Why Hollywood is Whitewashing Characters of Minority

Images from Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, movies and comics.
Two movies that came out fairly recentlyDoctor Strange and Ghost in the Shelldid so amid allegations of whitewashing after both cast a white actor in the role of an Asian character: Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi.

One response to whitewashing I’ve seen goes something like this: “Well, if you’re upset about [white actor] being cast as [person of colour character], then you should be equally upset about [person of colour actor] being cast as [white character].” And they bring up Heimdall, played by Idris Elba in the Thor movies, as an example.

But this isn’t a tit-for-tat issue. Whitewashing is more than just a matter of choosing an actor for a role; money and politics often influence casting decisions. And, when we look at the complexities around whitewashing, we have to keep privilege and cultural context in mind.

It’s all about the money

Take, for example, Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One, a traditionally Tibetan character. Currently, the second largest movie market in the world is China, which also has volatile relations with Tibet; the Chinese Communist party and its army occupied Tibet in 1951 and, since 2009, there have been 148 confirmed self-immolations by Tibetans in protest of China’s occupancy. Acknowledging the Ancient One’s Tibetan ancestry would have caused China to reject the movie, which means Doctor Strange would have lost out on that audience and, therefore, the money. The “safe” move for Doctor Strange‘s producers, both politically and monetarily, was to change the Ancient One’s ancestry from Tibetan to Celtic to ensure that the movie was picked up in China.

It’s important that those of us who have white skin remember that we have a certain amount of privilege.

An actor’s monetary-drawing power can also influence the movies in which they are cast. For example, when Ridley Scott was making Exodus, which cast white actor Christian Bale in a Middle Eastern role, Scott told Variety, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such… I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

I can’t fault producers for wanting to ensure their movies are successes. I can, however, fault them for not doing more to raise the profiles of minority actors.

Context is everything

This is where cultural context really comes into the equation, and I’ll use Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Motoko Kusanagi as an example. On the surface, it seems like Ghost in the Shell is a pretty simple case of whitewashing: a white actor cast in a Japanese role.

However, in Japan, most fans were fine with Scarlett Johansson’s casting. In fact, in this context, casting a white actor was likely the better choice because Japanese fans may have found it more offensive to see a Chinese actor playing a Japanese character.

Does the fact that Japanese fans weren’t offended mean that Scarlett Johansson’s casting doesn’t matter? I don’t think so, because, in our North American context, people of colour are still vastly underrepresented in all aspects of media.

Privilege and power

This is why whitewashing is a different issue than that of casting a person of colour as a white character: it contributes to the erasure of minorities in media.

In 2016, UCLA published its third iteration of the “Hollywood Diversity Report,” which looked at the top 200 films in 2014, and over 1,000 TV shows from the 2013-2014 season, to determine how women and people of colour were represented in 11 different categories—from leading roles, writing, and directing. It found that people of colour were underrepresented in every category.1 When white actors are cast for minority characters, they are taking away roles from people of colour when there aren’t that many to begin with.

Ironically, the “Hollywood Diversity Report” also showed that films and TV shows with diverse casts actually do better overall.2

So why aren’t we seeing more diversity in films and TV shows? Remember the #OscarsSoWhite controversy from a couple years ago? Part of the problem there was that Academy members—those choosing which movies were nominated and won awards—were mostly white men. And so it is with producers, talent agencies, networks, and studios: those with the decision-making power are overwhelmingly white men who cling to the notion that they have to choose between diversity and excellence, when that is simply not the case. “Adequately responding to Hollywood’s race and gender problem will require more than token efforts and window dressing. It will require bold gestures that disrupt industry business as usual, which not only adjust the optics in front of the camera but that also overhaul the creative and executive machinery behind it,” concludes the study.

Whitewashing is more than just a matter of choosing an actor for a role.

It’s important that those of us who have white skin remember that we have a certain amount of privilege when it comes to the movies or TV shows we watch. As Peggy McIntosh notes in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” we can “turn on the television… and see people of [our] race widely represented.” I have a lot to say about the lack of substantial roles for women in Hollywood, but I also know that I have seen white actors play a wide range of roles, very often as the hero or protagonist; people of colour can’t say the same thing when minority actors are often relegated to the role of the villain or bumbling sidekick.

We are seeing some change already; the Academy Awards overhauled its membership after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and plans to double the number of women and minority members by 2020, and ABC appointed Channing Dungey, an African American woman, as its president in 2016. Wonder Woman, the first superhero movie to feature a female protagonist, was a box office hit and I have high hopes for Black Panther.

Audiences have some power to change things; we’re the ones buying tickets and tuning in, after all. We can support films that feature women and minorities if we want movie makers to see that having diverse casts is better for their bottom line. We can call out whitewashing when it appears on our screens. We can support the minority voices that are shouting to be heard.


Footnotes

1 Minorities were three to one among film leads; three to one among film directors; and five to one among film writers. In TV, the study found that people of colour were underrepresented eleven to one among creators of broadcast scripted show.

2 Films with diverse casts had the highest global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment; and the median ratings for viewers ages 18–49 peaked for broadcast scripted shows with casts of at least 40 percent minorities.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld