Tuesday, June 2, 2020
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The Whitewashing Epidemic in Hollywood

It’s a classic storyline: Prince Charming comes to save the day. He’s dashing, he’s handsome and he’s almost always white. His luscious blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes have come to embody the ideal image of masculinity in movies, and more often than not, this costs men of other ethnicities the lead role. This was the case in the original plans for Disney’s live action film for “Mulan,” which as of the beginning of October was going to center around a male European trader who comes to China to defeat the film’s villain. While it has historically been accepted to cast leading white actors in all major films, in recent years, protest has erupted when white actors are cast as characters who are meant to be non-white. While Hollywood is finally beginning to reflect people’s demands for more diverse castings, it still has a long way to go before it fairly represents minorities in film.

Disney’s twist on the original “Mulan” story is vastly different from the original animated picture, which focused on a young Chinese woman disguising herself to fight in her country’s army and falling in love with her Chinese commander along the way. After the hashtag #MakeMulanRight surfaced, Disney announced that it had changed its casting description to include an all-Chinese cast. However, I believe its original plan speaks volumes about the film industry’s mindset on minorities in leading roles, which has been ongoing throughout history.

Across the decades, the media has shaped the idea of an attractive person in America to be white. Fair skin has been a staple on the runway, TV shows and movies since the dawn of cameras. In this way, our culture has historically accepted the vision of “normal” as a white American. It’s become a familiar experience to watch attractive white men and women taking on famous roles on the screen. However, considering that almost forty percent of Americans are non-white, according to the US Census, copious amounts of minority actors are passed over for these roles and, more importantly, a majority of audience members never see their races represented in the movies. But in the past years, growing awareness of diversity in America has begun to challenge this notion of “white normality” in films, refusing to accept the lack of representation of minorities who now make up a huge part of our population.

While I believe we’ve progressed from the infamous Mickey Rooney portrayal of Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with taped eyelids, buck teeth and an overdramatic, stereotypical Chinese accent, minority characters are simply being transformed into white ones instead of being represented by non-white actors. Another contemporary example of this is Emma Stone in the 2015 movie “Aloha,” when she was cast as Allison Ng, a character described in the film as being a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian. Emma Stone is neither. Criticism erupted over this, leading the film’s writer and director to eventually issue an apology for casting the white actress in a role made for a minority.

Disney’s decision to include an all-Chinese cast in “Mulan” is a huge step in the right direction, and will finally give Asian actors an opportunity to carry lead roles in a major feature film. As America becomes more diverse and aware of the lack of minority representation, Hollywood will have to adjust to the demand for fewer white faces on the screen, and finally feature more minority talent in the roles they were made for.

Claire Harvey is a second-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at cpharvey@uci.edu