The Horror of Whitewashing
This is somewhat of a sequel to the post before. I was already planning on writing about this, but I realized that last week’s post was the perfect segue for this one. Except while last week I stopped with the accusations of Orientalism within Prince of Persia, today I want to write about the casting of a white man as the Prince of Persia. What is their explanation for this? From the Los Angeles Times:
Asked point blank by the Times of London, “Isn’t Gyllenhaal a bit pale to play a Persian?” Bruckheimer delivered this history lecture. “Persians were very light skinned,” he said. “The Turks kind of changed everything. But back in the 6th century, a lot of them were blond and blue-eyed.”
What? Wait. Okay. Let me think about this.
I thought this was a fantasy! And that’s not how Persia worked! There were blonde people (like there are blonde people now in Iran) but there were also people with dark hair as well! Plus, no one in your film is blonde anyway! And ultimately, not every culture was white until someone came and darkened them up! Especially in a region like Persia!
Argh! I’m using explanation marks continuously again!
The Atlantic has some more specific reactions, but I think ultimately it’s just a tiring display of “We could’ve cast a person of color, and given a job to someone in Hollywood who is likely tired of playing terrorists and funny sidekicks, but instead let’s just pick this well-known white guy and give him a good tan but then surround him with people who look like they actually do fit into the idea of Persian.”
God, I hate this. You know why? Because it feels so meticulously racist.
Before I talked about historical fantasy tropes; I noted that it’s important to designate between them and history. However: note how Bruckheimer tries to use history as an excuse for casting a white man in a fantasy—but a fantasy called Prince of Persia. So there is no way a person of color could have been cast. Because (a) it’s fantasy, so it doesn’t matter and it’s believed that it’s better to have a white guy to appeal to more people, but (b) it’s historically sound for a white guy to play him because of the (false) history Bruckheimer cites. No Persians required; just add white guy!
Just like the movie of Avatar the Last Airbender, where the main characters are all white but in the source material are vastly more diverse looking. But then they use people of color as background characters. Why? Because ultimately the main characters can only be white!
That’s the idea that since most of the audience is white, they can only relate to white people. I suppose people of color have gotten over themselves in this respect, but white people are still too racist—at least that’s what the executive decisions seem to demonstrate. Obviously, they aren’t: I mean, couldn’t people relate to Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire? Wasn’t Avatar the Last Airbender a wildly popular TV show despite its main characters not all fair or male or coded Christian (since the Airbenders seem to have Buddhist leanings…and Avatar is a Hindu word, and reincarnation is a Hindu concept)? Doesn’t every movie with Will Smith do ridiculously well?
(Hm, it seems another problem is that people can’t seem to relate to someone who isn’t a white guy as well. But that’s for another time.)
Anyway, one notable part of the casting of The Last Airbender is how the casting call asked for “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” Why the preference for Caucasian—and, in a fantasy series where people clamor to say that as fantasy, race doesn’t matter, why do the main characters not even look the same?
M. Night Shyamalan suggested it was because he cast one character and had to cast the sibling as white too. And then the main character, Aang, is played by a boy who knows some martial arts. I think the Aang part is justified (although Noah Ringer hasn’t said anything in the trailers, which doesn’t bode well), but the other characters…feel like a cop out. And fans are reacting quite negatively to this, as sites like www.racebending.com and www.racialicious.com demonstrate. Several of them will be boycotting the movie, including me.
I think the main problem here is the justifications. The Prince of Persia is white because of history; the Airbender series is a fantasy so we can put whoever we want in it, despite the influences or looks of the characters and culture. These justifications are so loaded, because it feels—especially to people of color—that we are being pushed aside. It feels as if it’s all about how do we make this about white people? People suggest that Avatar the Last Airbender is actually based on fantasy and they see characters as white and it really doesn’t matter because it’s all about the actor anyway. You know what? No. I don’t get that. It doesn’t fly for me. Because fantasy can mean putting in people of color (as shows like the British shows of Doctor Who and Merlin show, fantasy means there is a certain looseness in the casting of characters); it means we can deviate from the “white as the default,” and finally, it does matter! Okay? It matters! There’s a reason this site talks about this!
It matters because it stops on-screen segregation, which divides the mind. As I mentioned before, these decisions imply that white people can’t relate to anyone but white people—and when it’s a fantasy, when the rules go out the window in terms of environment, reality, and magic, when the only thing constant in to the world and reality is people’s speech patterns and human bodies and relationships (and maybe not even that! Remember Spock?) this suggests that the only reason they can only relate to white people is because those people have white skin!
That is not how people work. At least people who aren’t racist. But by pushing this agenda with the constant isolation, executives seem to be pandering to people who are.