Q&A: The Problematic Nature of Whitewashing in Hollywood

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Whitewashing in Hollywood is a subject of much prevalence. With recent examples such as Scarlett Johansson, a white woman, being cast as Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese woman, the subject is one that has been drawing in much discussion as of late. There is more to the whitewashing of roles than simply changing the race of a character which means we need to be having deeper discussions about the subject. Since this is a subject I do not feel comfortable tackling alone, given that I am white and admittedly lack a certain level of knowledge on the subject, I’ve decided to ask for some outside assistance.

My guest today is Shaun Lau and he will be answering the questions I put forth about whitewashing in Hollywood. Shaun Lau is a designer and audio production specialist living in San Diego, CA. His weekly podcast, No, Totally!, can be heard at nototally.com, and he tweets frequently about representation and inclusivity at @NoTotally.

With the help of Shaun, I’d like to present this question and answer session with the intent to not only bring much needed attention to the subject of whitewashing but to also educate others who, like me, are unsure of what makes this subject so troubling. I hope that we are able to not only educate, but also provide much needed information about the topic which can help others understand the problematic aspects of whitewashing in Hollywood.

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Kelly: What is whitewashing exactly and what would you consider prime examples of it in Hollywood/popular culture?

Shaun: Ah, this is a great first question, and I’ll answer it by slicing what most people seem to think whitewashing is into two separate pieces.

I think most people who are approaching this issue for the first time see whitewashing and racebending as the same thing, but it’s important to understand that it’s not. For example, when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Human Torch for the most recent Fantastic Four movie, that’s a good example of racebending. The Human Torch that most people are familiar with is white, and in the movie, the character was portrayed by someone of a different ethnicity, and a different backstory to match.

Whitewashing isn’t just simple racebending. Sure, there’s a level of insult that goes along with, say, Emma Stone playing a part-Asian woman who doesn’t appear to be of any Asian descent whatsoever, but it’s nowhere near the level of erasure or dismissal that actual whitewashing is. A great example of whitewashing is the character played by Tilda Swinton in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, Swinton plays a character known as The Ancient One. The comic book character is a Tibetan monk, and the plot of Doctor Strange’s origin relies heavily on Tibetan, and Chinese, cultural artifacts and signifiers. The difference there has mainly to do with dehumanization. Given that there is a long history of avoiding the casting of actual Asian people to play any -not just Asia-centric- roles, the message becomes “hey, we love these aspects of your culture, and think they make for great storytelling, but we’re really uncomfortable actually looking at you.”

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Tilda Swinton as “The Ancient One” in Marvel Studio’s upcoming film Doctor Strange.

Under this definition, whitewashing becomes a little more difficult to point out in our shared cultural history. For example, my definition doesn’t quite allow one of the classic examples typically cited as extreme whitewashing: Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Not to be even more confusing about the terms, I would say that character falls under a third category: yellowface. Looking back from our current vantage point, I think it’s very easy for many people- whether socially liberal or conservative- to understand why that portrayal would be offensive. We’ve progressed far enough in our shared cultural consciousness to recognize that taking a white man and superimposing a number of exaggerated, ugly features on him so that he can stand in for what is essentially comic relief at the expense of an “othered’ character is, on its face, basically a cultural dick move.

So I think that, even though we can point to Rooney and others like Katharine Hepburn, David Carradine, et al, as offenders in the yellowface category, it feels like focusing on the more recent examples of whitewashing- those that don’t just caricaturize Asian people, but steal our culture as well- might be a more productive route.

Kelly: So, as an Asian American yourself, how would you explain the depth of offensiveness of casting decisions such as Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange? By this I mean is it simply offensive because it’s a white person in an Asian character’s role or is there more to it that the general public maybe isn’t quite understanding?

Shaun: Great question. Well, first of all, I don’t want to be that activist that disagrees with relatively minor word choices, but I think expanding on something in your question actually illuminates some issues that need to be understood in order to answer it. A lot of the conversation that I’ve seen around Swinton’s character in Doctor Strange, as well as the Doctor Strange character himself -which longtime comic book writer Kurt Busiek recently proved, to my satisfaction, originated as an Asian man- along with other casting decisions, like Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Elizabeth Banks in the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers reboot, seems to center around “how offensive” each situation is.

For example, the Elizabeth Banks photo was released today, and many replies to my tweets on the matter have been met with sentiments like “I think it’s a gray area compared to Ghost in the Shell.” Forcing a marginalized group to declare the leveled variations inherent in their oppression seems like derailment to me. One of the rhetorical tactics that MRAs use so often, for example, boils down essentially to a “teach the controversy” approach that runs discussions in circles.

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Elizabeth Banks as “Rita Repulsa” in the upcoming Power Rangers film.

But to get back to the core of your question, I think these derailments and side arguments actually do a lot to illuminate what it is that the general public may not be understanding about Asian American reactions to the whitewashing, racebending, and yellowface incidents we’ve seen lately. At the core of my arguments -I obviously can’t speak for anyone else- is the lack of positive, accurate representation of Asians in our culture writ large. “Accurate” here is actually a pretty low bar to cross: depiction of Asians and Asian Americans as actual human beings, separate from dramatic or intriguing facts or stereotypes about who we are and what our culture is.

For example, in Daredevil season 2, I believe that every Asian depicted is a member of an ancient, merciless band of ninjas seeking mystical power. I can assure you that, as an Asian American, I am not now, nor have I ever been, part of a secret group, a clan of ninjas, and I’m only partially merciless and don’t believe in any mystical power beyond Joe Manganiello’s torso. So again, the level of offense that I’ve taken so far is pretty much equal across the board. When people need to make a decision about me- let’s say whether or not to promote me into a certain position at work- they go partially on what they know about me and partially on what they identify me with because of how I look.

Disingenuous portrayals of people who look like me cause issues in that regard, because of the limited number of Asians and Asian Americans on screen, and the whitewashing of roles like Swinton’s character in Doctor Strange has a similar impact: that kind of casting usually goes to a white person because the audience needs to be able to perceive that character as a complex person. People in the United States aren’t used to seeing Asians or Asian Americans as complex people, because apparently we’re all ninjas. So a non-Asian person is cast instead, and that destroys the possibility that audiences will begin to associate someone who looks like me with the ability to have a complex internal life. You know, just like all other human beings.

Kelly: That makes sense, and I understand the issue with more clarity now. This all plays into “othering” as we tend to see Asians cast in more stereotypical roles such as ninja’s or Chinese restaurant owners as opposed to regular, everyday characters like everyone else, thus continuing the stereotype that those are really the only thing Asians do. I see how this is obviously oppressive with situations such as Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange but also in general roles across the board from television shows to large Hollywood productions. 

My next question is: What, in your opinion, should actors/actresses be doing, if anything, in response to this? By this I’m referring to some calling for actresses such as Scarlett Johansson to simply have refused the role of Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Should the actors be taking it upon themselves to do the right thing or is it more something a production studio should be focusing on, or both/neither? 

Shaun: Well, as Max Landis helpfully pointed out in his video “If You’re Mad About Ghost In The Shell, You Don’t Know How The Movie Industry Works,” I’m mad about Ghost in the Shell, so I’m probably unqualified to talk about this. Especially if there’s a correlation between anger and ignorance in his world, because I’m mad enough to literally not have a brain at this point.

What I will say is this, though: A-list actors and actresses turning down these kinds of roles would be immensely powerful. If one person tweeted about this, it would get lost in sands of everything else that’s always going on. If one actor or actress took a stand, it would create headlines across the country, and maybe even across the globe. So what should actors or actresses do in this situation? I’m not sure. But the impact would be tremendous, and it would be a great help to us and other marginalized communities. Jada Pinkett-Smith commenting on #OscarsSoWhite -a hashtag started over a year prior by April Reign, who is outside of the industry- resulted in a domino effect that took the fight directly into the Academy’s boardrooms, so we know it can happen. But in the absence of a major actor or actress taking this kind of stand- I assume there won’t be one any time soon, not because I doubt their conscience, but because there really isn’t a precedent for that kind of action- it’s natural to focus our attention to other players in the entertainment industry.

First of all, there’s this notion that films led by people of color don’t do well. I think The Force Awakens and the Fast and the Furious series (something like $3.8 billion worldwide), among many other examples, demonstrate that this isn’t exactly true. So the excuse that executives are simply practicing good, risk-averse business, doesn’t hold much water, in my opinion.

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Rey and Finn, portrayed by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, co-lead characters in the box office hit Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Another defense often given on behalf of executives is that they don’t think audiences will fill enough seats to see Rinko Kinkuchi– the Oscar-nominated actress from Pacific Rim and Babel– rather than Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the ShellThis is a much more complicated statement than it appears to be, not least because it seeks to disperse blame among a number of different parties: executives, agents, directors, actors, and the audience. My belief throughout all of the recent controversies is that the American people are far more tolerant of Asian faces than Hollywood is giving them credit for. Even with my antennae fully extended, I’ve detected essentially no racism at all in reviews of the TV show Fresh Off the Boat. And that’s saying something, given how sneakily racist reviews of shows like Empire or Black-ish can be.

So -and again, this is really just something I’m floating as my personal opinion- I wouldn’t go after any part of the Hollywood system, whether actors and actresses or studio executives. The low-hanging fruit, it seems to me, is fellow audience members who are also uncomfortable with the erasure being performed on their behalf. Once those wheels start turning- whether it’s in the form of unified public opinion resulting in public relations disasters or financial attrition via boycott- we might see Hollywood make an attempt to catch up. They usually tend to be a few steps behind their audience anyway.

Kelly: With that being said, I typically see whitewashing defended with responses such as “there probably weren’t people of color available/skilled enough for the role”. This defense spans outside race as well, as it’s often used as an excuse for straight/cissexual people being cast in LGBT roles, males cast in female roles, etc. and it seems to be the general public’s go-to defense of whitewashing. In addition to that, and more specifically in line with Asian/Asian American roles we have been discussing, I have also seen more racist explanations such as “many Asian actors/actresses have an accent that makes them hard to understand so it’s easier to cast white people”. What are your thoughts on “defenses” of whitewashing such as these and what would you say is the best way for the general public to combat those who argue these points?

Shaun: The defenses of whitewashing you’ve mentioned have their roots in the same line of thought propagated by lazy racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and all other types of oppression. I think it’s helpful to deconstruct the arguments, because they all have the same sheen of truth- “truthiness”- with enormously false underpinnings.

For comparison, let’s take a look at Rule 34, which states that “if it exists, there is porn of it.” It’s tongue-in-cheek by definition, but also stands up to any attempt I’ve ever seen to debunk it. Taking the basis of that rule and applying it to the rest of humanity doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to me: “if a role exists, there are more than enough non-white, disabled, non-cishet talents out there to play it.” Given the number of people on earth versus the relatively small amount of movie roles that exist, I’m not sure why that’s not as easily acceptable.

The counterargument is that any one person’s experience is so narrow that it doesn’t allow for the incredible diversity in talent across the roughly 4 billion candidates on the planet. Before the advent of television, many families gathered around their radios to consume their entertainment; would it be reasonable to assume at that time that entertainers did not have faces or bodies? All we knew of them was their voices. No; we took our experiences from the outside world and applied them to the performers. The issue, in my opinion, is that the outside world for most Americans doesn’t hold a candle to the diversity of Asian Americans. Therefore, the caricatures we see in movies and on TV become the reality for most consumers. It’s a feedback loop that I hope we can someday break.

Parenthetically, this is why I always go back to representation. I can’t place myself into the homes of every American to prove their mental pictures wrong, but mass culture- with limit- can. Also parenthetically, this is going to get worse before it gets better, in my opinion. This was an issue when there were three television networks, but now there are thousands of outlets, and we all carry what are essentially tiny TVs in our pockets. Thus, the influence of mass culture on our thinking will only expand, and if portrayals remain as unhealthy as they are- and this applies to any marginalized group- we’re all going to be shoved further and further into our respective corners.

As to your question about accents, I think the same rules apply. White feminist goddess Tina Fey decided to portray the first consequential Asian on one of her shows as a naive, heavily-accented goofball with a dick joke for a name. In 2015. I’m not sure how angry I can get at the American public when this is what counts as their exposure to people who look like me.

Kelly: Speaking of characters such as Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One in Doctor Strange and Dong in Tiny Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I present this next question: In your opinion, If a cast or character is whitewashed or obviously overtly stereotypical and offensive, how should people who are fans of the material react? Is it acceptable to be a critical fan, understanding the problematic aspects of said material, and still enjoying the film/show otherwise or should these films/shows be boycotted entirely?

Shaun: That’s such a good question. Personally, I think advocacy and activism are most effective when providing information. Note: this doesn’t mean that I encourage tone policing; sometimes snark and clapbacks are the most effective way to provide information. So I actively try to raise my voice when harmful portrayals surface, but I don’t see it as my place to tell anyone what to do. As a matter of fact, I love 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as shows. Fey and Carlock create this whimsical comedic world that’s right exactly in the middle of my wheelhouse. That’s one reason why the geisha episode hurt so deeply: being told explicitly that show you love doesn’t care about you as a viewer is like being dumped by someone you’re really, really into.

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Ki Hong Lee as “Dong Nguyen” in Tiny Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix Original Series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Back to the main part of your question: I think I’d be miserable if I were to stake my emotional well-being on what others do. So I don’t ask that anyone do anything rather than think critically about what they’re absorbing. Culture informs mentality, which informs how we treat other human beings, so it’s really important to think. I think that even if I were to call for or participate in a boycott, I would want everyone around me to remain free to make their own decisions.

This isn’t an easy attitude, to be honest. I get upset when I see others tweeting about how much they love Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But I don’t jump into their mentions to tell them why they’re wrong. If they follow me, they know my feelings, and if they want to know more, they can ask. I’ve replied to a few tweets that were dismissive of Asian American reaction to the episode, but that’s about it. I think as we progress in the age of all-entertainment, all the time, we’ll find that every single one of our favs are problematic, and probably in more ways than one. So binary consumption- love it or hate it fully- doesn’t feel quite like the answer either.

Kelly: Thank you so much for your insight into this issue. I feel that just in doing this Q&A session with you I’ve learned so much. I feel I’ve always had good insight into the battle for proper female representation in the media but have always felt very uneducated on the equally important issue of proper representation of people of color and varying cultures in the media. Your answers have helped me out and encouraged me to continue learning and understanding in regards to this subject. 

That being said, who, if anyone, would you suggest that people follow on social media in order to continue learning? Are there any specific activists that you would recommend others look to in regards to issue of whitewashing in Hollywood and proper representation in the media?

Shaun: Thank you so much for allowing me your time! Feminism, and writers like Bell Hooks, have been very influential on my thinking about these issues, so I agree, a million percent, when anyone encourages solidarity. I think if you can apply the same kind of thinking about female representation- that the public gets the wrong ideas about who women actually are, and a lot of that is because representation is either bad or non-existent- to issues of representing any people of color, you’ll automatically be light years ahead of most.

As for Asian or Asian American voices on social media, that one’s a bit tricky. Right now, as with many other underrepresented communities, our celebrities “speak” for the community on sort of a default basis. But then you get instances like Ming-Na Wen, Constance Wu, and MIA presenting their views in a way that is ultimately extremely anti-Black. I don’t want anyone to make the mistake of thinking that, just because they are the most visible Asians or Asian Americans, they speak for all of us. In fact, I’ve found many more solidarity-minded Asians and Asian Americans on Twitter than vice versa.

I recently interviewed April Reign (@ReignOfApril), the creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, and Jon Tsuei (@jontsuei), who wrote an extremely heavily-shared series of tweets about why Ghost in the Shell is inherently a Japanese story, on my show. They’re both amazing people, and tireless in their efforts.

@fangirljeanne speaks about every marginalized community you can think of, and therefore intersectionality is often at the core of what she speaks about. I honestly think she should be required following, like Tom on MySpace. If you sign up on Twitter, she should just automatically be on your following list.

@TheNerdsofColor is a website that writes extensively about Asian/American and other issues for people of color. One of the people responsible, @the_real_chow, created the #AAIronFist movement, which was briefly picked up by more mainstream outlets.

culturewarreporters.com has been hot fire lately. They’re a smaller website, but the writing is some of the best I’ve seen on these topics.

I guess I could go on all day- and there’s always the fear of leaving someone out!- but two of my very favorite people on Twitter are director Lexi Alexander, of Green Street Hooligans and Punisher: War Zone (@Lexialex) and writer ReBecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC). Neither is Asian, but they both champion Asian and Asian American causes with a passion unmatched by many in our own community.

Oh, and also, you can follow me? I guess? I’m @NoTotally on Twitter, but if you see me on there, please remind me that I should be working. No, wait! @ubeempress! She’s brilliant on every level.

Kelly: Again, thank you so much for your time Shaun, I truly appreciate the insight you’ve shared today. I’ll be sure to continue to follow you and the others you mentioned in order to continue to educate myself on this topic. Hope to work with you again sometime!

Shaun: Thank you for this opportunity! I’m just finally getting around to reading your work, and I love it. I’m here any time you’d like to chat, on any subject. Thank you!

2 thoughts on “Q&A: The Problematic Nature of Whitewashing in Hollywood

    • If you are referring to the response claiming that Swinton’s character is of Celtic origin, the we have both read that statement. I don’t believe that information changes anything in this article, however. I’m not sure about Shaun, but I feel it only bolsters the argument against whitewashing in Hollywood as it is yet another attempt to further distance themselves from an Asian being cast for the role.

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