I realize there has been quite a bit of discussion on the issue of “whitewashing” in mainstream culture. The amount of media coverage dedicated to this controversial issue is gaining even more attention as I write this. For those who aren’t familiar with “whitewashing,” I hope to shed some light on the importance of this issue.
“Whitewashing” in the US has been brought to our attention through different mediums such as novels, comic books, and films. Several have created debates among thousands of people especially to those of different cultural backgrounds.
The “whitewashing” of books refers to the publisher using a Caucasian protagonist on the cover art rather than the real protagonist who is entirely of a different race, and the “whitewashing” of Hollywood films and entertainment, whether it’s an adaptation of books or comic books, is when the main characters (heroes or heroines) are played by white actors, regardless of the intent of the writer.
I was shocked at the picture below since the director of the film, The Last Airbender, is East Indian. Check out these articles: “Hollywood Whitewashing, from John Wayne to Last Airbender” and “Where is Our Culture’s Racial Subconscious in Comic Books?”
“Whitewashing” has been going on for years, and many have noticed its rising trend. But how did this happen? Why did we allow it to go this far? Has the American mainstream become COLORBLIND?
Here is yet another example:
In recent news, the film adaptation of the best-selling young adult series, The Hunger Games, which I’m a huge fan of, is getting the heat for limiting the exposure of what should be a diverse cast.
Here’s the premise:
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008.
Katniss is a 16-year-old girl, described as having olive skin, grey eyes, and dark hair, who lives with her mother and sister in Panem, one of the poorest districts. She has to struggle and search for food daily to take care of her own family. The districts once fought against the Capitol and were defeated. As a result, the Capitol has officially set a rule of punishment that each district send one boy and one girl to compete in the annual Hunger Games, televised for all the citizens to see. When her younger sister's name is chosen, Katniss takes her place. Collins creates a world in which the main characters have to fight and kill whoever or whatever gets in their way in order to stay alive. It is definitely a page-turner. The plot and the action are interspersed seamlessly.
So, you tell me. Should the main character, Katniss, be played by the Caucasian actress, Jennifer Lawrence? Don't get me wrong, Jennifer Lawrence is a very talented young actress. She received a best actress nomination for her role in the film,Winter's Bone, which, by the way, has a good plot.
Of course, Hollywood can easily wave its magic wand and mask identities with hair dye, prosthetics, and make-up. They have the power to do such things. We all know what Hollywood is about--creating blockbuster films and making millions. For them, the only way to draw in massive crowds to the theater is to stick to the familiar.
At least, Suzanne Collins attempted to include people of color in her three novels. But the questions still remain: Couldn’t The Hunger Games film have been the perfect opportunity to try and create a diverse cast of actors? Why not pave the way for future ethnic and minority actors to secure roles they were meant to portray?
Author Ursula K. Le Guin faced the issue of “whitewashing” when her series for teens, Earthsea, got adapted into a TV series. You can read about her own experience, and it’s very honest. "A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books.”
I’m afraid to admit the book publishing industry is already headed down the same path, wanting to sell a certain number of books, only to make millions. It’s disheartening to see how money drives success, and not the true story.
Let’s examine the “Whitewashing of Book Covers.”
Two books I've read, Liar by Justine Larbalestier and Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore, were among the controversy. A publishing house used pictures of Caucasian girls on the book covers to represent the protagonists instead of using pics similar to the real protagonists who aren't Caucasian. Due to the frenzy of anger among certain groups, the covers were replaced immediately.
Here’s Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy, Powers. The original cover art is on the left. The publishers replaced it in time for the official release.
Perhaps writers like me who enjoy writing and reading children’s and YA fiction will continue to work on stories that capture the authenticity of their characters. And maybe, one day, films will cast young people of color or mixed ethnicity to adapt books as they’re truly meant to be represented. As for someone of East Indian descent, born and raised in the US, my hope is the uniqueness of one’s own race is honored and celebrated in stories and films.
Have you come across any other examples of "whitewashing" in the mainstream culture? Where do you stand on this issue? What would you do about it?