If it ain’t white, it ain’t right

By Roberta Wang

October 2016

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).

Don’t be an animal

Don’t be an animal
By Roberta Wang

The subject of animal welfare has long been discussed across various media platforms, especially in relation to animal treatment in commercial environments such as zoos or racing events. With the recent bans on greyhound racing in New South Wales and the outrage following the shooting of Harambe the gorilla at Cincinnati Zoo, various articles have been published to comment on both occasions. Such pieces include ‘Greyhound racing: gruesome facts that led to NSW ban’ by Caroline Overington, published in The Australian and ‘When child’s death draws less outrage than Harambe’ by Laura Coates published on the CNN website. The two authors’ overarching sentiment is against animal violence however, their styles of writing, justification and argumentation are very different.
The main aspects that differ between the two articles is their style, Overington’s writing is largely opinion based, drawing on facts and precedents to construct a case supporting the already popular decision to ban greyhound racing. Coates on the other hand is much more argumentative, her piece presents an unpopular response and evaluation of the killing of Harambe, thus she adopts a much more persuasive style to convince her readers of her stance. It is also notable that the two situations are very different, greyhound racing was done systematically for sport on a large scale whereas the shooting of Harambe was much more isolated and circumstantial, this would have influenced the way both authors approached their writing and thus led to their contrasting pieces.
In ‘Greyhound racing: gruesome facts that led to NSW ban’, the author Overington addresses the recent bans made by Mike Baird on greyhound racing in New South Wales. She starts with an evaluative argumentation style, upon reading the industry report for greyhound racing in 2016, she writes:
“You can’t read the report and not be horrified. I won’t go into details but here’s a gentle sample: Racing dogs suffer catastrophic injuries, usually at the track. By catastrophic, they mean broken necks, broken backs, and skull fractures. The dogs tear their muscles coming around corners, and that’s expensive to treat so they get put down”
The explicitly stated claim here is that the treatment of the dogs will leave you “horrified”, the “catastrophic injuries” the dogs face shows a clear appeal to ethics as the justification. The underlying warrant in this statement is injuring or euthanizing greyhounds for sport is wrong, Overington assumes that her audience sympathises with her stance against the brutality that occurs in greyhound racing and the information in the report is continually utilised throughout the piece to portray her support of the ban.
The article then shifts into a much more factual style of argumentation, Overington’s use of data and statistics is substantial across her piece.
“The industry is trying hard to deny it, but the report has data: 98,783 greyhounds were born in NSW during the past 12 years, yet there are currently only 6809 registered greyhounds in the state. Where are all the rest?”
The first appeal to facts within the article is apparent here, the claim of disparity between the amount of dogs that should be registered and the amount that is actually registered is backed directly by evidence from the industry report. By imposing a question to her audience, the underlying warrant is that the remaining dogs have met an untimely fate, one which is inherently wrong.
The piece also touches on the fate of retired race dogs , Overington continues her factual style of argumentation, making clear that re-homing greyhounds after their careers is not a satisfactory remedy for the cruelty of the industry, stating:
The greyhound industry wants you to believe that many of them were retired, or rehomed, but you are not a moron. The report makes plain that only 593 dogs have been rehomed in NSW since 2007. People don’t want them. They’re not popular pets, you see, mainly because of the way they’ve been trained.
This is the second appeal to facts utilised in the piece, the number of dogs that have been successfully rehomed in the last decade is shown as drastically low in comparison to the actual amount of dogs in the industry and Overington’s use of the inclusive pronoun “you” demonstrates again that she assumes the audience of her piece is similarly offended by the facts of the greyhound racing industry.
The statistical data in the article is also backed with other commentary, Overington cites further industry research into the treatment of greyhounds:
The greyhound industry is fighting the ban, of course. I’ve read some of the commentary they’ve produced. We’re meant to feel romantic about “the working man” who enjoys an innocent night out at the “dishies”. To my mind, that’s offensive to people on low incomes. Because they’re poor, they’ll overlook what the committee has found? Dead dogs, with broken backs? Drowned puppies in their thousands?
The justification here is the article’s second appeal to emotion, especially in the last few statements where the visual imagery of drowned puppies will undoubtedly cause distress amongst readers. The claim that the sport being a form of entertainment for the poor is offensive articulates a different underlying warrant from Overington’s previous comments, that people’s ability for compassion is not dictated by their income. This demonstrates that the piece is meant to unite people of all backgrounds against a common cause, one which has only recently been brought to light in mainstream media due to the bans.
The overall tone of the piece is one of concern, the concluding statements in the article reverts back to an evaluative style of argumentation, the emotion laden comments indicates the author’s condemnation of the sport:
We called time on whaling. On ivory. On taking baby chimps from their parents and putting nappies on them. On dancing bears. How much horror are we prepared to accept? How much savagery, towards man’s best friend?
There is a clear appeal to precedent in these statements, Overington highlights the fact that other harmful animal practices have already been banned, the underlying warrant here being that all animals should deserve fair treatment. The piece is fairly straightforward in its argumentation, the high worth Overington places on canine lives is apparent and distinctly justified throughout the article.
In light of Overington’s emotive piece, Coates’ article titled ‘When child’s death draws less outrage than Harambe’ demonstrates a much more critical and argumentative style of writing. The article titled ‘when child’s death draws less outrage than Harambe’ dictates Coates’ belief that the response to the shooting of Harambe is exaggerated. Whilst Overington’s article assumed that her audience sympathises and agrees with her arguments, Coates is critical and aims to confront the opinions of her audience:
Now I don’t profess to be a vegan — and I certainly don’t have an appetite for cruelty. But I feel the need to rub my temples with exhaustion when I see the city of Cincinnati in complete turmoil over the death of Harambe.
Unlike Overington, Coates’ article is much more argumentative since she is assuming an unpopular stance and trying to persuade her readers of her opinion rather than perpetuating an already established viewpoint. She assumes that the majority of her audience is against the perspective she is trying to portray, while most people expressed outrage over the shooting of Harambe, the article is critical of this and aims to provide a contrasting perspective by juxtaposing the gorilla’s death to a child’s:
This is a city a stone’s throw from Cleveland, where a human being and child, was gunned down because two officers believed his appearance made his actions unpredictable.
This statement can be classified as an appeal to ethics since unjustified violence is inherently wrong, the underlying warrant being people should not be judged based on their appearances. By comparing this incident to that of Harambe’s, Coates questions why an animal’s life is being held in higher regard than a human being’s.
Drawing upon her work as a legal prosecutor, Coates delineates another analogy between human and non-human subjects, stating:
As a prosecutor, I routinely confronted child abusers, rapists and murderers. Strangely, when I would relay even the most horrific details, the reaction by juries was always tempered. But when I had an animal as victim? Please. I could have simply held up a dog biscuit during my opening statement and secured a unanimous verdict within minutes — complete with waterworks. Frankly, the level of concern that one would expect for an act against a human child pales in comparison to the universal cries for justice when an animal is hurt.
The comparison Coates uses here is the basis of most of her article, the use of an analogy aims to provide perspective on how exaggerated the response to this incident is, the fundamental warrant being human lives are more important than animal lives.
Coates then continues her criticisms with a more factual approach, offering yet another comparison of statistics to show the disparity in response to human and animal deaths:
Think me jaded? Within 48 hours of Harambe’s death, a petition calling for criminal charges against the parents of the unidentified 3-year-old boy received more than 330,000 signatures. After more than 18 months, a petition calling for the indictment of Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback in the killing of Tamir Rice has received less than 120,000 signatures. Case in point.
Whilst there is an obvious appeal to facts here with the citing of both petitions, Coates’ aim was again to demonstrate how overstated the response to this incident was, challenging her readers to think differently from what the majority is perpetrating. This is again, very dissimilar from the way Overington assumed her audience was supportive of the greyhound racing ban. Coates is not trying to perpetuate a popular perspective, rather, she is trying to persuade her audience of an unpopular standpoint, making her claims subtly more recommendatory in nature.
Furthermore, Coates highlights that one of the most outlandish reactions was the response to the parents of the child who fell into Harambe’s enclosure:
The neglect statutes are designed to punish inadequate and dangerous child-rearing practices that are emotionally or physically harmful. They are not, without more evidence, designed to punish a lapse in judgment that caused a third party to make an independent decision to kill the gorilla.
The claim here implicitly implies that the parents of the child do not deserve the response that the online community is propagating with the petition. The justification is a distinct appeal to authority with the citing of the neglect statutes whilst the underlying belief is that nobody can be vigilant or responsible all the time. Many people’s responses to the initial falling of the child into Harambe’s enclosure was that of outrage, stating that it was preventable but Coates yet again decides to oppose this prevalent belief in order to provide her own opinion on the matter.
Coates however, also makes clear that she does not advocate animal violence in any way, rather, she belies a certain exasperation in response to the way mainstream media and community groups have responded to this incident:
Now, do I want a member of an endangered species to be killed? Of course not. Harambe should absolutely be alive today. Do I think criminal neglect charges should be brought against parents who lose track of their curious and perhaps mischievous aspiring Mowgli at a zoo? Of course not.
These final statements in Coates’ piece makes clear that her intention was to shed light on an unpopular judgement, one which is critical of how much attention is brought to a single incident. Although she assumes her audience does not agree with her initial opinion, she does presume that they believe human lives are worth more than animal ones.
This is one of the main difference in the two articles, whilst Overington’s piece examines animal treatment in commercial environments as an isolated issue, Coates presents a more multifaceted opinion which examines animal cruelty in conjunction with other subjects such as biased media coverage. Overington’s piece is an inclusive one in nature, assuming that her readers sympathise with her stance whilst Coates adopts a confrontational style that suggests her audience is against or perhaps ignorant to the opinion she is asserting.
As previously stated, although both articles are about the commercial treatment of animals, they are distinctly different pieces in writing style and argumentation due to the contrasting circumstances of the topics they deal with. The main conclusion that can be drawn from the analysis of these two texts is that whilst harm to animals is inherently unethical, different circumstances can alter how much value is placed on animal life, as shown by the way both authors deal with their respective subjects. Both pieces however, are effective in adopting argumentation strategies to either comment on or criticise an issue that is still pervasive throughout society today.