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I can’t get no representation: whitewashing storytelling in popular media

April 25th, 2012     by Raisa Bhuiyan     Comments

Dear Shameless reader,

I’ve just come home from watching popular film of the week The Hunger Games with a sour taste in my mouth and an angry grumbling motion vibrating through my intestines. It seems as though the white-washing of Hunger Games protagonist Katniss has given me yet another case of racial indigestion. In fact, I’m currently cursing myself for being hopeful in thinking that some satisfaction could be had with regards to how people of colour are represented in our popular media.

Can you blame me though?

Every time I hear that a big shot film depicting some form of oppression or discrimination is coming out, I get excited. I get excited because I start hoping that there’s been some equitable representation of people of colour in these movies. I get so excited that I start hoping with all my might that some representational justice will be done to the racialized character(s) and that they won’t be doomed to forever remain as the one-dimensional support system to the main, typically white protagonist. I start hoping that maybe, just maybe the character(s) of colour will finally be presented as full, complex human beings.

But I was wrong.

If you already haven’t been blasted with Hunger Games-saturated trailers and interviews as of late, do let me remind you that Katniss is the central character of the story, whose experiences as a contestant of the Hunger Games make up the storyline of the book. In addition to being characterized by author Suzanne Collins as a radical female hero-warrior combating institutionalized oppression in a dystopia in the future, Katniss is also characterized as being olive-skinned. But as Hollywood page-to-screen synergy would have it, the casting call for Katniss indicated that only Caucasian actors apply.

While some critics and die-hard fans of the Hunger Games universe would and have indeed rationalized this not-so subtle change of the character’s race in the film as a necessary modification required to draw out more audiences to earn the film its blockbuster status (Jennifer Lawrence was already a big name), I would argue that the race-swap of Katniss’ character brings to attention a handful of uncomfortable questions regarding the representation of people of colour in popular media.

One of these key questions is: why are all the characters we see in Western film and TV white?

Other questions include: even when they’re not white, why is it common practise to white-wash characters of colour?

Why is it also common practise to hire white actors to play racialized roles?

(See: The Dragonball Z movie, Prince of Persia, The upcoming Tonto and the Lone Ranger, Tropic Thunder, Touch of Evil, Airbender, Drive, Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

Is there a lack of actors of colour? Or is there something else at work?

What kinds of messages does erasing the race of characters put forward for readers? Does it imply that that characters of colour are not worth learning about?

How does a story’s narrative suffer when the full complexity of people from all walks of life are erased/denied?

To me, whenever I hear someone legitimating the racial erasure of a character in my favourite film, book or show, I feel they are implying that racialized characters don’t deserve the viewer/reader’s attention in the story. Whenever someone brings up the fact that Marlon and Damon Wayans dressed up in “whiteface” for their film “White Chicks” to underscore the systemic trend of white actors donning blackface and yellowface in Hollywood, I feel like they are implying that only white actors can have the power to play different roles. Whenever I discover that the most popular book franchise of the day centers on the experiences of a white character, I feel like authors are implying that only white characters are worth writing about.

While it is commonly understood that there will be variations between how a character is presented in a book and how they are depicted on screen, the explicit whitewashing of characters in Hollywood films reflects a larger move in exercising cultural domination. Haunani-Kay Trask explains in her essay, “The Color of Violence,” that “colonialism began with conquest and is today maintained by a settler administration created out of the doctrine of cultural hierarchy, a hierarchy in which European Americans and whiteness dominate non-European Americans and darkness.” Trask goes on to explain that the exercise of cultural domination of people of colour and Indigenous people by a colonialist country like Canada operates according to a flawless logic that requires a hierarchy of power based on race in order to exist. According to Trask, this power hierarchy can only function if people of colour are kept subordinated by the exercise of cultural domination. For the interests of this post, it is worth considering how such a form of cultural domination can be manifested in something as simple as storytelling.

The creators of stories, whether that story be conveyed orally, through print, video, film or television have much power in opening up spaces from where stories can be expressed differently from the racist, sexist, ableist, heteronormative way many stories have been told in the western media. I believe the power in storytelling stems from the fact that it allows an audience to imagine otherwise by stepping into that world of fantasy. And by imagining otherwise, I mean enabling an audience to imagine narratives with different societal structures, different ways of communicating with one another and different worlds. Whether the story be based in fantasy, myth or reality, stories have always given people the chance to escape their everyday life and step into spaces where they can feel safe and comfort.

Having said this, what troubles me the most is the fact that even in fantastical stories like The Hunger Games, the structure of racial privilege as it stands currently simply gets reinforced as normal. I find this reinforcement of racial privilege to be especially scary for people of colour, since stories and storytelling end up creating destructive stereotypes of what a person can and can’t be. I also find this reinforcement of racial privilege in storytelling to be particularly dangerous in the way that it upholds the experiences of white people to be THE universal experience.

In closing, instead of suggesting a possible solution to this systemic trend in storytelling, I’d rather ask you, the reader, what you think storytellers could do to make characters of colour have more of a voice and representation in stories. More specifically, how can storytellers go beyond simply just representing more diversity in their stories to present characters of colour as the full, complex, human beings they are?

Tags: in my opinion..., media savvy, race and racism

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