Whitewashing and the Importance of Representation in Media
From Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in the classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1961 to Matt Damon’s most recent role in the film “The Great Wall,” set in China, whitewashing, the practice of casting white actors in roles for people of color, is as common in Hollywood as freezing one’s face with Botox or dating someone thirty years younger. Whitewashing is not just an issue of the past either; there are countless examples in 2016 films that demonstrate this practice in action, including the predominantly white cast of “Gods of Egypt,” Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a character originally written as a Tibetan man in the “Doctor Strange” comic series but purposefully changed to a Celtic woman, and the rumored casting of Jennifer Lawrence as the protagonist of the live-action Mulan movie. Not only is this tradition outright racist, having white people don black or yellowface and boil their character down to an ethnic stereotype, it also takes those crucial roles away from the people of color who need representation in the media.
The practice of whitewashing reveals a form of racism that is omnipresent in media. We see that when Hollywood whitewashes, they face little backlash; however, once they start casting non-white actors in roles that are otherwise understood to be white, there is intense criticism, as indicated in the adverse reactions to Amandla Stenberg’s portrayal of Rue in “The Hunger Games” and the announcement that Noma Dumezweni would be playing Hermione in the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” Additionally, only giving major roles to white actors contributes to the prejudice that was brought to light last year, following the lack of diversity in the Oscars nominations. While the #OscarsSoWhite movement sparked boycotts of the awards ceremony and a revamp of the Academy, we also failed to acknowledge that there were not enough non-white nominees simply due to the fact that many roles for characters of color were being whitewashed and given to more white actors.
Hollywood writers and directors have excused this standard by claiming that having white actors and actresses would appeal to the widest audience, thereby dismissing and repressing people of color onscreen. However, what they fail to realize is the importance of representation in media.
Today, America prides itself on being a melting pot of cultures, yet what we see on TV and in movies is not representative of our diverse society. It is clear that those we watch in the media, celebrities and fictional characters alike, can have an impact on who we are, who we look up to, and who we can aspire to be, which is especially important to young children. However, when all of characters children view in the media are white, it can be disheartening not to be able to identify with and relate to anyone. This visibility is empowering, motivating us to believe that no matter who we are, we can be a hero and deserve a happy ending; after all, seeing is believing.
For me, growing up Vietnamese-American, I rarely see anyone in the media that looks like me. When I was five years old, my favorite Disney princess was Mulan, solely because she was Asian and kicked butt. Of course, she was Chinese, and I was Vietnamese, but that didn’t matter to me because I was just happy to support an Asian character. Today, I still hardly identify with any actors and actresses on TV and in movies, as the media still displays a primarily white society and failing to reflect the beautiful and diverse one that exists today. So Hollywood, I’m calling on you. It’s the 21st century now, and ending the practice of whitewashing has been long overdue. I hope that one day, in the near future, every little boy and girl will be able to turn on the TV and see someone that looks like them because ultimately, nobody likes to feel left out.