Whitewashing has been an issue across all periods of Hollywood, from Mickey Rooney’s often excused caricature portrayal of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), to Scarlett Johansson in the recent Ghost in the Shell, a live-action adaptation of the 1995 Japanese anime. The difference is that now, in 2017, the problem is being picked up on by both critics and, more widely, social media.
Backlash against Johansson’s portrayal of a Japanese character has been widespread, as highlighted by some well-known celebrities, including Ming-Na Wen (voice of Disney’s Mulan), who condemned the whitewashing of Asian roles in Hollywood despite being a self-confessed fan of Johansson’s acting.
Support for Johansson’s casting as necessary for box office success has also been undermined by the film’s significant defeat as it took just over $19 million during opening weekend, beaten out by Dreamworks’ The Boss Baby.
“Regardless of financial security, media should be representative of the world”
Arguing that a big name like Johansson’s was perhaps a safer bet than casting a Japanese actress in the lead role then perhaps becomes irrelevant. Paramount (and other Hollywood studios) clearly have a lot to learn if they still believe that even now diversity is not important. Regardless of the hopes for financial security, media – particularly mass market movies – should be representative of the world in which we are living, not a whitewashed universe where characters of colour are replaced by white characters for the sake of popular consumption.
Questions of diversity in cinema are becoming more and more significant in our politicised society. In a recent speech at Parliament, British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed (star of last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) spoke not only about the need for actors and characters of colour, but also of the potential dangers of the whitewashed British TV and film industries: “People are looking for the message that they belong […] They want to feel represented. In that task we have failed.” Ahmed’s speech stresses that the rise of extremism may, in part, be due to the ongoing exclusion of minority groups from media, particularly for young people. While this could be seen as a drastic way of examining the effects of whitewashing cinema, it’s nevertheless very clear that minority groups are constantly being ignored in Hollywood stories, and when they are included, it is often as terrorist figures, negative stereotypes of broken and/or abusive families, or as examples of ‘oppressed’ cultures.
“minority groups are constantly being ignored in Hollywood stories”
Without cinema that is diverse, films that are representative of all races, nationalities and ethnicities, we will be left with only the narrowest section of stories to be told. And while white Western narratives have historically been successful, our modern world should no longer have to tolerate the marginalisation of people of colour, neither for the actors nor the characters they play in films.
This isn’t an issue confined to the big screen, either. Just last week, Pepsi’s newest advertisement campaign recreated demonstrations by minority groups that often end in violence by the police force, even now. However, instead of having the activists in question (Black Lives Matter and/or Women’s Equality marchers, for example) at centre-stage, Pepsi’s advert stars white model Kendall Jenner, who apparently “unites” the police with the marchers just by sharing a carbonated drink. Satire and criticism of the advert caused it to be pulled by the company within just a few days, but the fact the people behind Pepsi even thought it would be a good idea to combine a teen fashion icon with highly charged political activism is both laughable and disappointing.
The reactions of millions on social media to whitewashed cinema, advertisement, and other forms of media may be promising, but Pepsi, Paramount, and other large corporations looking to make money need to stop whitewashing their movements and instead give people (here, specifically, the long-time ignored people of colour) what they want and deserve: representation.