(Note: this became a bit of a rant so bear that in mind.)
The topic of whitewashing has been getting more and more attention over the past few years, particularly since the use of social media has escalated to a ridiculous level. This year the topic became even more popular (and even controversial) when the Oscar nominations were announced. There were no non-white nominees for the top four categories and this prompted a boycott for the Academy Awards. From my experience with this boycott, it seemed to be spearheaded by actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who tweeted about the lack of diversity in the Academy. Although this isn’t directly linked with whitewashing, it certainly brought more attention to the topic than there was previously.
I personally began taking notice of whitewashing (specifically in film) when I began using the microblogging platform tumblr. Once upon a time I was a fandom blogger. Yes, I was one of those annoying teenagers who thought everything related to Doctor Who or Supernatural and had to tell the world about it – even if no soul cared or if I annoyed them, which I’m sure I did, and I regret it all. But my time on tumblr wasn’t a total waste. Alongside discovering that negativity breeds negativity, and discovering that I was actually a feminist (still am), I learnt of whitewashing, and more importantly, how damaging it is to non-white communities.
The first time I discovered whitewashing in film was in The Last Airbender, which, aside from being an absolutely dreadful film, portrayed Inuit and Asian teenagers as white people. Although they did cast the antagonists of the film with Indian actors, that still caused a controversy due to having the villains being dark-skinned, as the animated characters were designed to resemble Chinese and Japanese people.
Other films I saw (or was shown) were whitewashed were: Star Trek Into Darkness, where the character Khan is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, despite being of Indian descent; Exodus: Gods and Kings, a film set in Egypt and the middle east, starring an almost all white cast; Pan, which cast a Native American princess as white (how on Earth do you get this one wrong?); Gods of Egypt, more white people playing Egyptians.
The upcoming film, The Great Wall, has also been accused of whitewashing, but has been defended by its Chinese director, Zhang Yimou. Matt Damon has been cast as a soldier in medieval China, which would suggest that the character would be Chinese. However, Zhang has claimed that Damon’s role was not written as a Chinese character. This has also caused controversy, with people sating that Zhang cast a white lead for his film because it has become the norm in Hollywood.
The biggest controversy to date that I have seen has been the Ghost in the Shell 2017 live action adaptation of the Japanese manga of the same name. The manga is set in Japan with Japanese characters, and yet Scarlett Johansson has been cast as the lead role. Not only that, but the production company later revealed that they tried to digitally alter Johansson’s facial features to make her look Japanese, which seems to me (and many others) like a 21st century take on yellowface.
This brings me on to the #StarringJohnCho movement. The movement started on Twitter as a way of bringing to attention the lack of Asian-American representation in Hollywood. The movement began with the power of photoshop and image editing software that people used to put the face of actor John Cho (Harold in Harold & Kumar/ Sulu in Star Trek) onto film posters in place of caucasian actors. They did this in order to show that Asian actors can in fact play lead roles in films, despite the fact that only 1% of leading roles in Hollywood go to Asian actors. The movement got the attention of the actor (who was not affiliated with it) and he has since shown his support for it. Alongside this movement, other Asian-American actors have spoken up about the lack of Asian actors receiving roles, such as Constance Wu, Ming-Na Wen, and Arden Cho.
John Cho’s name is something I’ve only recently learned. If I ever saw him on TV or in a movie, my reaction would be “Hey, I’ve seen that guy before”. But I’d never actually learnt his name. To me, he was “that guy from Harold & Kumar”. I think that shows that Asian-American actors are so poorly under represented in film and TV – the fact that I never learnt his name, especially one so simple as John Cho. I could almost guarantee that if I mentioned John Cho, Arden Cho, or Ming-Na Wen to any of my family members, none of them would recognize the names or be able to tell me what they’ve starred in or who they’ve played.
We’ve focussed a hell of a lot on the underrepresentation of black people in film (which is highly important), but because of the strong focus on this, we’ve forgotten about the other minorities of the world. (Not that Asia could be a minority, considering its population dwarfs any other continent.) But in Hollywood and American media, Asian-American actors rarely get leading roles. In fact, the majority of the time that I see Asian characters on TV, they’re portraying villains for one or two episodes – usually the Chinese Triad or the Japanese Yakuza.
As the largest film industry in the world, Hollywood really needs to get on with representing different races and cultures in the films they make. Whitewashing causes more harm than good, and the pool of actors and actresses from ‘minorities’ is getting larger all the time, so there’s actually no need for whitewashing.