and that of the country in and artists with whom it is produced. However, its a product of both, just like any person of color in America or other diverse, particularly American, countries, and, when it comes to it, everyone everywhere. And it’s that American aspect which is key both to the art and to us.
In our various ancestral countries of origin our ethnicities are often partially or entirely well represented in native media, but American media depicts a far whiter and less diverse country than the one we live in, so those of us who are ethnic and racial minorities end up feeling erased and invisible. If you talk to people in Latin America or Japan or South Korea about the casting of white actors in ethnically originating roles for American (and often European) productions they will almost always say “Oh, I have no problem with it — of course it’s what you’d expect, American actors are white, after all, of course they’d cast white people.”
That’s almost exactly the problem, actually. Or at least it’s effects at large in the world. When we take these effects into account, it rapidly becomes clear how profound they are. The effect is that American media as a whole depicts a country that is white, and to the audiences, and therefore the world, a people who are white, and a reality that is white.
Try to think of movie stars who are not just Asian but Asian American, and it’s a struggle. Off the top of my head, I can think of about 6 (including both East Asian and South Asian) who I know by name rather than role as “stars” who most people would recognize: Lucy Liu, John Cho, Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, George Takei, and Mindy Kaling. I can add a few more if you include Pacific Islanders, but the point still stands. This is easier for Latinos and still more so for African American actors, but if I ask you to come up with white stars you can spurt an endless list that could (and usually does) instantly fill the entirety of the Dolby Theater, which you may know as the current home of the Academy Awards.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there are not more roles now, and certain areas of our industry, like voice acting, are or can be far more diverse and inclusive. But you run into this same issue everywhere. And while some groups, like African Americans and increasingly Latino/Ibero/Hispanic Americans, are better represented, we still appear in American media less than we appear in the American population.
Furthermore, you see the diverse countries of origin for Latin and Asian actors basically treated as interchangeable in casting, and — as we talked about above, though I’m restating it again to drive he nails in — certain groups, like Italian Americans (who, again, were ironically getting the same treatment only a few decades ago) being treated as “ethnic stand ins” cast for characters who are Latino or Middle Eastern, etc. This is still happening. You’ll also see the problem, for Iberos and Asians, at least, many of those who end up being stars coming from other countries directly where their stardom is first established and marketable who either aren’t American or only emigrate as adults (Gael Garcia Bernal, Javier Bardem, Antonio Banderas, Sofia Vergara, Penelope Cruz, etc) rather than actors and talent of diverse ethnicity from the United States.
You’ll also see actors and performers who choose to whitewash or allow themselves to be whitewashed to some degree for marketability, which does work (the Sheens/Estevez’s, Oscar Isaacs, Zoe Kravitz, Rashida Jones, Fred Armisen, Casey Kasem) or actors so far removed from their ethnic cultural origins that they are neither identified or seemingly self identify as representing those groups. And I am not shaming these people, I am not calling them out or implying that they are ashamed of their heritage or don’t want to champion their people. They simply want to work, get good work and not be typecast to limiting or demeaning roles that even then only exist in small numbers and at the whim of cultural trends. Being able to be marketed as maybe white means you get to maybe play anything. Being “stuck” as ethnic in all contexts means you’re going to have to fight tooth and nail to not only be cast but also not be typecast.
Even groups who have better or rapidly growing representation, like Puerto Ricans, will suffer misrepresentation, as any Puerto Rican identified as an immigrant will tell you, a thing that rightfully pisses off people who are born in part of the USA and are US citizens from birth. Speaking as a culturally and ethnically Portuguese Latino/Ibero American, I can tell you that our mostly Portuguese American and Brazilian American population, making up a small 0.5% of the population — or almost 3% of the Latino and Hispanic Americans (though calculating that number is difficult for a few reasons I won’t go into in this essay )— we have a close to zero percent representation in both roles and actual casting, being pretty much reserved to regional jokes about Massachusetts and Rhode Island when we actually show up in media, and even then, unless it’s explicitly stated that the characters are Brazilian or Portuguese, your average American viewer will read these characters as “Some kind of Spanish”. For the record, there’s a lot of us in Florida, California, Greater metropolitan NYC, and Hawaii, but you wouldn’t know that from watching almost anything in the media.
My basic point is this — whitewashing is a problem relating to the representation of diverse performers and people in their own countries, not in their ancestral countries of origin, because — taking Ghost in the Shell as our main example one last time — Scarlett Johansson being cast as a character written as Japanese — even if one written as a combination of literal and coded Japanese as a form of thematic deconstruction — doesn’t end up making it feel to people in Japan and East Asia though Asian people don’t exist, but rather that it makes Asian Americans less visible to Americans, and less valued by their own country, who rather take a story they have seen themselves in, and remove their ethnicity from the main character to make it more palatable to an audience they have every right to be a part of. That’s the trick — whitewashing isn’t a problem of you erasing the fact that we’re Asian, or Latin, or African, or Native, or Polynesian***, it’s a problem of you — and us, because we are part of you, America, the entire point is that we are part of you — erasing the fact that we are American. Right now, America is around 55 to 60% non-Hispanic/Ibero/Latino White, and that number is getting lower every day of every year.
Unless you’re judging from our media. In which case, to all of us in America, to the soon to be more than half of us of non white heritage, to the world as a whole, the country is White. You tell us that we are not part of are home, or that if we want to be we best wash out any color we have. You communicate both to those of us who are white and those us of color that the white ones among us are the most American, the quintessential Americans, and that the rest of us are invaders or stowaways in our own home, with no definitive right to our identity or nationality. To those of us who are dual citizens or at least still close to our ancestral roots, who to our families in the old country we are the American cousins, you leave us half stranded and uncertified, and only with partial homes even in the storied land of the mosaic, the melting pot, of the founding immigrants. To people who were here first and before? we end up communicating a message of pests or weeds, like blemishes on the skin to be removed. When you complain about diverse casting and the activism for more of it, you are saying in no uncertain terms that it is easier, more pleasing, and preferable for the only faces we get to widely see to be white. And we are doing better, but this does not mean we should stop. It means we should accelerate, redouble, and increase our efforts because we can always still do better. And we are not even close to our best yet. And no, this won’t solve everything — American Jews have disproportionately and greatly been represented in our media and entertainment for generations, and they are still the group most targeted for hate crime with even that representation being turned against them. But it is important, it is necessary, it is real.
And this brings us back to our little Asian-American film that started the conversation. The stories we tell are the children of our culture, and we always want our children to be their best, to be better versions of us — at least I hope we do. So what does it say when we cast and defend a white superstar in an originally Asian role for the American version? When we treat it as the best way to tell our version, an American version, of this story traced so directly back to Japan? One very simple thing:
The best, truest face for anything that’s American is a white one.
And I reject that outright. We are a nation of color, and we refuse to be bleached out of the pattern and path of our story.
*Just to clarify, as is probably obvious from the rest of this article, when I say “White” in this context, I mean “Non-Hispanic/Latino/Ibero White”. That said, as should also be clear in this article, similar whitewashing phenomena exist throughout the also highly diverse countries of the rest of the Americas. As a popular Portuguese and Spanish saying goes: “America is a continent, not a country”. We’ll talk about the shifting scale of whiteness another time, though.
** Having now seen the film to better comment on it, oh boy, this is even more complicated and has even more to unpack than I thought. More on that to come, I think.
***nor is its LGBTQ cousin of making queer characters cis and/or straight, or casting cis and straight actors as queer characters. This is the same problem of denying the marginalized voice and visibility. I just couldn’t think of a good and natural way to include it.