Since most movies these days are filled with the so-called ‘default’ cast of characters, the straight, white, able-bodied array of personalities, it’s no surprise that many movie fans find themselves defending Hollywood when it comes out with yet another white-washed story.
In addition to Walt Disney’s already Eurocentric array of films, the company released Frozen in 2013; a very loose adaptation of The Snow Queen that made even die-hard Disney fans groan with impatience. Considering how little the tale takes from the original fairytale, certain fans were very quick to defend Disney from the other offended fans that claim the tale should have included people of color. The defending fans were outraged by the ‘political correctness’ of their fellow fans, and argued that there could be no PoC in Denmark since the country is predominantly white. Yet not only does this skip over those in Denmark who aren’t white and ignore the concept of immigration, but it also implies that geographical accuracy is somehow more important than cultural diversity, than representing cultures and races who vaguely have any representation at all. Also, considering the fact that there is a talking snowman and a girl who shoots ice from her hands, geographical accuracy, or any type of realism, should have no place in the film, and to argue one type of realism over another is extremely hypocritical.
Conversely, Disney has shown that they can break their own pattern and show other races and cultures; The Princess And The Frog, Aladdin, and Mulan break their lily-white routine. Though there are problematic stereotypes to consider within these films, they were still a break away from purely white characters that inhabit Eurocentric tales. The Princess And the Frog in particular is a good example of how Disney said screw-you to historical accuracy and original-story continuity, and just look how well the response to the film turned out.
Another disturbing example of this lack of Hollywood diversity, and narrow-minded fan defenses, is the case of Harry Potter’s Lavender Brown. Across two films Lavender was played by two black-British actresses, appearing only in background shots with no dialogue, but as soon as she was given a sub-plot and some lines, she was re-cast as a white actress. The previous actresses were not asked to return to reprise their role, begging the question why this re-cast was made, and what agenda fueled it.
Just as with Frozen, many Harry Potter fans saw no problem with this re-cast and went out of their way to defend it, saying the writers were only trying to keep continuity with the book, stating fabricated book quotes describing the white skin and blonde hair Lavender was never once described as having. So again we find ourselves with the accuracy over diversity argument, yet considering Harry Potter’s track-record with breaking book-to-film-continuity, and considering the fact that these accuracies were incredibly inaccurate anyway, we can see how hard people will work to defend their racist thoughts. It’s almost as if the writers were implying PoC should be seen and not heard, and that a black girl was not good enough to date Ron Weasley.
Many pieces of creative license were taken in Harry Potter and Frozen to make the films unique and different from their parchment predecessor were okay with these fans, so why does creative license stop at race?
Because we let it.
We’re so afraid of change, afraid of looking at anyone who isn’t like us, afraid of our white-guilt, afraid of what our ancestors taught us, afraid of everything, so we blame historical and geographical accuracy so we won’t have to admit to any of the above. We blame historical and geographical accuracy so we won’t have to admit that we just don’t care about anybody else but ourselves, that when we are asked to picture ten people standing in a row, our minds don’t picture a range of different races and cultures or personalities, all ten of those people are just carbon copies of ourselves because that’s all we can be bothered knowing.
Let’s consider the statistics of racial diversity in present-day Hollywood. A study conducted by USC’s Annenberg School For Communications and Journalism, looked into 500 recent top grossing films released between 2007 and 2012, the films containing a total of 20,000 characters, give or take. They discovered that across the 100 top grossing films of 2012, only 10.8% of speaking characters were black, 5% being Asian, that Hispanic characters made up a mere 4.2%, and a measly 3.6% from other ethnicities and mixed races. Hollywood really must have a bunch of iron stomachs as quite frankly those statistics are sickening. If you were to match these figures up with the number of willing and able PoC drama students awaiting their big break, then you’d get a huge shock. Typically a whopping 80.6% of speaking characters within that year where white, 76.3% of the entire 5 year sample, showing a relatively stable trend from start to finish. Behind the scenes is also a disturbing set of numbers; for every black director in Hollywood there is a ratio of 16 non-black directors, and only two of them being female. In terms of awards, the numbers are even more scarcer; the first African-American woman to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel for her supporting role in Gone With The Wind, it took a whopping 30 years for this to happen again, the award went to Sidney Poitier for his role in Coming To Dinner. 30 years, give me 6 years and I’ll be as old as that gap.
So where are the actors, the directors, the audio engineers, and every other Hollywood artist in these numbers? There’s no doubt that they’re out there, waiting for their shot that has been given to countless white entertainers who yes many of whom got there on their own right, but who never once had to worry that they’d be held back due to the color of their skin. This race-dependent job security has to stop.
I’ve had plenty of people tell me that diversity and representation in film won’t change anything, and that they don’t see what problems it leads to, well let me tell you what it leads to, and what will change if we act now:
More faces of representation:
According to Hollywood, white actors can play anything, yet an Asian transgender woman is only allowed to play a fictional Asian transgender woman, if that.
Not only is this kind of thing a troubling double standard but it also causes perfectly fine actors to be overlooked, because they are not the popular ‘default’. Time, money, and experience are lost constantly due to the closed minded idea that all we want to see is a whitewashed world.
What we can do: If we only stopped putting boxes around our characters, stating how they have to be white and straight to fit the plot, then actors would be able to go for most available roles, and we would find countless races well represented.
Children’s adaptation of diversity:
Children are like sponges, if you show them a world with the so-called default they will think that’s all there is, they may bully those unlike them if they come from the default, or they may bully themselves if they don’t.
What we can do: Representation is vital to making children aware of the world around them, and make them feel like an insider rather than an outsider; think of all the children in Disneyland who beam when they see princesses and icons like them: the little white girl coos at Aurora, the little black girl beams at Tiana, and the little Chinese girl grins at Mulan. The more you represent, the more you decrease self-consciousness, and bullying.
The Erasure of Formulaic Films:
Offensive attitudes are of course more damaging, but something else that anti-diversity leads to is unoriginality. Different cultures come with different viewpoints and styles, if we continue to be thrown the same cultures then are being shown the same thing over and over, it gets old very quickly. Whitewashing previously cultural stories also implements this formula on stories should have been diverse in the first place.
What we can do: Jumping out of your comfort zone and writing about someone who isn’t the American fish out of water character makes your art stand out from the rest, doing a little extra research and planning a new diverse set of characters will give you something special. A good example of a TV show that has leapt away from this formula is Orange Is The New Black; with a diverse cast and important thematic messages, this show shows an interesting array of characters we haven’t really seen before on television, and with all the awards it has won and ratings it’s ranking up, isn’t that a sign that we want to see more original concepts and characters like this?
Stop Cultural appropriation and misrepresentation:
Casting white actors to play non-white roles not only takes way the job of some of that race/nationality, but also often creates a blatantly racist stereotype, or whitewashes the character to the point where there is no seeable difference between the two cultures. From Katherine Hepburn’s Jade Tan to Johnny Depp’s Tonton, Hollywood has been race-bending for decades, and it teaches people that races are nothing but masks to either dawn glamorously, or disdainfully.
What we can do: It’s as simple as hiring the right actor for the right part, they are out there waiting. Write about what you know and research appropriately, otherwise you take with you nothing but stereotypes and assumptions. Creating hashtag campaigns and writing articles on the hypocrisies also goes a long way to alerting people to the problems of Hollywood, just get the message out and change will one day follow.
Dear Hollywood, ultimately diversity and representation isn’t difficult. By extending your creative license and doing a little more research you not only get a great piece of fiction, you also give people jobs, show little girls they are princesses, and just show the world as it really is; full of different and beautiful cultures. The more you represent someone the more their undeserved stigma will fade, and the more equal we will become. If you still don’t think representation is important, then you’re probably already pretty well represented. Diversity is not some condescending tool to gain more viewers but a way to bring everyone together and spotlight those who deserve to be spotlighted, so let’s try and change the way we all think about our fictional worlds, and create new ones.