By Roberta Wang
If there is anything a mainstream film goer can count on today, it’s the fact that the next Hollywood blockbuster will feature a predominantly white cast with ethnic roles whitewashed and minorities disregarded. From the early days of American actor John Wayne depicting Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” to the more recent casting of Scarlett Johansson in the role of beloved Japanese policewoman Major Kusanagi in “Ghost in the shell”, Hollywood is nowhere near the ethnic diversity of its audience. This will be examined in the articles “Why won’t Hollywood cast Asian characters?” by Keith Chow in the New York Times, “Does whitewashing ‘Ghost in the shell’ prove that Hollywood is racist?” by Aleks Eror on digital media website Highsnobiety, “George Takei on Doctor Strange controversy: ‘Marvel must think we’re all idiots” by Ben Child from the Guardian and “Asian Americans decry ‘whitewashed’ Great Wall film starring Matt Damon” by Julia Wong from The Guardian.
Upon analysing these four articles, it becomes obvious that their arguments, representations and overarching claims are all very similar: that the mainstream film industry is consciously whitewashing and doing nothing about it. Although various examples are used, they are simply different streams running similar courses into a joint pool, one that belies heavy exasperation at the state of what could be a much more inclusive, diverse and dynamic industry, one which is not only very wealthy but commands excessive amounts influence all across the world.
In recent months the debate has escalated, especially with the casting choice in movies such as the upcoming Ghost in the shell. An image from the anticipated feature depicting Johansson as Major Kusanagi immediately spawned cries of outrage. In the article “Does whitewashing ‘Ghost in the shell’ prove that Hollywood is racist?” by Aleks Eror, the phenomenon of whitewashing in relation to the film Ghost in the Shell is examined and Eror opens his article with a very explicit evaluative claim criticizing the mainstream film industry:
“The big-budget arm of the American film industry managed to fumble its way into yet another race-centered calamity… by casting her [Johansson] as a whitewashed Kusanagi, the two studios are basically telling the world that there isn’t a single Japanese, or even oriental actress capable of playing that role. Either that or they simply prefer a white one.”
The ironic appeal to facts about a lack of Asian actresses leads to the underlying warrant that there is definitely enough Oriental actresses to fulfil the role. This immediately frames Hollywood filmmakers to Eror’s readers as discriminatory, the phrase “fumble its way into yet another race-centred calamity” further implies that the industry is not only discriminatory but also lacking in self-awareness. The article then eases into a more diplomatic tone by acknowledging some of the opposing arguments, Eror’s commentary mentions the opinion of Hollywood screenwriter Mike Landis who defends the casting choice as an economic one. Eror sums up Landis’ arguments as:
“Scarlett Johansson wasn’t cast in the lead role to maintain white hegemony, she was chosen because her name has the familiarity and star appeal to draw in crowds. The majority of the cinema-going public will pay to see her movies regardless of plot or critical praise, and ultimately this is what movie industry suits are interested in, rather than staying true to the original Ghost in the Shell or actively discriminating against anyone.”
The causal claim of Johansson being cast as an economic and profitable choice is backed by an appeal to good consequences, a well-recognised face results in a bigger return for the filmmakers. The underlying warrant here is that earning more money is a positive practice and although Eror sympathises with the fact that movies are a business and need to be profitable, it is immediately contrasted by Eror’s following comment which cements his position against any support for whitewashing:
“By centering this conversation around economics, people like Landis ignore the injustice that money helps perpetuate. Sure, at its very heart, money is colour-blind, but that shouldn’t be taken as a redeeming quality. Also, by framing this as an economic issue, rather than a racial one, we ignore why, exactly, a white lead is good for business: because America’s white population enjoys greater spending power than minorities, and ultimately that’s the reason why culture is created in their image.”
The evaluative claim present is supported by an appeal to ethics, the warrant here being white privilege is inherently wrong and the film industry should be trying to rectify this. Hollywood is once again rendered by Eror into a self-absorbed conglomerate without any consideration for the other spheres of life they are influencing. The article concludes with:
“No media reaches a greater mass of people and has as broad of an appeal as Hollywood blockbusters. By refusing to use their position of influence for social good, film industry insiders are complicit in maintaining a racist system. And that’s only one shade away from racism itself.”
Eror once again utilises a causal claim, saying that the blind eye turned to the issue will undoubtedly lead to further embeddedness of this problem. The appeal to morals leads to the underlying warrant that Hollywood is in a position of influence and should therefore be trying to project positivity to its audiences. The overarching representation of the American film industry is a very negative one, Eror took care to explain then shut down counterarguments whilst strategically arguing his own. There is an overarching disappointment in the way the issue turned out since Eror implies that not only does Hollywood have the means to empower Asian women in cinema, they are choosing to turn a blind eye.
The criticism of whitewashing in Hollywood continues in the article “Why won’t Hollywood cast Asian characters?” by Keith Chow. The piece also condemns the casting of Johansson in Ghost in the Shell stating:
“Dreamworks and Paramount provided a glimpse of Scarlett Johansson as the cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in their adaptation of the Japanese anime classic “Ghost in the Shell.” The image coincided with reports that producers considered using digital tools to make Ms. Johansson look more Asian – basically, yellowface for the digital age.”
Chow’s claim of digitally rendering Johansson’s face being “yellowface” is an analogy referring to “blackface” which is an offensive practice where people who are not of African American descent literally paint their faces or bodies darker to play an African American character. Chow’s representation of the mainstream cinema is very similar to Eror’s, they are both highly critical of the industry since it has the means to act on it, the issue of having bankable ethnic stars is also discussed in Chow’s article:
“It’s not about race they say… the reason Asian-American actors are not cast to front these films is because not any of them have a box office track record. But they’re wrong. If minorities are box office risks, what accounts for the success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise which presented a broadly diverse team, behind and in front of the camera? Over seven movies it has grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide. ”
Chow’s claim here that having a diversely cast and produced movie is also cost-effective is backed by a solid appeal to both facts and precedent citing the profitability of the Fast and Furious franchise that has accumulated over many years. The warrant here is easy to identify, that having whitewashed casts both in front of and behind the camera does not always lead to a successful film. This is again discussed in a counter example:
“Chris Hemsworth who stars in this weekend’s “Huntsman” sequel, has had many more box office flops than successes, yet he is considered a bankable movie star. Such facts reveal Hollywood’s dirty little secret. Economics has nothing to do with racist casting policies.”
Chow frames Chris Hemsworth here as an example of Hollywood’s inertia in diversifying, although Hemsworth has had many more failures than successes, he is still considered a “bankable movie star” which begs the question, if Hemsworth was of ethnic descent, would he still have the recognition that he does today? It is also important to note that actors or actresses that are name-dropped in examples are never blamed for perpetuating the phenomenon, rather, they are characterised as pawns in a much larger mechanism that comprises the film industry.
It is also notable that the piece is a blend of argumentative and opinion writing, Chow utilises many evaluative words and states his own opinions repeatedly but also includes various examples and appeals to convince his audience of the ludicrous nature of the industry.
“Why is the erasure of Asians still an acceptable practice in Hollywood? It’s not that people don’t notice: Just last year, Emma Stone played a Chinese-Hawaiian character named Allison Ng in Cameron Crowe’s critically derided “Aloha”
Throughout the article, Chow utilises an arsenal of examples to chastise the issue at hand and the example of Aloha was one that seemed exceptionally outrageous due to the fact that Emma Stone’s character’s actual name is undoubtedly Asian. There is also mention of films such as “Pan”, “Lone Ranger”, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” where Chow’s overarching claim is evident: the mainstream film industry has the choice to make movies more diverse but instead they are choosing to turn a blind eye. To cement this claim even further, Chow adds an appeal to authority:
“A recent study by Ralph K. Bunche Centre for African American studies at the University of California Los Angeles, found that films with diverse leads not only resulted in higher box office numbers but also higher returns of investment for studios and producers.”
The claim here is causal in nature, by citing a well-known university and a centre which revolves around an ethnic minority, Chow adds an extra edge of argumentation that is not only derived from examples but evidence. The warrant here is that the study and the centres are trustworthy, although there are no facts or statistics, the quoted university is a reputable one, reassuring the audience of its legitimacy. It is also prominent that the writers who are from ethnic backgrounds are much more passionate about displaying their disdain since the issue is more relatable to them whereas the Caucasian writers provided a more diplomatic take.
The conversation continues in “Asian Americans decry ‘whitewashed’ Great Wall film starring Matt Damon” by Julia Wong. With the recent announcement of Matt Damon playing the leading role in a movie set in ancient China, the whitewashing issue has become even more palpable. The article is less about Wong expressing her own opinions but more of a collation of responses to the movie trailer’s release. It features various tweets and quotes from people who reacted to the trailer, one of the people whose comments she included was Constance Wu:
“In her post, Wu wrote: “Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time. We don’t need salvation. We like our color and our culture and our strengths and our own stories.”
There is a very explicit evaluative claim presented here stating people of colour should be better represented and an appeal to emotion is used, by using the example of “your big sister when she stood up to bullies for you” is aimed at making the example more personal. The warrant here assumes that culture and colour is a positive thing and thus should be represented more widely. The comments by Wu that are included in the article frames the issue as a very personal one, she also denounces the argument that money is the reason the Asian population isn’t better represented, saying “Money is the lamest excuse in the history of being human”.
Another example included in the article is that of a popular blog, although Wong herself never passes any evaluation or opinion on the matters herself, she allows the content of other personalities speak for her. In this regard, it can be seen as more of a hard news story since it is reporting content, specifically the reactions of Asian people in the media reacting to the recent trailer of Matt Damon starring in “The great wall”. Another example she uses states:
“The popular blog Angry Asian Man called the movie “the latest movie in the grand cinematic tradition of the Special White Person”, adding: “You can set a story anywhere in the world, in any era of history, and Hollywood will still somehow find a way for the movie to star a white guy.”
In this example, the irritated tone adds to the evaluative claim that white people cast themselves in anything and everything, the appeal to morality here is obvious with the warrant being ethnic people should be cast in ethnic roles especially if it is set in a historically rich setting. The article is the only one to feature pictures, Wong includes images of John Cho’s face on famous posters such as the one of interstellar and Constance Wu’s face instead of Jennifer Lawrence’s on the popular “Mockingjay” poster.
The final article of the four, “George Takei on Doctor Strange controversy: Marvel must think we’re all idiots” by Ben Child from the Guardian is also less of an opinion or argumentative piece as it is an informative one. Much like Wong’s article, it presents the comment and contents of other people already voicing their opinions on the matter. In this particular article, it was Marvel’s decision to cast Tilda Swinton, a Caucasian actress, as what was originally depicted as a Tibetan monk. The more informative nature is mainly due to the outlets they were published on, while the initial two were on pop culture and opinion sites, the latter two had to restrict passing evaluative judgement since The Guardian is meant to be a reputable hard news outlet.
Child however, presents a very strong voice nonetheless through Star Trek actor George Takei whose quotes and reactions he utilises consistently throughout the piece. Since the title already explains that the entire article is based around the opinions of one person, it can be assumed that Child has utilised Takei as a representative figure on behalf of the Asian population. The article starts with a bit of background information on the cause of the outrage:
“Star Trek actor George Takei has hit out at claims by a Marvel screenwriter that the studio “whitewashed” a traditionally Tibetan character in forthcoming superhero epic Doctor Strange to appease China.”
The article then delves into Takei’s criticism of this statement, Child quotes Takei:
“Let me get this straight,” wrote Takei on Facebook. “You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales … in Asia? This back-pedalling is nearly as cringe worthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots.”
There is a very evaluative claim stated here by Takei, “Marvel must think we’re all idiots” is reinforced by an appeal to facts, “You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales … in Asia” implying that there is seemingly no logical sequence in Marvel’s casting choice, the warrant being Asian people would rather see Asian people portrayed on screen as opposed to white people. The inclusive usage of “we” implies that Takei assumes the audience he is talking to encourages diversity and is similarly outraged at the casting choice. He adopts a very aggressive tone throughout all the quotes included in the article:
“It wouldn’t have mattered to the Chinese government by that point… so this is a red herring, and it’s insulting that they expect us to buy their explanation. They cast Tilda because they believe white audiences want to see white faces. Audiences, too, should be aware of how dumb and out of touch the studios think we are.”
Takei’s claim that Marvel’s explanation is insulting is backed by an appeal to consequences, casting an Asian actor would have drawn a wider Asian audience anyways since Marvel has a large fan base in China and the fact that a white person was cast instead demonstrates the audience which they are trying to reach which is also insulting. The underlying warrant here is that people want to see their backgrounds represented on screen which makes movies more relatable to ethnic audiences and again, Takei assumes this through his use of inclusive pronouns such as we, “audiences too, should be aware of how dumb and out of touch the studios think we are”.
Since this piece is meant to be more objective, Child then presents another counter argument to Takei’s statements in the form of another statement released by Marvel:
“Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU [Marvel cinematic universe] to life,” said the studio. “The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.”
The claim that “The Ancient One” is meant to be racially ambiguous is supported by an appeal to precedent with the studio asserting that previous films have all included diversity and that “The Ancient One” is simply meant to be a title. The warrant present here is that “The Ancient One” has possibly been an ethnic character in previous generations and the current one is Celtic which justifies the casting choice. The article concludes with a quote from Takei saying he won’t back down from the issue:
“All the arguments in the world don’t change the fact that Hollywood offers very few roles to Asian actors, and when one comes along, they hire a white actor to do it, for whatever the reasons,” he said. “Until that mindset can change, I will continue to speak out.”
In analysing all these pieces, it becomes obvious that they are all against the whitewashing phenomenon and think change should be implemented. The first two pieces were much more argumentative in style since they were opinion pieces and published on less objective sites than the latter two. The final two articles didn’t project their opinions but instead emanated objectivity through using the content of other people. Despite the differing styles and content of the four articles, none of them ended on a note that justified whitewashing and it can be safe to assume that it is time for Hollywood to change a practice that has been embedded for decades too long.
Word count: 2220 (not including quotes).