Whitewashing is Still a Problem in Mainstream Media (even if it’s not happening this time)

Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek: Into Darkness, playing the role of an important non-white character from the Star Trek universe

Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek: Into Darkness, playing the role of an important non-white character from the Star Trek universe

I’ve always had a fondness for stories about female warriors.

Among my favourites is Hua Mulan, the legendary subject of an Ancient Chinese epic poem about a young woman takes her aged father’s place in the military by disguising herself as a boy.

In the 1998 Disney cartoon, Mulan, she is shown exhibit bravery, ingenuity, and honour, and succeeds in helping save China from invaders.

Mulan is a real stand out for Disney.  It does a great job in subverting the concepts of masculinity, femininity, and gender roles, all of which are usually all so traditional in Disney films.

The cartoon also features a minor romantic subplot, the object of which, rather surprisingly for Disney, is Captain Li Shang – a brave, honourable, and handsome Chinese man.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the impending Mulan live action movie, also to be produced by Disney.  Reports began circulating last week that a white actor – in the role of a 30-something European trader – would be cast as Mulan’s love interest (and himself, rather than Mulan, credited with saving China to boot).

Luckily, it was later reported that while such a script does exist, it’s merely meant to serve as a jumping off point, and that the movie will in fact have an all-Chinese cast.

The outrage following the initial report, however, as well as the fact that particularly script was the first thing anyone came up with, both serve as proof that whitewashing remains a significant problem in mainstream visual media.

In black and white

Katniss Everdeen, from the Hunger Games movie, was described as "olive-skinned" in the book

Katniss Everdeen, from the Hunger Games movie, was described as “olive-skinned” in the book

Whitewashing, according to Wikipedia, is a casting practice in the American film industry where white actors are cast in non-white character roles – a practice that is as old as the film industry itself.

The problem is actually even more widespread than just movies.  Books featuring people of colour as characters are often given covers depicting white people – even if the people depicted don’t even exist in the story.

People of colour who appear on magazine covers frequently have their skin tone altered using Photoshop so that they look lighter than they naturally are.

In a similar vein, when people of colour are cast in film and TV, it’s often the lightest and most European-looking actors who are awarded the role.

Actress Gabourey Sibide on the cover of Elle magazine and in real life

Actress Gabourey Sibide on the cover of Elle magazine, and in real life

Furthermore, thinking back to the portrait prominently displayed in my grandmother’s house when I young, even Jesus, the Son of God was whitewashed.

The problem with whitewashing is that it promotes white supremacy within visual media, where visual media is widespread and has a huge influence in normalizing what we observe and experience in society.

Considering films in particular, though, whitewashing does more than just demonstrate a favouritism for whiteness.  Rather, it subtly dehumanizes people of colour with the underlying messages it conveys, in the process seeking to make the perceived difference between white and non-white that much greater.

These subtle messages promoted through whitewashing include the following:

1) It promotes the idea that people of colour can’t be objects of affection or desire

Colonial ideals of beauty, which have been imposed upon Western society for centuries and are still prominent to this day, purport that the most desirable and attractive people are white people.

Mulan and Shang from the cartoon version of Mulan

Mulan and Shang from the cartoon Mulan

This, along with the presumed whiteness of mainstream media’s default viewer, is why romantic leads are likewise overwhelmingly white, even when the other half of the couple is a person of colour.

It is this kind of thinking that results in an exploration script for Mulan with the previously Chinese love interest replaced by a white one.

This is not to speak out against interracial couples and declare that everyone should just stay with their own.  However, we still see so few people of colour portrayed in complex romantic relationships (or even interracial couple where one person isn’t white) – to the point of essentially delegitimizing the love and/or appeal of people of colour.

The notion of ideal beauty is a myth.  Beauty comes in many forms and colours besides those with the most European-looking features and lightest skin.  With good storytelling, anyone can be a romantic lead without viewers needing to see a white face to make it meaningful.

2) Whitewashing promotes the idea that people of colour can’t be heroes

White heroes in film already far outnumber those of other races, even in instances where the script makes no specific mention of the character’s race or ethnicity.

This too is whitewashing, the act of which is another instance of colonial ideals at work, namely the so-called “white man’s burden”.

Deriving from a 19th century poem by the same name, the white man’s burden asserted that people of colour are primitive, immoral, and less intelligent than white people, whose own moral responsibility it was to govern, civilize, and ultimately save these dark savages from themselves.

Whitewashing movie heroes thus has the effect of implying only white people are heroic.  That only a white person has the necessary resourcefulness, determination, and humanity to deliver the world from its troubles.

Daenerys Targaryen from TV's Game of Thrones, the liberator of slaves

Daenerys Targaryen from TV’s Game of Thrones, the liberator of slaves

This implication takes on additional significance a white character is shown rescuing people of colour from harm, thus producing the White Saviour trope and again reinforcing the wrongheaded notion that people of colour are uncivilized and need saving from themselves.

Interestingly, outside of film, some of the greatest heroes in the history of the modern world have not been white: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela.

In reality, it’s often the case that people of colour don’t so much need a white saviour as for the white people and institutions who cause people of colour harm to not do so.

There is a whole world of difference between “Save us, save us!” and “Stop being shitty to our people!”

Even in the case of people of colour being shitty to and oppressing each other, it’s arrogant to the extreme to think that people can’t solve their own problems, particularly in cases where they haven’t specifically asked for outside help.

We may not commonly hear about them, but every country and every cultural group has its resident heroes.  As such, there’s no reason why mainstream media, whose audience is becoming more diverse all the time, can’t reflect some of this diversity.

3) Whitewashing promotes the idea that people of colour aren’t “relatable”

The original cover of the book The Cuckoo's Calling. The actual supermodel in the story is half-black.

The original cover of the book The Cuckoo’s Calling. The actual supermodel in the story is half-black.

Another reason whitewashing occurs – perhaps the biggest reason for it, from which all the other notions it insinuates derive – is because people are colour aren’t seen as relatable in mainstream society.

Our experiences – even those in no way related to race – aren’t considered universal enough for white audiences.

Which is astounding when one considers that whites viewers easily relate to such things as elves, zombies, animals, aliens, murderers, royalty, spies, and people who hold any other number of jobs we can all only dream of doing.

Those sorts of differences, evidently, are no problem at all.  So long as the characters are all still white.

People of colour, meanwhile, regularly carry out the very act whitewashing seeks to suggest is impossible: namely identifying with characters who look different from ourselves.

It’s actually something of a superpower for us, since so few people of colour are depicted in mainstream media, let along in well-rounded, nuanced representations.

It can be done.  The only reason so many white people don’t is because, at present, they really don’t have to even try.  This is something that needs to change.

Yet another idea promoted by whitewashing is that people of colour can’t break the box office.

TV, while not perfect in its representation of diversity on the screen, is still light-years ahead of mainstream movies.

There have been a whole spate of shows with non-white leads (and even predominantly non-white casts) of late: Empire, Fresh Off the Boat, How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish, Jane the Virgin.  Shows that have earned strong ratings and critical acclaim.

The movie industry clings to the idea that it needs an A-list lead actor to sell a movie, yet conveniently, Hollywood boasts few A-list actors of colour.

Hollywood has done little to help create any either, which then makes the subsequent search for top-ranked actor of colour a self-fulfilling prophecy that only a white actor can remedy.

Casting actors of colour in roles that specifically call for them would a great first step in improving this situation.  The success of the TV shows mentioned above clearly demonstrates that not only white faces can sell entertainment.

(Personally, I think if Hollywood worried less about the whiteness of its actors and more about the quality of its stories and writing, it would see far better returns on its investment).

Also, since there is clearly an audience for people of colour on screen, casting them more might have the end result of attracting more viewers – even those who currently find people of colour “unrelatable”.

More, not less, exposure to POC in screen is exactly what these people need.

What are your thoughts on the topic of whitewashing in mainstream visual media? Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6)

5 thoughts on “Whitewashing is Still a Problem in Mainstream Media (even if it’s not happening this time)

  1. I’m glad there are so many good actors on TV who aren’t white, wish there were more – and wish there were better roles for some of them.

    For example, The Wire had a huge cast of black male actors – but so many of the roles were as druggies and drug dealers. A gigantic waste of their talent.

    The whole thing could be reversed by starting from wherever, and adding more non-white actors every year to movies, TV, videos online – as it seems to be in the British TV we watch. An opportunity missed for years.

    Then you can add some women, some disabled characters played by disabled actors, more fat people…

    All they do is make things worse by perpetuating the falsehood that white people are the only kind there are.


    • You’re right – there are a ton of talented non-white actors. Proponents of the status quo often try to argue that their not being cast must mean they’re not very good. But this reasoning overlooks the fact that most people of colour don’t even get to audition. When the casting calls go out, most of them call for a white actor, in even cases where no race is specified in the script.

      A good way to add more diversity would be to have truly open castings – open to people of colour, fat people, disabled people. Open to what people actually look like in real life, not the narrow slice of life represented by Hollywood.


      • I’ve liked a lot of the British TV – modern stuff has a very diverse cast, reflecting, I guess, London’s international population.

        The period stuff is going to be more white.

        We watched an episode of something called, I believe, Indian Summer – set in India, with all the social strata of the time, and actors who looked as you would expect, but it was also an example of how the English interacted with the local Indian population, and I don’t like historical because of the way the people who happened to be in command treated others. And how the others allowed themselves to be treated.

        Realistic – but wrong. And with all the perils and cross connections.


      • I like British TV too, both modern and historical (no one does historical like the BBC). I’ve heard of Indian Summer but haven’t seen any episodes yet. I agree, it can be tough to watch how people were treated in past eras, but I still like historicals anyway. This is both because they can show how far we’ve come and, in instances where we haven’t really come that far at all, it can be a non-threatening vehicle by which to examine and critique those issues.

        Regardless of what era a story takes place in, it is written for and interpreted by a modern audience. In my opinion, any HF writer who simply tells it like it was without any attempt to draw a subtle parallel to the modern world is overlooking the true power of fiction in general and that of historical fiction in particular. Why even bother recording history, after all, if not to learn from it and use that knowledge to make the world better?


      • That’s funny – that’s exactly why I like and used to read so much science fiction.

        Issues, humans, barriers and obstacles and the eternal cleverness of trying to outwit them, all that is what is in my fiction.

        You keep doing it your way, and I’ll do mine, and readers will have choices.

        Liked by 1 person

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