Diversity in Popular Media: Why is whitewashing still a thing?

Yesterday, I went to the movies to see Logan and left with in a sour mood. Not because of the movie** but because of the movie previews. Sounds weird, I know, but let me explain. They showed four movie trailers: Guardians of the Galaxy II (so excited!) ; Fast and The Furious 8 ; Death Note and Ghost in the Shell. Since I titled this post with words like ‘diversity’ and ‘whitewashing’ I think you know where I’m going with this.

(**I really enjoyed Logan. It’s incredibly violent and bleak, but it’s also one of the best (if not the best) movie from the X-men franchise I’ve seen.)

Death Note and Ghost in the Shell have one thing in common: they’re both being accused of whitewashing. For those of you who don’t know what that means, here’s the definition:

“Whitewashing is a casting practice in the film industry of the United States in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles.”

“Historically non-white character roles” means that either the character was a historically non-white person (e.g. Native American warriors; Chinese leaders; … ) or that the character was a non-white person in the original source material (e.g. literature; comics; anime; …).

There are hundreds of instances of whitewashing since the beginning of the movie industry. Two famous examples are Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) where Mickey Rooney wore yellowface to play Holly’s Asian landlord and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) where Alec Guinness plays the Arab Prince Faisal. While I don’t agree with these choices, I can understand them. You have to remember that 50 years ago minorities and people of colour were not given the same opportunities (and rights) as caucasians.

Since we’re no longer living in that time, you would expect that whitewashing would be a thing of the past. But no. Here are a few more movies that have been criticized of whitewashing in the last five years or so:

  1. The Hunger Games (2012): Katniss Everdeen is described to have the typical look of District 12: olive skin, straight black hair, and grey eyes. This description led many readers to believe that Katniss and her people were non-white. Yet, Jennifer Lawrence was cast. There are a lot of conflicting opinions on whether this was a good choice. Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games, said Katniss as well as Gale “were not particularly intended to be biracial” which I think she only said to “keep the peace” and justify both casting choices. And even if Katniss and Gale were “not particularly intended to be biracial” but the people of District 12 were (as she described in the book) does that mean she only used diversity as a plot point? Like, okay, let’s have some diversity in this future world but let’s make sure the main characters (the one who’re “saving the day”) are not? What’s wrong with biracial or any other non-white characters being main characters?
  2. Aloha (2015): This movie is set in Hawaii, which is 70% (!) nonwhite yet features an all-white cast.
  3. Doctor Strange (2016): Tilda Swinton plays the Ancient One. In the comics, this character is actually a man, also from Kamar-Taj, a fictional kingdom in the Himalayas.

And lastly, the two movie trailers I watched yesterday:

Death Note (2017): the original material is butchered by not only changing the plot but also relocating the story to Seattle, renaming the protagonist Light Turner, and casting Nat Wolff. Since the story was completely reworked, Nat’s casting is no longer a strange choice but the question remains: “Why did it have to be Americanized in the first place?”

Ghost in the Shell (2017): this is an adaption of the Japanese franchise which features several white actors but Scarlett Johansson received the most backlash for portraying the main character. Sam Yoshiba, director of the company which holds the rights to the series and its characters, said:

“Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place… This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world.”

While I agree that this type of movie is right up Johansson’s alley, it doesn’t excuse the fact that they (once again) chose a white actress over (in this case) an Asian actress. Also, the phrase “we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place”. Why is that? Is it so unfathomable that a non-white actor or actress might actually take the leading role and for the movie to be a success?

Is that what it is? Does the movie industry really believe that non-white actors don’t stand a chance in the box office? That people won’t go see a popular movie or franchise (such as Death Note) where the original material has been kept just because it doesn’t star a white movie star?

I really don’t want to believe that’s what it is (it’s 2017 for God’s sake!), that it all boils down to money no matter what, but I’m struggling to see another explanation.

I don’t understand why no one seems willing to take a risk and give non-white actors / actresses / directors / writers / … a chance.

It just makes me really sad to think that the movie industry still chooses money over accurate representation and diversity. Especially when other media, particularly (YA) fiction, have shown that diversity can also lead to success. Just look at Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give.

I want to end on a positive note and highlight a couple of diverse reads and books with ownvoices, hoping the movie industry will soon realize the mistakes they’re making and will aspire to be more inclusive by giving minorities a chance on the big screen.

When Dimple met Rishi by Sandhya Menon: a romantic comedy told in alternate perspectives about two Indian-Americans whose parents have arranged for them to be married.

City of Saints and Thieves by Nathalie C. Anderson: After fleeing the Congo as refugees, Tina and her mother arrived in Kenya looking for the chance to build a new life and home. Her mother quickly found work as a maid for a prominent family, headed by Roland Greyhill, one of the city’s most respected business leaders. But Tina soon learns that the Greyhill fortune was made from a life of corruption and crime. So when her mother is found shot to death in Mr. Greyhill’s personal study, she knows exactly who’s behind it.

Piecing me Together by Renée Watson: Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi: On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life. But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own.

The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera: Pretty in Pink comes to the South Bronx in this bold and romantic coming-of-age novel about dysfunctional families, good and bad choices, and finding the courage to question everything you ever thought you wanted

***

What do you think about Death Note and Ghost in the Shell? Acceptable or not? Do you think literature is doing better re:diversity compared to the movie industry?
Let me know in the comments so we can start off a discussion.

 

See you soon,

Lauren

10 thoughts on “Diversity in Popular Media: Why is whitewashing still a thing?

  1. I thought this post was very well written. I do think that Death Note has been really, really whitewashed…I mean, not only are they casting a white actor as Light, but they’re making it western…that can be just as bad, if not worse than white washing. It’s like when they remake British shows. They’re never that good. So it’s sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree. Why can’t they just celebrate the original material? Diverse books and movies can teach us so much about other cultures but they don’t seem to appreciate the beauty of being different. So, yes, that is sad.

      Like

  2. Great post! Absolutely breaks my heart when this happens. I’m so pissed off that Scarlett Johansson was cast for Ghost in the Shell.
    Don’t forget “The Great Wall” movie that just came out. When we saw the trailer for that, my ten year old brother turned to me and said, “Didn’t realise Matt Damon is Chinese.” MY TEN YEAR OLD BROTHER understands whitewashing but HOLLYWOOD doesn’t. Insane.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, me too! I forgot about The Great Wall but you’re totally right. I was really disappointed Matt Damon took that role. Sad, isn’t it? We can only hope the younger generations will do better ❤
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Novels are way ahead of the Hollywood game when it comes to Diversity, and yet I went to a panel this past week where only 2 out of 7 of the authors were of color promoting their books. And 1 out of the 2 of color was Ibi Zoboi, a friend of mine. Really made me want to get my story out soon. Hollywood just isn’t completely comfortable with true representation of color, yes Asians and blacks are minorities in USA but big on other continents! I also think that minorities need to stop giving over the rights unless they cast the correct people, remember The Last Airbender?

    Like

  4. Despite major campaigns for more diverse literature, the staggering amount of all white book reviewers, marketing and sales team members, editors and executives, there is still a great amount of work to be done to diversify the book industry. Great post! I empathize with your frustration!

    Liked by 1 person

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