Two more of Hollywood’s racial problems

Whether it’s Hollywood awards shows that predominately recognize the accomplishments of white people while overlooking those of PoC or the film industry’s history of whitewashing, the lack of racial diversity and inclusivity has become a popular topic. Over at The Mary Sue, Jessica Lachenal writes about one aspect of Hollywood’s racism that may not be on the radar of many:

Hollywood has no idea what to do with Asian people. And, given the fact that Hollywood often serves as a reflection of contemporary culture, this is a major problem. Aside from casting us as goofy comic relief (Long Duk Dong,really) or evil mystical ninjas (come on, Daredevil season 2), they just don’t know what to do with us.

Though she doesn’t mention it, I imagine martial arts masters is another go-to depiction of Asians in movies. But hell, that’s a stereotype too (one that’s even a TV Trope), and it’s not like one more stereotype means the film industry portrays Asians with a greater degree of diversity. A look at the parts white actors often receive in Hollywood shows who is offered a wider range of roles. Hint: it’s not Asian actors. No, for white actors, the sky is the limit. They are not limited to a handful of stereotypical roles. One of the problems, Lachenal writes, is Orientalism:

These hideously xenophobic implications at play in Hollywood’s insistence on erasing Asian people from their own narratives refers to some incredibly deep-seated, historical prejudices that were widely held back when Hollywood was still forming its identity. Consider Orientalism: popularized as a theory by Edward Said in 1978, it references a historic tradition of “othering,” which set the East far apart from the West in some of the most negative ways. Eastern beliefs, practices, and religions became “mystical, magical, mysterious,” really emphasizing the differences between the East and the West, pushing them further and further apart rather than trying to encourage connection and understanding.

“Mystical, magical, mysterious”?

Sounds a bit like a certain upcoming Marvel Studios film.

You can see some of these ideas at play in Marvel’s upcoming movie, Doctor Strange, which is a story focused on a white man (Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch) who goes on what amounts to a “magical, mystical journey” through a vaguely “Eastern country” to learn martial arts and mental powers from… well, a white woman. Originally written in the comics as a Tibetan mystic, the Ancient One who trains Doctor Strange is played by Tilda Swinton in the forthcoming flick. The movie presents Eastern religions as mysterious, “magical,” something that’s wildly different that exists only to be understood and mastered by a white person.

The mastery by a white person of arts or skills typically associated with another culture is part of the White Savior Trope, which is another of Hollywood’s racial problems. The White Savior Trope is a narrative conceit that treats a white person as the heroic savior of People of Color. Typically these PoC are downtrodden, poor, or oppressed, and the white savior is the figure who comes in, able to sympathize with the problems of PoC and assimilate into their culture, master their ways, and save them from whatever ails them. There are several variations of this trope, including the white teacher, the white sports coach, and of course the white savior him (or sometimes, her) self. The problem with the white savior trope is that it positions People of Color as beyond hope, unable to solve their own problems, and/or in dire straits. The help they require doesn’t come from within. It comes from without, in the form of a white person:

So what are the problems with these films? Well, they portray people of color as too desolate, too hopeless, too overcome by their own prejudices and circumstances to help themselves, so they need someone to help them. But not just anyone, no, this helper must be a White Savior. This Savior inspires the people of color, teaches them how to be a better them, and makes their lives better when the people of color couldn’t do it themselves. These films ignore the stories of people of color helping their own communities and helping themselves.

Hollywood, and many white people, eat these WSF up because white audiences can identify wanting to be the “savior” in POC’s lives, to be the one who rescues the poor POCs from their circumstances, to be the hero in their lives. They help alleviate feelings of white guilt by projecting white people not as the oppressors, but as the heroes who can save people of color from their circumstances, and often, the oppression that whites in the past have caused. Essentially, these films capitalize on the stories of people of color, yet instead of telling the film through their eyes, they are presented as stories of the white people who help them.

An overview of the history of Hollywood should make it apparent that stories of white people, by white people, for white people have dominated the industry and reinforced the idea that only white people matter. Given that we in the United States live in a society in which white lives are treated as most important, it stands to reason that would be reflected in the motion picture film industry. That’s bad enough on its own, bc it shows that those in charge are only (or primarily) interested in appealing to white audiences (nevermind that over time, non-white audiences have come to make up a large percentage of moviegoers). To make matters worse, when PoC have their stories told, all too often they are not the allowed to be the heroes who solve the problem or resolve the central conflict. That role falls to the white savior, who becomes the main focus of the film. Movies like Avatar, The Blind Side, The Last Airbender, and Dances With Wolves* are examples of films that ostensibly focus on the struggles and cultures of PoC, but wind up being vehicles to showcase white people as the central character(s), main heroes, or even pseudo-messianic figures. As Lachenal points out, people of color are tired of having their stories taken away and given to white people. They are tired of movies like Ghost in the Shell, which takes a uniquely Japanese film, rooted in Japanese culture and reconfigures it as a film for white audiences. PoC are over films like Gods of Egypt or Moses, which involve racebending, whitewashing, and the centering of white people in films where PoC should be prominent. And yes, the decentering and racebending of PoC is problematic even in movies like Gods of Egypt or Moses. While both movies feature modern-day retellings of mythological stories (and of course, if you’re a god, it shouldn’t matter what your race is, no?), they do not exist in a vacuum. They exist as part of tendency on the part of film creators to take as their inspiration stories or myths from non-European cultures and re-frame them through distinctly European eyes. “But why support racebending when it’s about an Asian Iron Fist or a black Spider-Man, Heimdall, or Human Torch, but you raise a fuss when Katniss is white or most of the deities in Gods of Egypt are white? If racebending is bad, shouldn’t it always be bad?”, say defenders of the entertainment industry’s status quo.

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: No, and you need to think with more nuance and a greater awareness of the problem of racial diversity in the motion picture film industry.

What these critics fail to see is that those actions are not equivalent. I can’t remember the last time Hollywood took uniquely white stories and made them vehicles for telling the stories of People of Color. And I certainly cannot recall a long history of them doing so. OTOH, there is a long history of Hollywood doing the reverse. Of taking stories rooted in other cultures and reconfiguring them as uniquely (or largely) white stories. In addition, the history of Hollywood has consisted of white people having their stories told. Of having movies where their histories are the focus. Not only that, but there is a wide diversity of stories told in Hollywood about white people and their experiences.

If you’re someone interested in striking a better balance between the stories of white folks and the stories of PoC, when you look at the whole of the film industry (rather than zeroing in on one or two films) and you look at the pro-white treatment of films, actors, directors, producers, etc, you start to see that HEY, it might be a good idea not to racebend a character from a PoC to a white person. Or it might be a good idea not to erase the stories of PoC. Conversely, it might be a good idea to take this character and racebend them from white to PoC, bc white people have a wealth of film roles, while PoC-despite making up a substantial percentage of moviegoers-are offered far fewer roles. But people are only going to do that if they value People of Color and their contributions. They’re only going to do that if they are interested in rectifying the racial imbalance that has existed in the motion picture industry since day one. And, unfortunately, as long as the bigwigs in Hollywood remain largely white, I can’t imagine we’re going to see much in the way of change. Although perhaps if PoC vote with their wallets, and films like Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange do as poorly as or receive reviews as scathing as The Last Airbender or Gods of Egypt, maybe Hollywood executives will begin listening to non-white audiences. Perhaps then we’ll see a reduction in whitewashing and maybe an increase in stories of people from other cultures with PoC as the central characters.

I won’t be holding my breath on that anytime soon though.

*There are enough films that make use of this trope that Hollywood could create a White Savior subgenre.

Two more of Hollywood’s racial problems

5 thoughts on “Two more of Hollywood’s racial problems

  1. rq

    Speaking of co-opting white stories, I’ve been wondering for a while how the dynamics in Les Miserables would change if (select one or several of these options for a mix-and-match of possibilities):
    a) Valjean was black;
    b) Javert was black;
    c) both Javert and Valjean were black;
    d) Fantine was black and Cosette a mixed-race child*;
    e) Fantine was white and Cosette a mixed-race child;
    e) Marius was black;
    f) Marius was black, along with most of the other revolutionaries;
    g) same replacements but with Asian actors… or Middle Eastern actors…;
    h) etc.
    I’d probably watch all possible combinations, and (as a white person) I’d be totally okay with this kind of co-opting of a white story – yes, you have my permission. 🙂 I’d love for Les Miserables to be a vehicle for telling these sorts of stories, because I think the racial aspect would completely change the nuance in most of the songs, no matter which combination is selected.

  2. 2

    I thought there WAS a White Savior genre: it’s called Oscar bait. Or maybe White Savior is a subgenre thereof.

    You’re damn right on all counts, and I’m sure as hell voting with my wallet to see more PoC roles and less whitewashing.

  3. 3

    A pretty good recent example of a white story turned to a POC story would be Hamilton: mostly POC cast, playing historical characters that were almost all white.

    Of course, it’s also been getting white-supremacist pushback and whining, and even a discrimination lawsuit about a casting call for non-white actors. So, about exactly as you’d expect.

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