Whitewashing in Hollywood: Why Diverse Media Representation Matters

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For over a century, the entertainment industry has displayed more than its fair share of racism. Since the conception of full-length motion pictures, there has been egregious discrimination against minorities in film. The first film ever shown at the White House, in 1915, was Birth of a Nation, a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and demonized African-Americans in the South. The first American “talkie” was The Jazz Singer in 1927, which featured white actor Al Jolson performing in blackface. From cinema’s very conception, minorities have “long felt the full brunt of the ‘whitewashing’ of roles”, as Tom Brook of the BBC puts it.

Many of the most famous films of the mid-20th century – films we regard today as classics – are also some of the most racist. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), white actor Mickey Rooney wore yellowface while playing the Asian character of Mr. Yunioshi. In Othello (1965), another white actor Laurence Olivier portrayed the title character in blackface (despite the fact that Shakespearean productions of the play had begun including black actors in 1826). The Disney film Peter Pan (1953) only encouraged the harmful stereotypes attributed to Native Americans, with the offensive caricatures of Tiger Lily and the “Piccaninny” tribe.

For the most part, these extreme depictions have faded from Hollywood – the last serious depiction of blackface was in Soul Man in 1986. But racism still haunts the film industry: it just does so more subtly. Instead of a flagrant stain upon cinema, it is a shadow that lurks in the background. Instead of blackface, there is whitewashing.

“Whitewashing” is generally defined as choosing a “white male or female to portray a character who is originally of an ethnic background.”

This definition holds true, but there are also two different types of whitewashing. One is when filmmakers take a historically ethnic person or group of people and cast a white actor or actress. The other is when a book is adapted into a movie, and an ethnic person or group of people is casted as white.

There are countless examples of both of these forms of racism: in classic movies and in more recent ones.

In 1956, The Ten Commandments featured an all-white cast, with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner playing Moses and Ramesses II. Although the existence of the man Moses is dependent upon religion and not history, Ramesses II was a real pharaoh in ancient Egypt, and thus, the characters in this movie should have been played by Egyptian actors. What is more troubling is that almost 60 years later, Ridley Scott came under fire for telling the same story of Moses with the same problem: Christian Bale played the main character and Joel Edgerton played the pharaoh.

The fact that it is 2016 and Hollywood still has not amended its whitewashing practices from 1956 is outrageous. In some cases, Hollywood has actually regressed in 50 years.

In 1967 (and again in 1982), Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban played the character Khan Noonien Singh in the Star Trek universe. This was bold casting in the 1960s on a network television show. Yet 46 years later, J.J. Abrams inexplicably cast Benedict Cumberbatch in the same role in Star Trek Into Darkness.

It is clear that the entertainment industry continues to shamelessly whitewash. If you look at the films released during 2015 alone, there is a disturbing trend.

Emma Stone portrayed a Native Hawaiian woman named Allison Ng in Aloha. In The Martian, Mackenzie Davis played a character who was Korean in the original novel. Rooney Mara played the Native American princess Tiger Lily in the live-action adaptation of Peter Pan.

But why is it important that whitewashing stops happening in movies?

Because people mentally and emotionally need media representation. This has been clear for decades.

In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted the famous “Black Doll” experiment. The Clarks took a group of children between the ages of three and seven, and gave them two different dolls, which were identical except for their skin color. What they discovered was that a majority of the children chose the white doll when asked questions such as “Which doll is prettier?” and “Which doll is good?” and “Which doll do you want to play with?”

The Clarks testified in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Ed, which brought about the abolition of segregation in public schools. Their conclusive results revealed that children – both white and black – internalize stereotypes about race very early on by consuming various forms of popular media and entertainment.

If film roles continue to be whitewashed, children will keep developing unhealthy conceptions of racial equality. But if kids see more positive and empowering depictions of POC – especially in film and television – it will undoubtedly begin to have a powerful affect, as many celebrities have attested to. Whoopi Goldberg has said many times that Nichelle Nichols’ presence on Star Trek in the 1960s – as one of the first black actresses on television – greatly influenced her self-esteem. Denzel Washington gained success in part due to his mentorship by Sidney Poitier – the first black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor. Recently, at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Gina Rodriguez paid tribute to Rita Moreno for providing a positive role model for Hispanic women on the big screen.

The negative effects of misrepresentation in the entertainment industry are apparent in our society’s most recognizable figures. Hollywood not only exhibits misrepresentation, but underrepresentation as well.

From 2007-2012, only 12.4 percent of speaking characters in the top 500 grossing films were played by black actors. Although one might think that is fair, given that African-Americans make up 12.6 percent of the population, the other side of the coin reveals that it is not: 63.7 percent of the United States is white (non-Hispanic), and yet 75.8 percent of roles in those top 500 films were filled by white actors.

This only takes into account American audiences. For the past few decades, Hollywood films have exponentially expanded to a more global stage. In 2013 alone, Chinese box office revenues grew by 36 percent, and indeed, studies show that by 2020, China will eclipse the United States in terms of the biggest cinematic market. Many times in the past decade, China single-handedly saved movies that were box office flops in the United States (like Battleship, which only earned $65 million domestically, but pulled in $237 million overseas).

With foreign film markets becoming more important, it makes sense that filmmakers should adapt to these new demographics. Indeed, the populations of Europe and North America make up only 15 percent of the world’s population, while the population of Asia makes up 61 percent.

Thus, it raises the question: in the top 500 most globally successful films – predominantly made by white Americans – why are 75.8 percent dominated by white actors when they only represent a fraction of potential global film audiences? The correlation between population and representation in film is completely and utterly skewed in favor of white people. This is one of the explanations for why whitewashing still occurs.

With 94 percent of Hollywood executives being white, the majority of those movies will have white leads, even if it’s at the expense of ethnic characters and actors. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in the Academy of Motion Pictures for decades, and has been recognized by the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy: for the second year in a row, every person nominated for an Oscar in the four acting categories was white. Furthermore, almost every director, writer, and editor behind those films were also white.

Thankfully, there is an encouraging side to this story. Though whitewashing has not substantially harmed films’ commercial success, it also has not improved it. This fact disproves almost every justification of whitewashing movie characters.

Ridley Scott, the director of Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) has infamously explained that although he did not want an entirely white cast for a movie set in ancient Egypt, he needed to do it because the film would not have been a success. This same explanation was used by the directors of Aloha (2015) and Pan (2015), who said that actresses like Emma Stone and Rooney Mara would attract audiences, while racially correct casting would have led to box office failure.

But as Scott Mendelson from Forbes explained, in spite of their white “star-power”, all of these films failed. Not necessarily because of the numerous boycotts and protests, but simply because those white movie stars weren’t able to make mediocre films into commercial hits.

Thus, the question must be raised: if whitewashing neither helps nor hinders a movie’s financial success, why not just get rid of it all together? The trend is offensive, racist, harmful, oftentimes historically false, and economically unremarkable. Hopefully, Hollywood will begin realizing this soon, and end its history of whitewashing once and for all.

About the Author

Anastasia Lacina
Anastasia Lacina (FCRH ’19) is a political science and history double major, born and raised on City Island in the East Bronx. She is a liberal and social activist on and off campus, involved in Fordham Women’s Empowerment and the LGBTQ+ Network of Support, as well as national organizations like the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Project and GLSEN. Contact Anastasia at alacina1@fordham.edu