Dear Hollywood: fix your damn race problem

Dear Hollywood,

You have a problem with racial diversity, and you’ve had it for a long time (pretty much your entire existence, to be frank). Sadly, it has become apparent that you seem bound and determined to do exactly fuck-all about this problem. It’s as if you’re perfectly fine with excluding People of Color at all levels by perpetuating the co-narratives of white dominance and superiority that pervade the industry. While these issues manifest in a variety of ways (see the 2015 Diversity Report for many of the dismal details), a key one that is currently weighing on my mind is whitewashing:

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Whitewashing is often defined as:

[…] the practice in which a person (director, producer, a fan, etc.) takes a character who is originally of color in canon work, and replaces them with a white actor or a white FC claim (role-playing games.) (read more posts on whitewashing here)

Throughout the history of Hollywood, whitewashing has been used to discriminate against People of Color, typically by giving roles to white actors that ought to have been given to a Person of Color (you know, bc the role calls for a person of color or the characters from the source material were of color). The motion picture industry is dominated by white actors, and they have *plenty* of jobs. You’d have to venture to some alternate reality to find a world in which white actors have a hard time finding jobs in the entertainment industry. Not so with blacks, Asians, Latinx, and Indigenous people. They have long had a paucity of roles. To give a white performer a role that calls for a Person of Color denies a black actor or an Asian actor or  a Native actor a job.  That’s problematic because members of those groups have long had difficulty finding roles in the industry. Why should white actors be granted role after role after role that calls for white actors *and* [historically] also receive roles that call for a Person of Color? Oh, I forgot, Hollywood runs on the twin engines of white dominance and superiority. The casting of Scarlet Johansson as the lead character in the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is a reminder of that.

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It centers around Major Motoko Kusanagi, who leads a special law enforcement team based in Japan. Kusanagi is a special character in that she has, since birth, existed inside of a “cyberbody,” one that’s manufactured (hence shell). In fact, this struggle between her and her identity with regards to her manufactured shell is something the source material explores quite in depth. While the argument can be made that a part of the narrative revolves around Kusanagi’s exploration of her identity, so “technically” anybody can play her, it feels like a weak cop out at best, a tired justification for why this role was straight up whitewashed.

The movie is based in Japan and features a Japanese character as its main protagonist. Why the hell would anyone take a look at the story and think “we need to white-ify it”? Especially since the narrative is uniquely Japanese in origin:

 

Do you get it Hollywood? Ghost in the Shell is uniquely Asian in origin. It isn’t a property that should be Westernized. Not if you’re interested in making an adaptation that is faithful to the source material. And if you’re not interested in that, then why the hell are you making this movie? But don’t think my Cup O’ Contempt is empty. Oh, no. I’ve some left. You see, you not only fucked up with GITS, you also fucked up with Dr. Strange:

Where the problem of whitewashing in GITS is fairly straightforward, it’s more complex in Dr. Strange. First of all, the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One is seen by some as a triumph of feminism. And yeah, gender bending is often cause to rejoice, as Hollywood has a gender problem as well as a racial one. The Ancient One is not only a man in the source material, but a prominent character to boot, so gender bending like this is another step in diversifying roles for women in the film industry. That’s usually a good thing. On the other hand, the Ancient One is an Asian character, and Swinton is a white woman. So again, we have the problem of casting a white person in a role that should have gone to an Asian actor. There’s an additional problem-one inherent to the Ancient One. As an Eastern mystic guru, he is an embodiment of Orientalism:

Imagine you are a 13th or 14th century European. The Silk Road has just recently established contact and trade with a distant land; a land so far away and so difficult to reach that it exists only in the imagination of the average European. Earlier accounts of this land have been passed down by the Greeks from centuries ago, telling of an alien world inhabited by “dog-faced creatures”, or Phasians so yellow it was as if they “suffered from jaundice” (summarized by Gary Okihiro in “When and Where I Enter”). Centuries after that, Egeria’s 4th century text Peregrinatio ad terram sanctam describes an exotic, fantastic Asia that “served to highlight the positive, the real, the substantial Europe”. These tales are not just stories; for the West, they become synonymous with “what Asia is”. In recounting Marco Polo’s travels, one historian wrote “[Polo’s] picture of the East is the picture which we all make in our minds when we repeat to ourselves those two strange words ‘the East’ and give ourselves up to the image which that symbol evokes”.

Thus, almost from the moment of first contact, the West established a unique and specific relationship with the East — one that still impacts and influences our conceptions of these regions today. In this relationship (as defined by Edward Said), the West is the “Occident”: the norm, the standard, the centre, the fixed point around which the rest of the world orbits. The East is, by contrast, the “Orient”: the abnormal, the exotic, the foreign, the Other defined specifically by its deviancy from the Occidental, Western norm.

Importantly, this relationship — what Said terms “Orientalism” — draws upon exaggerations of both Occidental and Oriental traits in order to create an Orientalist fantasy that is a fictional recapitulation of both East and West. Western men are reimagined as universally Godly, good, moral, virile, and powerful — but ultimately innately human. By contrast, those traits that best serve as a counter-point to the Occidental West are emphasized in the West’s imagined construct of the East: strange religions and martial arts, bright colours and barbaric practices, unusual foods and incomprehensible languages, mysticism and magic, ninjas and kung fu. Asia becomes innately unusual, alien, and beastly. In Orientalism, Asia is not defined by what Asia is; rather, Asia becomes an “Otherized” fiction of everything the West is not, and one that primarily serves to reinforce the West’s own moral conception of itself.

It is also important to note that Orientalism historically arose both from an attempt to “honour” Eastern cultures as well as to redefine them for the West. Orientalism purports to be a faithful recreation of Eastern traditions and peoples, but actually draws upon real practices and traditions to create an Eastern construct that is largely exaggeration and myth. Thus, it is highly fallacious to presuppose that cultural appropriation motivated by fascination with (rather than malice towards) the East renders the cultural appropriation innocent; in Orientalism, the fascination is, itself, part of the problem.

There is an additional problem at the heart of Dr. Strange. The basic concept of the character is steeped in not just Orientalism, but white superiority-white people are the most super special people of all time, above and beyond all other cultures. You see this in Stephen Strange-Western white guy-going to an Asian country and mastering skills that are completely foreign to him. White superiority also comes into play in the decision of Stan Lee (Strange’s creator) to have Strange-a white man-be chosen to be Sorcerer Supreme rather than an Asian character. What makes him, a white man so special? So superior? To add to that, there’s the element of cultural appropriation involved in a white person taking from an Eastern society (even a stereotype) and making it his own. This history of colonialism and imperialism is one of white people invading other cultures and taking elements of those cultures and assimilating them into Western society. In the process the roots of those elements are often minimized or even erased.

Dr. Strange need not be a problematic character though. There are ways to make him work that don’t involve white superiority, cultural appropriation, or Orientalism (or at least, less of it). It just takes a creative writer who has an awareness of those problems and perhaps has less of a Western and/or white perspective. Like this person. Regarding the Ancient One, given how deeply exotic Eastern stereotypes are embedded in the character, it might be more difficult to shed those stereotypes while still keeping the essential elements of the character. But whether those stereotypes are discarded or retained, the character should not be whitewashed.

As for Ghost in the Shell, they could have avoided any problems by simply casting an Asian actress (here’s a list of 40 of them) and treating the source material respectfully. Unfortunately, as long as the racial makeup of Hollywood bigwigs remains overwhelmingly white, these problems are going to continue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dear Hollywood: fix your damn race problem

15 thoughts on “Dear Hollywood: fix your damn race problem

  1. 1

    I got into a pretty heated tiff at a conference recently over exactly this issue, with Heina too. Several other white people were defending Johnny Depp playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger. I wasn’t having it. They REALLY didn’t get this issue at all, which was pretty frustrating.

  2. 2

    In my admittedly non-humble opinion, the largest and most profitable businesses (in which I would include entertainment) have zero interest in fixing race or gender problems until there is a visible effect on their bottom line. In fact, my conversations with a coworker working on an MBA led me to believe that they are taught to ignore anything other than the twin gods of profit and share price. Until there is a perceptible effect on profit, the MBAs running the companies will actively resist any changes that have not been proven to increase profit and/or share price. If Hollywood could see a 1% increase in ticket sales by making their movies more inclusive or more true to the original stories the shifts would happen at lightspeed.

  3. 3

    That’s not actually how it works, pspearing.

    Until there is a perceptible effect on profit, the MBAs running the companies will actively resist any changes that have not been proven to their prexisting prejudices won’t allow them to beleive will increase profit and/or share price. If Hollywood executives were a tenth and rational as they beleive they are they would know that they could potentiallysee a 1% huge increase in ticket sales by making their movies more inclusive or more true to the original stories the shifts would happen at lightspeed.

    In reality, a huge proportion of business decisions are made based on somebody’s ‘gut feeling’, and a considerable portion of what MBAs are taught are the codified gut feelings of several generations of rich white guys. Hollywood is worse than most places about this, as it’s actually really, really hard to predict what movies are going to make money vs. be a flop.

  4. 4

    Gotta agree about GITS. I remember watching the original anime back when I was into it. The ironic thing is that in many of the anime I watched the female characters didn’t look as Japanese in terms of skin color as the male characters. Some of the first anime I got into were Tenchi Muyo and El-Hazard. Google pictures of the cast of characters and you’ll see what I mean. I noticed it in other anime like Escaflone and Gundam Wing. To answer Sheriff Bart’s question from Blazing Saddles, “That’s where da white women at.” So if you twist the racist logic (in Hollywood and Japan) enough it may be possible to justify the casting in the live action movie. (I am not in any way justifying the casting, just pointing out some other ways racism happens in entertainment.) Now that I think about it, Tenchi Muyo is pretty bad in terms of race. The only non-white female main character is a total ditz!

    Dr.Strange is a bit harder because Marvel fans expect the movies to overall stay true to the source material. At least for main characters. Remember the hoopla in Thor about Heinmal? But I’m not sure how they could alter Dr.Strange’s origin so it doesn’t include the “white guy quickly mastering stereotype Eastern mysticism skills that take decades to develop” trope. Maybe they could have something involving reincarnation. Yeah, that may work. In a previous life Strange was the master of mystic arts and his enemies did something so in his next life he was as far from discovering his inner nature as possible. That way it wouldn’t really be him learning new skills it would be him remembering old ones.

    So yeah, whitewashing is a real problem on both sides of the Pacific. ūüôĀ

  5. 5

    Honestly, if it didn’t happen all the time and almost exclusively to POC characters, it might be okay to have Scarlet Johansson be Motoko. She shed her original body as a young Japanese girl, and uses other body frames in the movies/series that aren’t necessarily Asian.

    But the fact the race-bending happens so consistently makes it…just another body blow. The pattern it’s following is too consistent.

    Honestly, I’m at the point that I feel weird if there’s an Asian person on TV speaking normal English, and not being incredibly wacky, nor sexless, nor a martial artist, nor a super-nerd.

    I mean, I am Asian, do martial arts, and am a sexless super-nerd, but I know plenty of other Asians who don’t fit into those stereotypes. I also speak with an obvious Californian rhythm, and couldn’t fake a FOB accent of any kind to save my life.

    I watch “normal” (which is to say, Western/American) acting/speaking Asian characters on stuff like Hawaii 5-0, where Asian dudes can be something other than sexless/weirdos/kung fu fighters, Asian ladies aren’t just dragon ladies or ninjas, no one’s got an obviously affected accent, and I’m perplexed.

    That basically describes much of my community, my family, and many of my friends, but seeing them on TV somehow feels… wrong. I see Josh on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a Filipino guy in Cali who’s actually considered attractive in the show, and it should remind me of a lot of my friends, yet it feels wrong, too.

    I’ll get over it, hopefully. Especially because the opposite end of stereotype portrayal, like “Love you long time” ‘jokes’ or “let’s talk like Asians by replacing all the R’s with L’s!”, make me want to punch someone in the throat, so I’ll suck it up, and maybe the next generation will feel more at home when they see ‘themselves’ on TV or in movies…

  6. 7

    This article really crystallizes, to me, the problem that PoC characters present to writers. I’d say, specifically, to privileged white writers, like me — but since no one is a member of every group, it’s really all writers.

    Writers have just three choices:
    1) Stick to the culture they are familiar with — white writers fill novels with white characters, black writers with black characters, etc. Then expect lots and lots of criticism for unoriginality, particularly with the first option — who wants to read another fantasy novel that’s just another Tolkien ripoff with a bunch of European fantasy tropes? (When I’m talking about criticism here, I’m not just talking about minority critics — most writers I know are their own worst critics.) Or

    2) Stick to a culture you’re familiar with, or (in fantasy and sf) make up your own culture, but be sure to stipulate that certain characters are Asian or dark-skinned or whatever, even though there’s nothing beside your naked assertion that would link the character to any particular ethnicity. Again expect plenty of criticism for taking the lazy way out. Or

    2) Do lots of research on a specific culture (as an outsider) and try to introduce characters who are representative of that culture, without being stereotypes. Still, expect to be criticized for orientalizing, fetishizing the other, and cultural appropriation.

    And sure, if you have a character who is deep and rounded enough, their ethnicity can be only a small part of their personality. But a novel can only really have a small handful of rounded, 3-dimensional characters, and any author who makes their protagonist come from a culture that isn’t their own is also going to get roasted.

    As you might guess, I’m quite familiar with this problem. I wrote a complete urban fantasy novel that had characters drawn from backgrounds of a whole bunch of different cultures, because I wanted to explore a specific theme that showed up in a multitude of forms in most world mythologies. But when I went back and reread my novel after I’d finished, I decided to scrap the whole thing because of this exact problem — I couldn’t figure out any way to avoid being guilty of insensitive cultural appropriation. My next novel will probably either fall back on option 2, and just have different shades of wasps, or else go way off into distant-future sf land where I can come up with my own culture.

  7. 8

    OK, thinking more about it, I guess there’s a fourth option, which is to deliberately put in characters who go against cultural and racial stereotypes — the Asian character who is uncoordinated and crass, the French character who likes cheap beer and hamburgers, the Russian teetotaller, etc. But that solution seems like even more of a copout than option 2.

  8. 9

    BruceGee1962:
    I think part of it depends on how much a writer intends to do with a character whose identity differs from theirs. As an example, I’m a huge comic book fan. One of my favorite series of all time is Marvel Comics’ Avengers. In the early to mid 80s, Roger Stern (one of my favorite writers of the series) introduced a black, female character by the name Captain Marvel. He had her join the team and she served a long stint, even becoming leader of the team for a time. Her blackness was never a plot point. Hell, I don’t think there was ever any mention of her being black. She just happened to be a black superhero who served on the team. Just like there were white superheroes who served on the team. I don’t think he was trying “write a black character”, so much as write a character who happened to be black (and female).
    Now, if he’d wanted to explore her racial identity in greater detail (and do so respectfully), he would have needed to do some research to avoid stereotypes.
    I know this isn’t the same as writing a novel involving people whose ethnicity/race differ from the writers’, but some of the same basic ideas remain: if you’re going to write PoC with depth, you need to do some research. Hell, it might be a good idea to chat with one or two people you respect to get their take on your character and what you want to do with them, to try and avoid racist stereotypes.

  9. 10

    I can get behind the premise that a diverse country like the USA should attempt to include diverse characters. The difficulties however follow afoot. If those characters are applied in a ‚Äúcolorblind‚ÄĚ fashion, there’s criticism for that (as #7 pointed out). If racism and it’s effects are taken into account, it’s open to the stereotype charge (racism produces e.g. poor gang members). The compromise of both, writing strong characters, but surrounded by racism downplays real racism and sends the message that people affected by it are not strong enough to overcome it, like the silver-screen heroes. If you follow the demands of the social justice movement, and as a white person only write culturally appropriate, without ‚Äúcultural appropriation‚ÄĚ, you’re ironically portraying a world that would appeal to a Fox News audience and White Power supremacists.

    Let’s say the source material is from the UK, France, Germany, Scandinavia etc. Let’s suppose Hollywood is doing another Grimm’s Fairytale inspired flick. Does it have to be made with German actors? I am asking this to ferret out whether this is about ethnicity and culture (as in ‚Äúcultural appropriation‚ÄĚ) or whether this is really about race. I suspect the criticism is not about appropritating some other culture, with obvious undercurrents of colonialism or cultural dominance, rather I get the impression somehow characters are ‚Äúmeant‚ÄĚ to be of some other race, for reasons that are not well explained, but which of course suggest racial stereotypes (i.e. the Kung-Fu character must be Asian, seemingly for reasons of diversity, but actually winds up reinforcing stereotypes).

    The cultural appropriation idea would be consistent when it was declared wrong to make Grimm’s Fairytale films in Hollywood without sufficient German involvement. However, when it’s only wrong to do Japanese films with American actors (etc), then there is a form of racism at the centre that hides in plain sight. Because, you’re operating with a ‚ÄúBig Races‚ÄĚ model of humans from the 19th century. I only see viable options: either, it doesn’t matter, or one is serious about it. In this case, the French character must be played by a french person. And a Korean cannot just fill in to play the Chinese Kung-Fu master. I don’t know if this works, but I find most of the social justice ideas to be either poorly thought out or badly explained.

    The most grotesque example I know about was the criticism of the video game ‚ÄúThe Witcher 3‚ÄĚ, which is set in a fantasy version of Eastern Europe. The Polish developers were accused of not including People of Color, despite that Poles themselves were oppressed for centuries and rarely have had an opportunty to tell their own stories to a worldwide audience. They don’t have the same culture as the USA, and Poles aren’t known as having imported slaves. They were slavs to others, most of the time.

    It’s one example where this new social justice culture, as it is prevalent and typical for the US secular movement, is often times the exact opposite of what it says on the tin. Paradoxically, it has become a form of cultural US Imperialism where people from everywhere have to know and follow the particular discourse in the USA. I see that this article is about Hollywood, but as #7 pointed out, there are deeper problems that are currently not really well explained by anyone.

  10. 11

    Tony Thompson 9: I think Captain Marvel is an excellent example of my #2 option, above in #7, done well. As you say, she’s black, but it isn’t a big deal. Then again, comic books are like movies in that the ethnicity of every character is always front and center — you can’t overlook it, so it’s always going to make a statement.

    A more subtle version would be Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea books. She herself let it be known pretty clearly that the brown skin color of her characters was a big deal. However, I’m pretty sure that I read the entire series when I was a kid without picking up on this as all — because the differences between the characters were only skin-deep, with some characters clearly coming from dominant cultures and others from minority cultures. Since this was a fantasy world anyway, skin color was divorced from culture.

    What I was trying to get at was that this is mostly a problem for people writing about contemporary society, particularly in genres like urban fantasy. It’s pretty easy to take option #2 — just take one of your characters and declare them to be whatever. But it seems to me that, in today’s climate, it’s very difficult for, say, a non-Native American to write an Indigenous People character who is immersed in that culture, without feeling as if they were risking some backlash.

  11. 12

    BruceGee1962:

    But it seems to me that, in today’s climate, it’s very difficult for, say, a non-Native American to write an Indigenous People character who is immersed in that culture, without feeling as if they were risking some backlash.

    One of the many benefits of the Internet is that it has given previously marginalized and silenced communities the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions on virtually anything. I say this because the backlash you speak of would likely have existed 50 years ago when a book featuring racism, homophobia, transphobia, or misogyny were prevalent *if* people had a platform where they could share their anger and outrage. The backlash books (and other forms of media) are facing isn’t anything new. It’s simply that people are able to express their thoughts where others can read them much, *much* easier than ever before.

    All of that is to say, yes, there will be members of certain communities who will find elements of various forms of media problematic. And they’ll express those frustrations. One key to minimizing that is to do research about the subjects being written about and/or consult with people who belong to those communities.

  12. 13

    I think one of the tropes you missed, and I’ve seen this only peripherally mentioned elsewhere, and goes along with both the White Savior trope, and the Special Snowflake, (who outcultures members of a specific culture), trope, and that’s the fantasy of placing white protagonists as the Saviors of cultures, that historically, white colonialism helped to destroy.

    For example Dances with Wolves, where you have the fantasy of a white man assimilating into, and saving, a culture destroyed by whites. I would classify any movies that placed white protagonists in Africa, Japan, or China.
    All of these countries were brutally colonized by whites but Hollywood now has the opportunity to revise the historical record, so that white men can be the heroes of those places, instead of the conquerors, in everything from Tarzan, to The Last Samurai, and then the added bonus of winning the chief’s daughter, (or Princess, or whoever), as their reward, (and that’s leaving aside the rape and misogyny that occurred during such violent colonizations.)

  13. 15

    Avatar definitely falls into the White Savior trope, as its a thinly veiled remake of Dances with Wolves. I’m not so sure about the colonization angle as Avatar is a fictional planet, and I saw nothing within the narrative to suggest that humans destroyed the native culture first. (Certainly they were in the process of trying to destroy/exploit it.) But you definitely get the Special Snowflake and White Savior tropes in there.

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