Whitewashing in Hollywood

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Whitewashing in Hollywood

Sarah Wang, Staff Writer

Think back to a time when you saw something inexplicably bizarre and out of place: a kangaroo in a shopping mall, canned tuna on pizza, or maybe Matt Damon playing the savior of all of China in The Great Wall. Perhaps even Scarlett Johansson being cast as a distinctly Japanese special-ops agent in The Ghost In The Shell, Benedict Cumberbatch taking on Star Trek Into Darkness’ iconic Indian superhuman Khan Noonien Singh, Emma Stone playing Chinese-Hawaiian Captain Allison Ng in Aloha, and the roles of Inuits Aang, Katara, and Sokka being handed off to Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, and Jackson Rathbone in Avatar: The Last Airbender might ring a bell. This phenomenon is known as whitewashing – a casting practice in which white actors are chosen to portray historically non-white characters.

Unsurprisingly, whitewashing is not an uncommon sight to see in Hollywood films and television shows. After all, the industry is notoriously dominated by white actors and actresses. In fact, between the years of 1927 and 2012, 99% of women who have won the Oscar for “Best Actress” and 94% of men who have won the Oscar for “Best Actor” have been white. The lack of racial diversity in the media most famously peaked at the 2015 Academy Awards after outrage sparked when not a single person of color was nominated for an award.

USC’s Annenberg Schools of Communications and Journalism conducted a study in February 2016 that found that out of 414 films and series, only 28.3% were from minority groups, which is 10% less than the percentage of minority groups in the U.S. population. Behind the camera, 87% of overall directors and 90.4% of TV directors were white, and out of 109 films directed by women, only two out of the 109 were black women (Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Amma Asante (Belle)). Stacy L. Smith, a USC professor and one of the study’s lead researchers explained “When we start to step back to see this larger ecology, I think we see a picture of exclusion, and it doesn’t match the norms of the population of the United States. ” Referencing the all-white Oscar nominations of the 2015 Academy Awards she continues, explaining that “The prequel to #OscarsSoWhite is #HollywoodSoWhite. We don’t have a diversity problem. We have an inclusion crisis.” All in all in terms of racial bias in today’s entertainment and media, and “the portrait is one of pervasive underrepresentation, no matter the media platform, from CEOs to minor characters. Overall, the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed” the study concludes.

If and when minority actors are awarded roles, they tend to be racially, culturally, and ethnically insensitive or just outright degrading. For instance, Lilly Okanakamura is one of the Barden Bellas in Pitch Perfect, but you most likely remember her as the Quiet Asian Girl that did the fish thing with her lips. The increasing cultural appropriation and lack of accurate minority portrayals in the media only serve to further propagate the stereotypes that Asians are nerds and tech support, Hispanics are drug dealers or the help, and African-Americans are violent youth that grow up to be criminals.

After sparking controversy and outrage over whitewashed casting, the directors of Exodus: Gods and Kings, Aloha, and Pan explained that although an entirely white cast was not preferred, white actors and actresses such as Christian Bale, Sigourney Weaver, Emma Stone, and Rooney Mara would attract greater audiences, while racially correct casting would have led to box office failure. The impact whitewashing has on all people far outweighs a production studio’s misconception that white characters have the highest appeal. The “Black Doll” experiment conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s found that when given two dolls that were identical in every way except for skin color, children chose the white doll over the black doll when asked questions such as “Which doll is prettier?”, “Which doll is good?”, and “Which doll do you want to play with?” Because of whitewashing in the media, the stigma and discrimination associated with being a person of color (POC) leads to “unhealthy conceptions of racial equality”. Diverse media representation is and will continue to be crucial in all forms of media and entertainment.

In some cases, not only do white actors and actresses get cast in POC roles, but they go the extra mile to portray someone they’re not, often in culturally insensitive ways. A technique used by the media to darken or change skin color is called “black face”, as well as “red face” and “yellow face”. In the 1965 version of Othello, British actor Laurence Olivier had to use black face makeup to darken his skin to appear black. Jim Sturgess, another British actor, used yellow face techniques to fulfill the role of Commander Hae-Joo Chang by lifting the ends of his eyes, filling the eyebrows, and narrowing the nose in Cloud Atlas. Johnny Depp and Rooney Mara were both accused of cultural appropriation and insensitivity after they portrayed Native Americans using excessive face paint and inaccurate cultural attire in Lone Ranger and Pan, respectively.

As we continue to progress in our ever-evolving society, we must all act as advocates for equal media opportunities to truly achieve equality. We can combat the continuation of whitewashing in the entertainment industry by simply being more aware of whitewashing and not let ourselves become indifferent and accepting. Truly diverse media representation is attainable and it’s up to us to start the change.

Photo courtesy of HISTORY.COM