I confess I’m a little startled by how vocally people are defending Hollywood whitewashing. Reality check here: Entertainment isn’t an all-or-nothing exercise. You can enjoy something and still be very critical of it, too. For example, I may enjoy driving a Kia yet be very critical of the economic impact of buying foreign rather than domestic. I may have had a riproaring good time watching ‘Braveheart’ yet be critical of its historicity, yet also be really enthusiastic about some of its themes and the quality of its storytelling. It IS possible to enjoy or respect a thing (or some aspects of a thing) and also be critical of it, too, and have zero respect for certain aspects of it. Entertainment isn’t an all-or-nothing activity.
I think this would be a really useful thing to remember.
And we really DO need to talk about whitewashing. That definitely doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy The Ghost in the Shell, or Dr Strange, or that movie about Hawaii, or enjoy some of it. I find Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton absolutely mesmerizing. I always will. And wow, in some of these recent trailers, there’s a lot to like, and I’ll celebrate that. But there’s a lot we need to fix, and if we don’t talk about it, it won’t get fixed. (And yes, I probably will vote with my wallet, but I’m not saying you have to. I’m just saying, You can enjoy a thing and STILL listen and learn when people say, “Dude, this has issues, and this part here, this ain’t right.”)
If you don’t think you can handle that degree of complexity — “man, this and this is great, but this here is totally unfair” — then don’t respond to this post. Because we’ll talk right past each other.
Here’s what I want to say about whitewashing. I’m not going to say it as a writer or as a scholar. There are people more eloquent than I who you can go listen to, who have already taken the time to explain the bigger implications.
But I want to say something as a dad.
And that’s this.
It is so important for young readers and young viewers to see themselves in stories and on the screen. When we hear stories or watch stories, we are shown what’s possible, we’re challenged to rethink what’s possible.
I’ll share a story I was told recently, when I got to listen to Sudanese refugee Deng Adut, who today is a defense lawyer and advocate for refugees in California. Adut was raised a child soldier in south Sudan. He was shot five times, once in the back. When the UN brought him here, he knew very little English. Someone gave him a Bible. Deng Adut isn’t a religious man, but when he tells this story, he recalls that he kept that Bible under his pillow, read it everywhere he went, took it with him to the toilet. Everywhere. He learned to read using that book. And what it did was opened up the stories of all these lives, all these characters. “It gave me hope,” Deng Adut said. “It told me I could be more than I was.”
Stories. Stories did that.
Stories can do that. When you grow up poor, stories allow you to imagine that more is possible than just what you know. And while stories of people very different from you help with this, there is something special that happens when someone you recognize as “like you” is a hero or heroine in a story. If you grow up white and male, you can find an infinity of such role models. Starship captains and knights and barbarians and gun-toting mercenaries and teachers and engineers and brilliant mathematicians and firefighters, and also stories about white boys who discover amazing imaginary worlds or who overcome all their obstacles and “come of age” and “get the girl.” There are lots and lots of stories like that. If I didn’t have good role models in my life, I could open a book or read a movie and find one. I could find a LOT.
Recently (this didn’t used to be the case), there are also lots of stories for you if you are white and female. There are a lot of strong white teenage girls to look up to, for example, on the screen and in books. That makes me very happy for my daughters. That makes me very happy as a dad. Because I can sit down with my girls and say, “Remember how brave Eowyn was? You can be brave like that, too.” Or “Remember how Kaylee always fixes the ship? You can fix things too.” Or “Remember how Hermione sticks to her studies, and uses her knowledge to help people, and solves all the riddles because she’s smart? You can do that.” That’s powerful.
There are a lot fewer stories here in America if you are black or Asian or Arab or Latino. And they’re almost drowned out by all the stories where the people who “look like you” are stereotypes. If you’re a young black man, where is your role model of a young black man piloting a spaceship, discovering an imaginary world, slaying (or riding) a dragon, or discovering brilliant math? There are a few, a very few.
In fact, Ged Sparrowhawk and his friends in ‘Earthsea’ books (the school for wizards back before there was a Hogwarts) were brown and black. None of them were white. And they confronted dragons and corrupt wizards and saved the world, several times. Yet on every cover for those books that has been published in the US, Ged and the others are drawn as white people.
If you’re a young Japanese woman, there’s anime. But the live-action movie Ghost in the Shell isn’t going to have a Japanese woman in it.
If you’re Hawaiian, there’s … ? A lot of goofy stereotypical characters in comedy (who are actually not played by Hawaiian people) and a blonde, blue-eyed actress in a movie?
Where are your role models on the Hollywood screen? Where are your role models in novels? Who are you going to be as brave as? Who is going to inspire you? Obviously, you can be inspired by characters who don’t look and seem to be “like” you. But then, when someone in your house or your school tells you, “Yeah, sure, a white man can pilot a starship on TV, sure, and a white man can go to college and get ahead and get a job and not get shot; you think that door’s going to open for you? You think that applies to YOU?” what larger-than-life movie character are you going to hold up to refute that? Are you going to be able to point to enough such characters that they become inspiring, rather than exceptions that prove an oppressive rule?
If you’re a young Latino man, at last: Adama! And … er … a math teacher (same actor), a very good math teacher, an inspiring math teacher (“Stand and Deliver” — I adore that movie). And … who else?
The role models, the representations of your community and your roots on the screen and in books: they exist, but they are far, far fewer.
And we have young people who are hungry for role models.
And when we get the chance to print a book featuring one, we change the cover to show white people. When we get the chance to put one on the screen, we cast white people. That isn’t right.
That’s all folks are saying. They’re not saying you’re a bad person or a racist if you like some things about these movies. What they’re saying is: This whitewashing of non-white characters in iconic stories: It isn’t right. This is something we can all understand. We’re American; we like a fair deal. It’s what makes us naive as a people, but it’s also what makes us great. We like a fair deal. This isn’t one.