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The Whitewashing Controversy

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Estimated Reading Time : 5 minutes 18 seconds

HELLBOY IN HELL

Last week, Ed Skrein, an up and coming actor best known for his work as the villain in Deadpool, dropped out of the role for which he was cast in the remake of Hellboy, after charges of "whitewashing" were made against the producers of the film on social media. You may be asking yourself…what is whitewashing? Well, whitewashing is when White actors are cast in traditionally non-White character roles. In the case of Hellboy, Ed Skrein is a White actor and his character Ben Daimio is Japanese-American in the original comic book source material. 

Once the Hellboy whitewashing uproar gained some steam on social networks, Skrein dropped out of the role stating, “I accepted the role unaware that the character in the original comics was of mixed Asian heritage. There has been intense conversation and understandable upset since that announcement, and I must do what I feel is right.”

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Skrein continued, “Representation of ethnic diversity is important, especially to me as I have a mixed heritage family,” he said (Skrein is of Austrian-Jewish and English descent). “It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and give voice to inclusivity.”

From a public relations standpoint, this is a masterstroke by Skrein. He turned a story that was potentially damaging to his career into one that makes him out to be the hero. As for the repercussions of Skrein's decision on the wider world in general, and Hollywood in particular, I am skeptical that his kowtowing to the anti-whitewashing mob is a positive maneuver. 

THE WITCHES OF WHITEWASHING AND MICKEY ROONEY SUCKS

Whitewashing has been a hot topic in Hollywood of late, as a string of high profile White women have been cast in Asian roles or that had Asian women in the source material. The three most notable were when Scarlett Johannsen was cast as the lead in Ghost in the Shell to play a character that was Asian in the source material, Tilda Siwnton was cast in a role that in the comic book was a male Asian guru in Dr. Strange, and Emma Stone was cast as a woman who was 1/4 Hawaiin and 1/4 Chinese in Cameron Crowe's Aloha.

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Whitewashing is not to be confused with "yellow face", which is when a White actor plays an Asian character and wears make up to simulate Asian characteristics. Yellowface is to Asians as Blackface is to Blacks, it is a highly offensive and aggressive way to demean and diminish a minority through caricature and stereotype. The most famous instance of yellow face is Mickey Rooney's cringe-worthy performance in Breakfast at Tiffanys, but other famous actors, including Marlon Brando and Katherine Hepburn, have done it as well. And it wasn't just back in the 50's and 60's either, as recently as 1992 Jonathon Pryce starred on the London stage wearing yellow face in Miss Saigon.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT AND STATISTICAL REALITY

In terms of whitewashing, the theory behind people's resistance to it is entirely understandable. As long as Hollywood has been in existence, the majority of roles have been for White actors, and for a good portion of that time minority actors were systematically discriminated against, so casting Whites in potentially minority roles doesn't sit very well with some people. That historical context is important to keep in mind when addressing the whitewashing issue, and it easily explains the perception that White actors are still cast at disproportionately high rates compared to minority actors. That being said, while the conventional wisdom is that there is an imbalance towards Whites in casting, the statistical reality does not match up with that perception.

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Whites are certainly cast in the overwhelming majority of roles, but that isn't due to racism, but more likely because Whites make up the overwhelming majority of the U.S. (and English speaking world's) population. Some statistics jump out at me in regards to casting and population in terms of race and ethnicity. For instance, an Annenberg study found that Asians are cast in 5.1% of roles in film and television, which doesn't seem like much, but, according to the American Community Survey in the 2010 U.S. Census, Asians make up 5.1% of the U.S. general population. This shows that Asians are not under represented in casting, but in fact, are perfectly represented. The same is also true of Black actors, who are cast in 12.2% of roles and make up 12.4% of the U.S. population. These statistics show that contrary to popular opinion, Asian and Black actors are not under represented. 

In addition, a further look at the Annenberg study shows that White actors are not over represented according to their population percentage, but slightly under represented. According to the Annenberg study, Whites are cast in 71.7 % of roles and the census tells us that Whites account for 73% of the population. This seems counter intuitive to many people, but it is accurate, at least according to the Annenberg study and the census.

REVERSE RACISM? SO WHAT!

The question remains though, do any of these statistics matter in regard to the whitewashing controversy? The casting pendulum, so long on the White side of things, has swung away from White dominance in the last few decades, and now casts people (at least Asian, Black and White people) at relatively the same rate as their population percentage. This is a positive thing, but the fact that some people still perceive an imbalance towards Whites creates an atmosphere where whitewashing accusations resonate. 

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The problem with claims of whitewashing, is that they push the pendulum beyond the center sweet spot of equality, with its embrace of a meritocracy, to a position of identity/inclusivity, where an actors ethnicity or race trump questions of talent and skill. This identity/inclusivity approach is just as unfair as a White dominated approach, and is ultimately cancerous in the wider culture as it brings with it a backlash in the form of White resentment and in some cases, even White supremacy. 

Many people would say, "so what?" to charges that identity/inclusivity angers White people because it is a form of reverse racism. Some people I have spoken to on the subject tell me that White people are racists or have an inherit privilege, so they deserve to be shortchanged for once. I get the sentiment, I do, it is entirely understandable in historical context, but the problem with that kind of thinking is it is entirely emotionally driven and not rational. Shortchanging White actors because they are White may be emotionally rewarding in the moment, but in the long run it is not only unfair to White actors, but undermines talented minority artists and diminishes artistic quality across the board.

IS WHAT IS GOOD FOR THE WHITE GOOSE, GOOD FOR THE MINORITY GANDER?

An example of this can be found in the Skrein case where, according to the producer, he was cast not because he was White, but because he gave the best audition. Merit is why he was chosen, not race, and replacing him with an ethnically "appropriate" actor who was not as good, will reduce the quality of the film. But for those crying "whitewashing", merit has no appeal in casting decisions, only identity/inclusivity matters. Again, this approach may feel emotionally gratifying at the moment, but it is intellectually incoherent, and ultimately counter productive for minority actors when taken to its logical conclusion. For instance, if, as those crying whitewashing wish, we base casting decisions solely on the identity of the character in the source material, then no minority actor would ever be able to do classical theatre like Shakespeare (with Othello being the notable exception), Chekhov or Ibsen and Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams would be off the table as well.

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Identity casting is much like identity politics, it is a double edged sword. When democrats make politics about identity, then not only will minorities respond to that siren's call, but White people will embrace their identity as well, and like it or not, White people are the overwhelming majority of America. In casting, this slavish embrace of identity can, and most likely will, come back to haunt those who celebrate it. An example of this was seen when Edward Albee's estate refused to let a theatre company do a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? with a Black cast member. People were outraged by this decision and charges of racism soon followed, but Albee's argument (through his esate, Albee died in 2016) was that the play is about White people, and a Black actor would distort the meaning of the play. This is the flip side of the same argument that the whitewashing crowd uses against Scarlett Johannsen playing the lead in Ghost in the Shell

The reality is that many minority actors have gotten jobs not despite of their ethnicity, but because of it. Many theatre companies are compelled to use diverse casts in order to get grants and funding and it is in their best interest in some cases to eschew a more talented White actor in favor of a less talented minority actor, in order to get that funding. The same is true of tv shows and films, because contrary to what "whitewashing" critics think, networks, studios and producers desperately want diverse casts. This leads to minority actors actually having a slight advantage in the casting process, not a disadvantage, due to their non-White identity.  

The bigger problem, beyond claims of whitewashing, is the mania and hysteria brought on by our current addiction to identity, be it in casting or politics. This hysteria showed its face with the vapid #OscarsSoWhite campaign over the alleged racism of the Academy Awards. Just like claims of whitewashing, claims of Oscar racism are emotionally driven as well, and are proven false by statistical analysis. (see that statistical reality here).

CRY RACISM, AND LET SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR

Another story from last week that highlights the corrosive effect our current identity/inclusivity mania and hysteria has on Hollywood and our culture, was when actress Chloe Bennet, best known for her role on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., played the role of victim when she said that Hollywood is racist. Bennet, whose real last name is Wang, is of Taiwanese descent, and when someone questioned her for changing her Taiwanese last name, her defense was that she changed her name because "Hollywood is racist." This episode is a wonderful study in how identity politics and casting will devour those that cling to them. 

To start with, Ms. Bennet was smart enough to sense that she was going to be the victim of the same mob that attacked Hellboy and Ed Skrein when asked about her name change. The left is great at eating their own, and Ms. Bennet knew to throw them some red meat or she would be the next meal. In order to avoid the consequences/shame of her name change, Bennet took the cheap and cynical way out by crying racism, which seems to be the only way many liberals can argue these days, and claimed she never got cast in anything until she changed her name. Of course, the charge is vacuous at best, and insidious at worst.

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Are there racists in Hollywood? Sure, there are racists in all walks of life. But did Ms. Bennet not get cast prior to her name change because of racism? To think that anyone would care if an actress had the last name of Wang as opposed to Bennet is the height of absurdity. Casting people don't give a rat's ass about your last name, usually only your fame, talent and your attractiveness. Ms. Bennet did not become more or less attractive or talented with a different last name. Ms. Bennet basically admitted her reasoning was circumspect when she said, "Changing my last name doesn’t change the fact that my blood is half-Chinese, that I lived in China, speak Mandarin, or that I was culturally raised both American and Chinese". Yes, her name is different but she still looks exotic and not pasty White, so if Hollywood was racist they would discriminate against her for how she looked, not her last name. 

Ms. Bennet's cries of racism, besides being self-serving, were counter productive, not only in Hollywood, but in America. It is statistical fact that Asians are cast at exactly the same rate that they make up the population, so there is no casting bias against them. Yet by crying racism, Ms. Bennet diminishes the power of that charge, and undermines and belittles the struggles of people who are truly suffering under the torment of racism and injustice in the real world. 

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. STRANGE

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An example of the intellectual inconsistencies of the anti-whitewashing crowd was also on display when Tilda Swinton was cast in Dr. Strange. Swinton's character, the Ancient One, is a Tibetan man in the comic books, and the reason the producers cast a White, middle-aged woman in the role was because they explicitly wanted to avoid any racial stereotypes, such as the Fu Manchu - Asian man, stereotype. The anti-whitewashing crowd got up in arms about it anyway. Apparently Asian men are higher on the victim scale than White woman, which will come as a terrible shock to many of the White women I know in Hollywood who proudly wear the hat of victimhood like a crown. 

Further making the Dr. Strange case intellectually incoherent, was the fact that in order to have a more diverse cast, the producers cast Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Black actor, in a role that was a White character in the original source material. Apparently, slavish adherence to source material only matters when White actors are cast in minority roles and not vice versa.

BREAKING NEWS: THE BRITISH ARE PASTY WHITE

The identity/inclusivity mania and hysteria was even on full display this summer regarding the film Dunkirk. The film, set in 1942, tells the story of the British army and their emergency evacuation from Dunkirk, France in world war two. The cast of the film is almost entirely White, which is completely in keeping with the historical facts of the story, yet controversy swirled around the film for not having a diverse cast. USA Today's reviewer, Brian Truitt, commented about the film's lack of minorities in his review by writing, “the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way". Not surprisingly, right wing writers had a field day at Truitt's expense, turning what some thought was a molehill of a comment into a mountain of political correctness. 

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In response to the right-wing backlash against Truitt's review, Jason Wilson, a writer at the Guardian, wrote a piece decrying the right wing outrage as being manufactured nonsense because no person in their right mind would be bothered by Dunkirk's racial make up. Wilson's piece makes pains to point out that the right wing is itching for a culture war over Dunkirk, but none exists. Then a week later, Sunny Singh, a writer at the Guardian, wrote a piece directly in contrast to her compatriot Wilson by decrying Dunkirk's unabashed whitewashing and lack of Black faces. The cherry on top of the unintentional comedy of Singh's article is that Dunkirk actually does have some Black faces in it, the same ones she longs for in her piece. 

The whole Dunkirk episode, and most of the cries of whitewashing or racism, are exhausting because they are so bloated with the wine (or is it whine?) of emotion, and are thirsting for even a drop of the rational. But sadly, in this emotionalist age in which we live, this is the nonsense that captures our imaginations. 

LIBERTE, EGALITE, FRATERNITE

In a perfect world, we would live under the rule of equality, where meritocracy reigns supreme, and as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, people would be judged by the content of their character, or in this case, their ability, talent and skill, instead of their ethnic or racial identity. I certainly hope that we get there one day, but I am not nearly as optimistic as Dr. King. If history and human nature is any guide, with our current pendulum swing beyond the center where equality lives, into the deeper realm where cries of whitewashing and imaginary racism are not only accepted but encouraged, then the inevitable swing back away from that will go into even darker and more perilous waters than I care to consider. 

In our current age of emotionalism, people of all races and ethnicities do not value merit, or talent, or content of character, as much as they care about identity and instant gratification. This rise of this Church of Identity brings with it dangers, and one of those dangers now resides in the White House. If we are going to make things about identity, then we can expect to feel the wrath of the majority identity in America…White people. The resurgence of White identity, and White supremacy, is a direct result of the emotionally-driven, factually unsubstantiated claims made by those decrying White privilege where no privilege exists. As the Annenberg study and the census proves, this is the case in regards to the casting of television and film. 

When viewed within the troubling historical context of White domination in casting and the vicious arrogance and repulsive racism of yellow face, it is understandable that some, if not most, Asian actors and their supporters, would find the story of a White actor, like Ed Skrein, losing a job simply because he is White, emotionally satisfying, but that doesn't mean it is logical, rational, fair or right. Sadly, the whitewashing controversy is just another sign of our troubled and troubling times.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying Hollywood is a wonderful place filled with rainbows and puppy dogs where people are treated kindly and fairly…it isn't and they aren't. Make no mistake, Hollywood is an absolutely awful place where people are routinely and systematically dehumanized, diminished, exploited and victimized. That said, it is apparent to me that  Hollywood, with its unquenchable hunger for money and power, treats everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, equally like shit.

 

©2017