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The Future of Whitewashing

Chloe Gong, '19, Staff Writer

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Whitewashing: I’m sure this isn’t an unfamiliar concept in the context of Hollywood and other film productions. If you search the phrase “whitewashing in film” on Wikipedia, there is literally an entire (but definitely not complete) list of films dedicated to pointing out this obvious yet prevalent phenomenon existing in movie adaptations or remakes, with the earliest listed being a 1921 film called The Sheik—starring white actor Rudolph Valentino as the Sheik, originally a character of Arab descent—and more recent, well-known films including The Great Wall, Doctor Strange and Ghost in a Shell, which have definitely evoked quite a lot of indignation on social media and other news platforms. It’s even more infuriating that, in movies where the backdrop is in China or Japan, even though the cast may contain a number of Asian American actors, the main protagonist is almost always occupied by a white actor or actress (e.g. Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson).

But the impact of “whitewashing” on art and film hardly stops there. Take the casting of The Hunger Games for example. The book never clarifies the race of heroine Katniss Everdeen, but characterizes her to have olive skin, straight black hair, and grey eyes. However, as for any blockbuster production, there was no hesitation that the main character would be cast as a Caucasian. Despite Jennifer Lawrence’s impressive acting abilities, it is still fair to say she probably wasn’t the best fit for the character—after all, she has naturally pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. Another example is from London stage production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, of which the casting of black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger was highly controversial for a considerable period of time. Many avid Harry Potter fans, most likely brainwashed by the image of “white Hermione” in the original movies, were reluctant to accept the casting choice. J.K. Rowling, however, had shown her opinion in a tweet, “Brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione”, indicating that the mindsets of the opposers of a “black Hermione” were purely racist. As we can see, the mass whitewashing in media is leading to large audiences presuming the race of fictional characters to be white, which is unhealthy to an increasingly diversified society.

As for the future of this depressing trend, hope is slowly emerging. Last year, Disney revealed its Mulan live-action remake film release date, while promising to cast Mulan as a Chinese actress. Right now, fans are excitedly waiting for this 2018 Disney production to restore justice to previously disadvantaged Asian American actors. Not just production companies are trying to put a halt to whitewashing though; actors and actresses are taking action as well. On August 28th, Actor Ed Skrein announced that he will be giving up his role in 2018’s Hellboy reboot, Rise of the Blood Queen, after learning that his character was of mixed Asian heritage. His example not only demonstrates that it is within every actor’s ability and responsibility to reject whitewashing, but also is a great start for achieving true racial equality in art and film productions.

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The Future of Whitewashing