Written by DY
With the recent coverage of the Iron Fist series, it appears the terms whitewashing and white savior have been used interchangeably. Some are under the impression that people are complaining that the protagonist in Iron Fist was whitewashed. Whitewashing refers to when a white person is used to portray a person of another race or to replace a person initially specified as another race. Recent examples are Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell, where the characters in the original work were Asian but have been cast with white actors for the American films. Based on the definition of whitewashing, people would be right in their conviction that the Iron Fist showrunners did not commit whitewashing; the character of Danny Rand from the comic book had always been a white character.
However, people are not complaining that Iron Fist whitewashed; people are complaining that the show utilizes the White Savior trope. A trope that refers to when a white character is included in a story for the sole purpose of saving non-white characters who are unable to save themselves. Another recent example of a narrative that used this trope was The Great Wall, where the white character was the protagonist and hero of the story although the story took place in China. There are other examples of this trope being used in relation to Asians, such as The Last Samurai, but this trope has also been seen in movies with other minority groups, for instance, The Help and The Blind Side which focuses on African Americans need for a savior and Dances with Wolves focusing on Native Americans need for a savior.
Hopefully, this clears things up.
But why is it so wrong to race-bend or gender-bend? These are fictitious pieces and artists should be free to have creative expression.
As an artist, myself, I agree. I think it’s fun to race-bend and gender-bend and explore all the various creative possibilities. However, people are concerned because the bending often skews in one direction; not leaving many opportunities for underrepresented groups. Last year, USC Annenberg School released the “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment“ study, which shows only 28.3% of speaking roles (let alone lead roles) were given to underrepresented groups in 2015 across film, broadcast, cable and streaming platforms. Underrepresented groups include multiple groups; 12.2% Black, 5.8% Hispanic/Latino, 5.1% Asian, 2.3% Middle Eastern and 3.1% Other. These groups are labeled as underrepresented because these figures are not proportionate with the actual U.S. minority population which accounts for 37.9% of the population.
With very few opportunities available to minorities, the hope is that they can at least obtain the roles that are specific to their culture; something that they would particularly have knowledge of. But when those are not even an option, what does that leave them with?
Also, this is not something new. From the beginning of Hollywood, there were white actors who used blackface in movies. Blackface is when white actors would use dark facial makeup, often cork, to give them a dark-skinned appearance to portray black people on screen and stage. Therefore, African Americans would have a hard time getting acting jobs because the few roles that were available to them could just as well be given to a white actor. I realize there are other negative implications with blackface, but that would require another article to dive into that topic deeper.
Additionally, some may not be aware, but there is also something called yellowface. In early Hollywood and not so early Hollywood, white actors portrayed Asian American characters often taping their eyes to look the part. A few times this have occurred was with Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and a large proportion of the cast in The Good Earth. Also, I’m sure many are familiar with the television series Kung Fu where David Carradine (Kill Bill) plays the lead; he also reprised the same role in the 1990s update, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. You may perceive that there weren’t many Asian American actors until recently, but in 1961 there was a full motion picture musical production released with a majority Asian cast called Flower Drum Song. That musical has a well-known song you may have heard of called “I Enjoy Being a Girl” sung by Peggy Lee. (Love that song!)
Got it. But for adaptations such as Ghost in the Shell and Death Note which already had an Asian version made, shouldn’t America be able to make their version?
America should be able to make their version since there was already an original made in Asia. It would be great to see adaptations that reflect all races in America; including Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and all the other great people who make up America. It would be wonderful to see a Japanese American in the lead of one of the recent Japan adaptations because the Japanese and Japanese Americans are different with different cultures. It’s like with Africans and African Americans, they may be of the same race but have cultures independent of one another, and both would expect opportunities to represent their group and particular culture. For a great article on this subject, please take a moment to read this blog post about a recent interview with Constance Wu, “Constance Wu: Asians And Asian-Americans Are Not The Same.”
Alright, but why is this such a big deal? This is simply entertainment; it’s not important like saving the world.
A study named, “Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem,” found that white girls, black girls, and black boys’ self-esteem decrease from watching television while white boys’ self-esteem increases. Per the study, negative images of females and black males are frequently portrayed on television where in contrast positive and fruitful images are often used to depict white men. This is important because research shows significant behavioral and emotional ramifications are linked to self-esteem.
Additionally, please watch this video, “Ghost in the Shell PSA,” created by 26-year-old Jes Tom and 28-year-old Chewy May, that expresses their personal experience as Asian American children and media’s impact on their self-image.
DY is an aspiring filmmaker, writer, and actress; she loves all genres but is increasingly becoming interested in writing fantasy and sci-fi. She’s also a martial arts practitioner; not a black belt yet, but getting there. When she’s not fighting, she’s spending all of her time watching anime and movies and reading comic books. Follow her on Twitter @dyprinzess.
I am speaking on behalf of myself, and my views do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else.