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The Beginning of an End to Whitewashing

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The Beginning of an End to Whitewashing

Graphic by Alex Mackle

Graphic by Alex Mackle

Graphic by Alex Mackle

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 When Disney announced a Mulan live action movie in August 2017, many concerns arose among people of color. There was one that outweighed all the others—would the actress playing Mulan be white or Chinese?

It seems like a silly question to ask. Mulan is the story of a young Chinese woman living under the Han dynasty, who takes her father’s place in battle when the Huns attack China, all the while pretending to be a man.

  Due to the fact that Mulan was a real historical figure, it seems like a given that the actress cast would be of Chinese descent. After all, her story lies deeply in the roots of early Chinese culture, where women were expected to bring honor to their family through marriage.

 White actors playing roles intended for people of color is not a new concept. It’s called “whitewashing” and it is very apparent in Hollywood today.

  The idea of whitewashing doesn’t only exist in the world of film. Reforming history to make it more westernized, thus appealing to the masses of Americans and Europeans who are “uncomfortable” with people of color, has existed for as long as anyone can remember. In history books, most students are taught a whitewashed past about the Indians and the pilgrims within the first months they enter preschool.

  As with history, whitewashed movies have been around since the film world came about, written in its past with some sort of un-erasable ink. Though eradicating the importance of minorities in the film industry has occurred for what seems like forever, people have especially taken notice recently.

  As soon as the highly-anticipated Ghost in the Shell trailer was released, people noticed something was a bit off. The protagonist, a robot named Major who lives as a soldier in Japan, was being played by Scarlett Johansson. Many Asians were outraged by the blatant whitewashing of a character that most had assumed to be Japanese since the release of the original anime in 1995. It’s worth noting that some attempted to clarify that in the anime, the shell of the robot was white, however the ghost inside was Japanese, disproving the argument of whitewashing. Most were not convinced, which led to a disappointment at the box office, with the movie only grossing $169 million worldwide.

  A similar response was seen with the release of Death Note, a 2017 film released on Netflix based off of a 2006 anime, when a white actor, Nat Wolff, played a Chinese character. The movie received mostly negative buzz from the audience, claiming it was stripped of its Asian culture and everything that had made the original anime so great.

  Even the live-action version of Aladdin has received criticism despite its relative racial inclusiveness for casting a half Indian actress (Naomi Scott), instead of a Middle Eastern woman in the role of Jasmine.
  So naturally, when Mulan was rumored to be brought to life on the big screen, people were more apprehensive than excited.   “You should use the face of the true character,” Korean student Ariana Nam argued when asked about whitewashing in films and TV shows. “I am an Asian-American and I care for my fellow Asian-Americans that feel isolated.”

   Sandford Zheng, a Chinese student, agreed.

 “Whitewashing gets rid of diversity and destroys the culture,” he said.  

  Both Nam and Zheng were pleased to hear that a Chinese actress, Liu Yifei, would be portraying the beloved character, only one of two Asian Disney princesses, as were many others who care about the representation of Asians in the media and film.

  The true purpose of whitewashing of Asians in movies and TV shows is still incomprehensible to most. Some argue that there aren’t enough Asian actors in the film industry. (Even though Asians are the most populated race in the world.) Is it really so painful to cast a character in accordance with their original race? Arden Cho of Teen Wolf, Sandra Oh from Grey’s Anatomy, and Zhang Ziyi, (who is one of the most famous actors in China) are all prominent Asian women in film and TV.

  Representation for people of color is more important than many people think.

 “There’s usually only one Asian character on the screen just so they have diversity,” Nam claims.

   Diversity now seems more like a check on the box than a desire to represent real people and characters.
  The lack of people of color on-screen can also transcend to the way that minorities feel about themselves, as Nam makes evident.

  “At times I’ve felt like white people are better than me,” she said.

    Zheng disagreed, expressing that he felt like “we all have equal chances to do what we want to do.”

    Mulan will be released in 2019, and it seems like it’s up to the world to decide if casting actors according to their race is as important as many believe.

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The Beginning of an End to Whitewashing