04/04/2017 – Until yesterday, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I would be writing about whitewashing. After a prod from a friend on Facebook, I realised how frustrated and desperate I was to talk to someone about this. The internet is noise pollution – bigotry and ignorance run amok. It can be really tough to hear your own thoughts and conscience most of the time. Which is where the danger lies.
The topic of whitewashing fits into the ongoing discourse on equality and ethics. But let’s keep it simple by using a Q&A structure. This is the only way I can get my thoughts across and make them as easy to comprehend as possible. As my interest is in film and cinema, I’m going to focus on whitewashing in this art form, but this can be seen in many other situations or industries as well.
QUESTION: What is the line between whitewashing and fiction? If fiction is imaginary, can’t we imagine a white person in any role?
QUESTION: So if we can imagine, why can’t we actually portray them on the big screen without being white shamed?
You can, but you shouldn’t.
QUESTION: Why not?
The cinema industry and our focus point, Hollywood, is built on pumping out expensive productions. It’s a business. It’s all about money. There are directors, writers and actors that work within this system that do care about art as a form but – this is a huge but – they are still working within the system and therefore, shape the way we think. Once you have the power to shape people’s minds, thoughts, imagination and social conscience, you automatically have the responsibility to be ‘responsible’.
The Great Wall
Let me elaborate. For years, races and nationalities of all kind have been part of Hollywood productions. Focusing on acting, we’ve seen everyone on the big screen, all colours, all religions, and all accents. How many of them have been the heroes though? To date, the Hollywood system that is all about churning out glorious and escapist entertainment, has utilised non-whites as cannon fodder and stereotypical shortcuts to further profit. They have the ability to promote their films on all media forms, therefore entering our lives on a daily basis. Once you have this amount of power, you have an ethical duty to yourself and to the people of the world to ensure a somewhat balance between what is on offer.
QUESTION: What balance is this you talk about?
Well, let’s start from the mainly white people we see on our screens. They kill the bad guys (usually non-white), save the world (mostly from non-whites), and get the girl (probably much younger than her saviour). This sends out a certain message to our synapses and psyche, that this is ‘right’ and ‘how things should be’. Imagine being subjected to this for over 100 years. It becomes the norm, we unconsciously accept it as normal.
It’s the same thing when females aren’t offered the same level of work as men or why we have stereotypical comic relief roles for certain nationalities with ‘funny’ accents. The more you are subjected, your perception of how the world operates shifts as well.
QUESTION: Okay, but they are pushing this agenda too much, to the extent that it’s everywhere. You can’t just make every famous character a female or every action hero an Asian.
QUESTION: You can’t! Can you?
Of course you can! We are all human beings, with two eyes, two ears, a nose and a mouth. Our main concern in life, for the majority of us, is to get a job, get married, have kids and ignore our mortality for as long as possible.
If we’ve had years and years of dominance of white characters, why can’t we now have the opposite? How else are we going to achieve equality if we don’t understand or emphasise with how much the other half has been oppressed, and removed from the ‘norm’? Of course the media will write controversial articles about white-shaming. They have also been under the illusion of Hollywood and mass media. We fear what we don’t know or don’t understand. In a world where we scroll easily past mass murder stories in Syria and Iraq, it’s no surprise that we get agitated when ethics and morality gets thrown in our face. We feel guilty. Our sense of truth is being questioned. The natural instinct is to fight back with what we know and believe in.
The norm versus the other
To promote and fight the allegations of whitewashing prior to the release of the US remake of ‘Ghost in the Shell’, there were street interviews with the Japanese public in Japan. They were shown footage of Scarlett Johansson kicking arse, and then asked if they believe she was a good choice.
QUESTION: Did they see it as whitewashing?
Nope. They actually liked her.
QUESTION: Then, what’s the big deal? If they can state this for an original Japanese production, why can’t we cast an American actress?
Remember how I mentioned that seeing white people (mainly men) on our screens, shapes the way we think and affects the way we perceive reality? Hollywood is a global phenomenon – it doesn’t only affect the US but has global implications. Its world view therefore is the aforementioned norm, we unconsciously accept it as normal.
So how can we expect the public of Japan to make an independent choice, without complying with years of external stimuli?
QUESTION: So… what then?
ANSWER: The only way to counter-balance years of work by a huge money-churning industry, is to start doing the opposite, to start demanding the opposite, and to start asking for more of the ‘other’. The ‘other’ being everything but the ‘norm’.
More opportunities have to be given to other nationalities, races, religions, and they should be our heroes and love interests. Females can also save the day and choose who they want to end up with. Yes, Scarlet Johansson is a great actress and she can pull off this role. But many other Asian actresses can as well! The same goes for Finn Jones and Iron Fist. Why not cast a non-white actor, and be part of change, a change that will play a small but important role in hopefully one day providing equal opportunities to everyone?
So, when you have the urge to complain ‘that’s white-shaming’ upon reading another media story about casting an Asian actor, stop and take a deep breath.
Ask yourself, ‘why not?’