Let's talk about this. Whitewashing is a thing and it has been for a long time. These days, however, we have to deal with gender-bending and race-changing as well. The difference between whitewashing and race-bending seems to be that when a character of a specific ethnicity that is a part of their character is portrayed by a Caucasian, it is considered whitewashing. Whereas if ethnicity is not essential to a character, it's generally referred to as a race-bend, and can be justified.
With the recent announcements of a live-action remake of Disney's Mulan, IronFist's introduction in the Marvel/Netflix universe and Zendaya being rumored to play Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man: Homecoming (which might actually be untrue), let's have a look at the topic, a few recent happenings and how (or if) it really affects the movies.
One of the most well-known cases was the casting of Mickey Rooney in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's, where he played Audrey Hepburn's neighbor, I. Y. Yunioshi. Mickey Rooney isn't Japanese, nor is he any kind of Asian. The character was little more than comic relief and relied mostly on Asian stereotypes. While this may be somewhat more understandable considering the time that the film was made, it still created a stir and continues to do so today.
Having said that, Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, who is credited for being the first star of that heritage in Hollywood, received international stardom with work spanning across silent film, sound film, television, stage and radio.
Back to the matter at hand. Whitewashing can be an issue, but it also doesn't need to be one. The subject is dependent on the film and the story that it's portraying. With that said, let's look at one topic that has been the cause of much controversy and a lot of discussion as of late:
Ghost In The Shell
Fans were obviously excited when this was announced. Ghost in the Shell is a beloved and highly-regarded franchise comprised of manga, video games and several anime adaptations, both series and movies. The film has been in the works since 2008 and fans were (naturally) expecting an accurate and authentic live-action version. Well, it doesn't actually look like this was ever really the case. Originally, Margot Robbie was in talks for the role before committing to Harley Quinn. It then went to Scarlett Johansson to much outrage from fans.
While based on a Japanese manga, Ghost in the Shell isn't a Japanese-specific premise or story, and their ethnicity is not essential to the characters. While this doesn't necessarily justify the race-change, all I'm saying is that having a Caucasian in the role won't make the Ghost in the Shell film any worse. Fans have expressed that if the lead must be Johansson, they would prefer an entire Americanized cultural-adaptation of the story, which may actually be what's happening here. The main characters name, "Major Motoko Kusanagi," has been changed to simply "The Major" and the majority of the cast — with few exceptions including Japanese film legend Takeshi Kitano, Rila Fukushima (Arrow) and Kaori Momoi — are Caucasian. The cast also includes Pilou Asbæk (Game of Thrones) and Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire).
The teasers for the film maintain the dark tone and style that we love from the franchise, and also a little Japanese-based imagery. So keep an open mind, this might just surprise you.
Another thing is the issue of modern Hollywood fearing that casting a lesser-known, non-white actor may attract less viewers and therefore bring less profit. A-listers equal money — that's the truth of it. Ghost in the Shell isn't particularly widely known outside of the manga/anime and comic book fandom, so by casting unknown faces to the general public, there is that risk of it not staying on our minds. It's unfortunate, but it is true. There were even reports of paramount using CGI to make Johansson appear Asian. Paramount have since said that the idea was short-lived and did not involve the actress.
Despite the controversy that it has caused in the West, in Japan, fans of the manga are actually surprised at all the outrage. They assumed that the Hollywood production would always choose a white actress in the lead role. In fact, Sam Yoshiba, director of the international business division at Kodansha's Tokyo headquarters (the company that holds the rights to the series and its characters) said:
"Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place... This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world."
Come on, if the Japanese fans and even owner of the franchise don't have a problem with it, then why should we?
Another thing that caused a bit of stir was the casting of Finn Jones as the titular character in Marvel's upcoming Iron Fist series on Netflix. This is an interesting one because although the character is influenced by Chinese mythology and martial arts, Iron Fist has always been Danny Rand, a white guy who is seeking vengeance for his parents' deaths in the mystical city of K'un-Lun, where he learns the martial arts.
Fans thought that Marvel should take a stand and represent the minorities by casting an Asian actor to play Danny Rand, thus potentially altering the character and his story, which is the exact thing that the public always seems to be fighting against. Would it make sense to have an Asian Iron Fist? Possibly. Would it be awesome? Absolutely. Is it necessary? No.
"They Needed A Push In The Right Direction."
Speaking of representing the minorities, there have been a few cases of that in the last few years. They include Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in Marvel's Cinematic Universe and Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in 2015's Fantastic Four. The thing about these characters is that their ethnicity has nothing to do with their identities, so people didn't stir up that much of a fuss. Well, that and nobody screws with Samuel L. Jackson, [email protected]#%*r! Ahem.
However, there was one that caused quite a fuss. It's still a little uncertain at the moment, but it's the apparent casting of Zendaya as Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming.
There have since been reports that Zendaya will actually be playing a character named "Michelle," which we assume is referring to Michele Gonzales, a flat-mate turned love-interest for Peter Parker in the comics. This could just be a codename though; it's all a bit up in the air. However, let's assume that the 20-year-old will in fact be Mary Jane for a second.
Fans made a fuss because MJ has a very specific and well-known look. The character has always been portrayed with red hair and a fringe, and of course, as being white.
Here's the thing: Mary Jane Watson's character is not dependent on her race — it never was. Think about that word: Character. A character is a personality, and what that personality represents, vice versa. Race (at least in this case) doesn't come into it. If a character is iconic solely based on his or her physical appearance, then it's not a very good character, is it? Like Guardians of the Galaxy director, James Gunn, said in the apparent decisions defense:
"If a character’s primary attribute – the thing that makes them iconic – is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks."
Even so, It's not like Zendaya doesn't resemble the character at all; Tall? Check. Model-like? Check. Red Hair? Check. What's important is capturing Mary Jane's personality and spirit. The playful, confident attitude is key and if Zendaya (or whoever ends up playing MJ) captures that, then it's a job well done.
Quickly, while we're on the subject, can I just point out how cool Lupita Nyong'o could look as Poison Ivy? Think about it!
Then we have Mulan. The Hollywood live-action Mulan has already created a stir and it comes from fans taking action early, petitioning for Hollywood to cast an East-Asian actress in the role and not to "whitewash" it.
Now this is 100 percent understandable, as Mulan's ethnicity is essential to her character. The original story of Hua Mulan is a Chinese tale. It tells the story of a woman posing as a man to take her sick father's place in the army. It is culturally and historically significant that she be Chinese, or at least East-Asian.
There are a whole list of East-Asian actresses to choose from, both in and outside of Hollywood. From Once Upon a Time's Mulan, Jamie Chung, to Ziyi Zhang to Fan Bingbing to Angelababy.
If they cast Jennifer Lawrence, I am so done.
While we're on the subject, take a look at the video below at why Asian action films truly kick ass!
Yes, I'll have some of that, please!
Whitewashing and race-bending can be an issue to films and characters that call for a specific ethnicity - If it interferes with their story, their origins or their authenticity. However, there are also characters that could simply be adapted to any race and not lose anything that really matters.
What are your thoughts on whitewashing and race-bending in Hollywood? Let us know!