If you have a Twitter account and a vague interest in movies, you’ve likely heard of the rising furor over recent casting choices in upcoming movies. Specifically, the casting of British actress Tilda Swinton as Asian character The Ancient One of the “Dr. Strange” comics, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character in the movie version of the Japanese series “Ghost in the Shell” caused outrage over the whitewashing of Asian characters, culminating in the trending hashtag #whitewashedOUT.
Of course, Asian characters aren’t the only ones being whitewashed in pop culture. There’s a lot that has been written about race and representation in the media (some of it by me). The concept of representation is simple: people should see their world reflected back to them in what they consume. The process of representation, however, can sometimes be more complex, because we can have disagreements over what constitutes representation, particularly when it comes to changing the race or gender of already established characters. For the record, I am all for race and gender-bending – I actually wrote an article highlighting some great examples of it here. But there are times when race and gender-bending is appropriate and fun, and times when it is not.
One of the major criticisms of the movie adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” is that the casting of Scarlett Johansson ignores the specifically Japanese context in which the story takes place. That’s not to say that you can’t adapt a story from one culture into another – you can, and that’s a great way to share cultures. But the key is that you adapt the whole story, recognizing that there are some aspects to the original that won’t translate or are not relevant in the receiving culture. A movie like that wouldn’t be “Ghost in the Shell,” it would be something else, something different, that’s inspired by “Ghost in the Shell.”
This is particularly important when we consider manga and anime works. Because of the way they’re drawn, a lot of Western audiences perceive anime characters as being white – they’re not. Anime and manga stories are created in a Japanese context and are often set in Japan. If you’re going to translate anime directly into another medium, you have to acknowledge the characters’ Japanese identity.
Where diversity is now
If you’re going to racebend a character, don’t do it to one that’s already underrepresented in mainstream media. Our goal should be to increase diversity, not decrease it.
Although there’s been some improvement in the representation of minorities, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, not just in numbers but in how these characters are presented as well. As this wonderfully detailed post by Nerds of Color demonstrates, major franchises sorely lack in representation of not just people of color, but also women and women of color specifically. What little representation there is often relies on harmful stereotypes and double standards for male and female characters.
This leads to another question – should you switch out one underrepresented group for another?
I’m going to go ahead and say no, and here’s why: a lot of Western culture tends to treat minority groups, especially those from similar cultures or close geographical areas, as though they’re the same and therefore interchangeable. Indian and Pakistani cultures are often conflated, Arab cultures are treated as one monolith, Asian people are seen as “looking the same,” and people deem it socially acceptable to say things like “I went to Africa.” Where in Africa? Apparently, that’s not a distinction that’s necessary to make.
Minorities are not interchangeable. You cannot, for example, replace an originally Arab character in a story with an Indian one and call that a win for diversity. When production companies do this, they’re basically saying, “Well, Indians and Arabs are basically the same.” Now think about it. If someone told you that Arabs and Indians are the same people, wouldn’t you consider that ignorant and racist?
I rest my case.
What purpose does race/gender-bending serve?
When we examine race and gender-bending in the media, we need to ask why it’s being done and to what end. I don’t include fan art in this because a lot of artists use these techniques to see themselves reflected in the works they love and admire, and I think that’s something we can all relate to. But when studios and production companies do this, I think we as an audience are entitled to ask questions.
1. How does race/gender-bending fit in the original story being presented? In a story like “Ghost in the Shell,” for example, we can see that it doesn’t fit very well at all. In others, it might work better.
2. What does race/gender-bending add to the character? A black Superman, for example, would make a lot of sense given the science and the fact that, being an alien, Superman doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have a particular ethnicity associated with him.
3. What are the motives of the production companies in charge of making these decisions? One of the main arguments for the casting of Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton as Asian characters (and for whitewashing in general) is that these names bring in big bucks at the box office. We don’t need studios casting minority actors in an attempt to be edgy or to pacify “angry minority hordes.” Diversity should be reflective of the world around us – it’s that simple.