Let’s Talk About Hollywood and Whitewashing

I’m coming out of post-holiday hibernation to share with you an article that I wrote a few days ago in light of all the recent controversy that has sparked about Hollywood’s issue with whitewashing person of colour originated roles.

I originally wrote the article for media/news website Talk Nerdy With Us that I sometimes contribute on, but it dawned on me that perhaps not a lot of you follow me and my pop culture writing ventures on that platform. So I decided that I would share it with you over here on my blog.

If you’d like to view the article in its original, probably fancier format on the Talk Nerdy With Us website then click here. Otherwise, let’s talk about Hollywood and whitewashing.

Hollywood has a problem. Actually, it has a lot of problems. But there’s one specific issue that can no longer be ignored.

Growing up, I’ve always seen far less ethnic minorities on screen as opposed to white actors and actresses. Part and parcel of why I used to want to act when I was a young girl was because I wanted to see more people like my little Asian self on screen. I wanted more representation, but at seven years old I didn’t realize how unnecessarily hard the battle to get people of colour on screen is.

While attitudes have shifted over the years and we’ve become a more celebratory and acceptive society, the reluctance to give non-white actors their moment on screen is still an all too familiar fixture. For every step we take forward – For example, the diverse casting in Freeform’s Shadowhunters – we take steps back. See The 100‘s notoriously poor treatment of characters of colour.

Whitewashing, the practice of casting white actors in non-white roles, has unfortunately been a long-term tradition in Hollywood. Recent cases of whitewashing include Rooney Mara’s casting as Native American Tiger Lily in the Box Office flop that was Pan, Emma Stone as a half-Chinese/half-Hawaiian woman in Aloha and Gods of Egypt‘s entire caucasian cast. Not to mention, all this happened in the past year alone.

A couple of days ago, the first image of Scarlett Johansson in the new movie Ghost in the Shell was released sparking a plethora of controversy. Why, you ask? Because the story is a live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga series of the same name and Johansson’s character, Major Mokoto Kusanagi (simply shortened to Major for the movie), is not Danish-Polish but in fact Asian. Even when Johansson was cast there was an outcry asking why the studio couldn’t possibly have chosen an ethnically appropriate actress to play the lead role? Perhaps Lucy Liu and Maggie Q were busy.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D actress Ming-Na Wen took to Twitter to speak out against the casting.

It’s even reported that producers allegedly attempted to fix the backlash the only way they know how: CGI.

According to independent sources close to the project, Paramount and DreamWorks commissioned visual effects tests that would’ve altered Johansson in post-production to “shift her ethnicity” and make her appear more Asian. Though the tests were conducted and reviewed, an insider revealed to ScreenCrush that they were immediately shelved.

However, Ghost in the Shell isn’t the only offender this year. The ScarJo casting controversy comes just days after the trailer debut of Marvel’s latest comic book to movie venture, Doctor Strange, which saw a bald Tilda Swinton channeling her inner Tibetan man. For those who aren’t keen comic enthusiasts and may be confused, Swinton’s character of the Ancient One is not only Asian, but originally an Asian male.

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told EW that their reason for casting Swinton as the Ancient One was to shy away from any stereotyping roles and that they also liked the idea of the Tibetan mystic being a woman.

Johansson (left) and Swindon (right) in their roles.
The original comic book Ancient One that Swinton portrays in the movie

While I’m all for girl power and making room for some kickass female characters, let’s not pretend that in a movie with an origin story so heavily reliant on Asian themes there was no way they could not find an Asian actor or actress who could’ve done this part justice. Swinton has already established herself with roles in The Chronicles of Narnia and We Need to Talk About Kevin, Marvel could have cast an Asian newcomer. Even better, just cast Asians in this project instead of sticking to the Oriental backstory but making your cast largely white. You know how amazing and different that would have been?

I can give them points for gender-bending that character, but I’ll demerit all those points back for the blatant whitewashing.

The origins of Doctor Strange are steeped in Oriental stereotypes and Angry Asian Man blogger Phil Yu best summarised the situation here.

“…But putting a bald white lady in the role doesn’t fix much. It’s still whitewashing. Yes, it’s a two-minute trailer that doesn’t reveal a whole lot, but it reveals enough. Plot summary: Bearded White Guy journeys to Asia, where a bald white lady teaches him Mystical Asian Stuff. White Guy masters said Mystical Asian Stuff. Then White Guy uses the Mystical Asian Stuff to fight bad guys. The end.”

We already live in a world where Asian and dark-skinned actors are scarcely given the opportunity to play leads in a Hollywood movie. What’s even more disheartening is that Hollywood itself won’t even cast Asian actors to play characters in works where the characters are originally Asian. See another example of Nat Wolff in the upcoming adaptation of Death Note.

It’s not as if the argument is that Swinton and Johansson were the only women qualified for the job as online comment boards and forums have thrown up tons of suggestions. Many backed Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi as someone who would make an ideal live-action Kusanagi for Ghost in the Shell, but Johansson has more star power and that’s the sad reason why they allowed this role to be whitewashed.

Realistically, Hollywood is unwilling to churn out the next big A-List Asian movie star. Gone are the days of big Asian names like Jet Li and Jackie Chan, instead, say hello to Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson.

@Hollywood – If you want to use our stories and our characters, please use our actors. Don’t whitewash these characters for the sake of bringing in the big bucks. It’s proven with Pan and Gods of Egypt that it doesn’t work (even if the films themselves sucked in their entirety). I promise you that Asian actors are more than capable to tackle any role, even roles of actual Asian characters.

To finish; here’s a tragically accurate Tumblr post.

To view other articles that I’ve written for Talk Nerdy With Us, you can view my page here.

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