Image courtesy of salon.com
Left to Right: Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Star Trek‘s Khan, Emma Stone portraying the partially Chinese Allison Ng in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson who will play Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell.
Whitewashing has always been an issue in Hollywood films, taking on different forms of discrimination over time. Though they’re not using yellow face in the same way they did throughout the 20th century (see Mickey Rooney’s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Hollywood is still routinely casting white actors in roles that should be played by Asian actors and actresses.
“Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can’t keep pretending there isn’t something deeper at work here.” –George Takei
But what, exactly, is the reason that Hollywood seems to only cast in shades of white?
One of the more common excuses is that white actors seemingly draw in wider audiences, and therefore make more profitable films. To quote director Ridley Scott on his notoriously whitewashed film Exodus: Gods and Kings, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say my lead actor is Mohammed so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed.”
This attitude towards the issue only further normalizes whitewashing, and devalues the work of actors of colour. By placing this type of value on the performances of actors based on their race, Hollywood is creating a racialized divide. Whitewashing is, after all, a discriminatory practice.
While whitewashing takes opportunities away from actors and actresses of color, it also perpetuates the “white savior” trope that is so common in film. Whereas a film such as Ghost in the Shell would otherwise have an Asian actress in the role of the heroine, whitewashing enforces that white characters are the ones that need to save the day – and often that white characters need to continually save characters of color, such as in The Blind Side or The Great Wall.
“We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. It’s not based in actual fact. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon.”
Out of the floods of whitewashed films arose several social media movements – one such movement, called #WhiteWashedOUT, circulated around Twitter and Facebook last May for Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. Asian-American actors and actresses used the hashtag not only to protest against whitewashing in the media, but to bring attention to how difficult it can be to get a leading, non-stereotyped role when you aren’t white in Hollywood.
Other social media campaigns, such as #StarringJohnCho and #StarringConstanceWu, sought to re-imagine the white dominance in film. The trend photoshopped actor John Cho and actress Constance Wu on to movie posters, replacing the lead white protagonists of various action and romantic comedy films.
Whitewashing in American media is a very real and very prominent issue. Social media platforms allow for audiences to draw attention to, discuss, and protest against whitewashing, in a public and accessible space.
What Hollywood needs to do now is start paying attention.