Monday, August 1, 2016

Here We Go Again: More White Washing and Savioring

Admittedly, I had no intention of really blogging about this, but two things happened, close enough to each other that the resonance in my head (and heart) was pretty loud. (Also, a friend asked about it on FB, and my initial response became over two pages in Word...) First, I iked the trailer I saw for Kubo and the Two Strings when my partner and I went to see Finding Dory a few weekends ago. I'll embed one here for you, in case you aren't familiar:

But something about it unsettled me, and I couldn't place it at the time. After seeing a different one on TV, I realized that the Big Dude sounded alarmingly like Matthew McConaughey. So a quick IMDB search (link above already) fixed it and proved me right. And I say "alarmingly like" him because he's white. And so is the vast majority of the gorram cast, and all of the major hitters for the crew (writers, director, producers). Sure, George Takei is in there, I would guess for a bit  role... Buuuuut... it looks like it's set in Japan, right? Yes, since synopses on various sites (just Google it) mention in some way how Kubo's father was a samurai. So... that bothered me, and still does. 

Then I saw a poster for The Great Wall and didn't think much of it, because I only looked at the picture, not the words... But I realized just how white-wash-ee it is when I saw the trailer:

So... Yeah. That's two in less than a month for me, and it makes my fingers twitch with Internet Indignation.* 

I want to start with some links to various responses to both by people of Asian ethnicity, commenting on the whiteness. I'm not Asian American, so I'm not trying to speak for them, and it's important to include the voices of people being affected when advocating. So here's one about Kubo, and a good tweet and then a VERY well-written piece about The Great Wall

So, now be prepared for my long ramble. Let's start with the stories themselves. Both are historical fantasy/fiction. One may even call them... fanfic?

Okay, but seriously. While nothing exists in a vacuum (except, you know, black holes and the like, ‘natch), the two stories, taken at face value and ignoring any other context or baggage, are set in the pasts of real people involving fantastical elements of magic and wonder (I mean, blatantly so with Kubo, and apparently Willem Defoe voices a dragon in Great Wall, so... yeah). While the story behind Kubo itself seems fine (as in not racist), the idea that a white dude was there when the Great Wall was being built and led the resistance against a siege of dragons that saved China is pretty bad. THAT story reinforces narratives that at least somewhat implicitly, if not very blatantly, present the idea that only white people (usually men) can solve the world’s problems. TV Tropes calls it “MightyWhitey," while most call it the “White Savior” narrative. It can be told in various ways, and sure, there may be people of color that play important roles in the narratives, and  they may  have great stories of their own within the overall narrative; shoot, they may  even have better development than the white character(s). But in the end, the “true” hero of the story is white. The one that solves the problem while surrounded by people  of color is the white person/team/etc.

I think in some ways, this trope is related to the White Man's Burden and White Guilt, but the reason it ends up problematic is, even if those intentions are good, the motivations come from a selfish place. In the end, the white people look like dufuses. 

This narrative, then, is problematic because, well,  obviously, white people aren’t the only problem solvers in the world. They don’t have the monopoly on intelligence, capability, resource management, or whatever else that ends up making things better in the end. There have been plenty of people of color that actually DID make history; and there are countless more that affected it and were ignored because of their ethnicity; and there are countless right now that are making a difference that go unnoticed, too. This trope is entirely fantasy, and a narcissistic one, at that. Putting white people at the center of a tale about people of color is kind of like the “All Lives Matter” of storytelling: we just can't tell a story about people of color without including white people, because that would be exclusionary!, or so says the white Zeitgeist. And while we’re at it, this is really about white people, anyway, right? It’s almost comical, really. Almost.

To be cynical, mainstream HISTORY is a White Savior narrative: You get sidestories about famous people of color, but they’re few and far between, and only recently did we get more information about people of color that helped organize against oppression and what have you. It’s why something that one would THINK is absurd such as Black History  Month is necessary. But in textbooks, people of color (and women) usually just get a special section every chapter (at best); the rest of the book is about the White Dudes moving and shaking. I mean, okay, I'm a feminist, and while I do think "herstory" is... a bit  much, I also do recognize there are serious problems in how mainstream history education rolls. It presents the main drivers of history pretty much always as white men; those little asides and extra sections for non-men and non-whites are snippets, like supplemental links you can hover over when reading something online to get an extra info bubble. 

So fictional stories that perpetuate the same exclusion of people of color reinforce the “truth” we “learn” in schools. So now, in The Great Wall, this fictionalized version of history immersed in a culture that isn't white, is being drawn up with a white man at center stage. He's not a token white guy, he's the central figure. That's whitewashing, even if it's fiction, because they're contextualizing the whole ruddy thing as the "true story behind the construction of the Great Wall of China." (Of course, that's not a direct quote, but the text on the poster and during the trailer indicate they're fictionalizing true events.) Now I wouldn’t say that it’s amoral to make any movie starring a white dude, but it is problematic, at best, to drop a handful of white people into a story about a large group of people of color, make the story about how those white people saved the day, and  then tout it as a triumph of diversity (as some try to do; not necessarily  this film in particular, but it happens  a lot with this trope, like with The Last Samurai for example), while also selling it as the "untold story" or whatever of a real Thing. 

In other words, they're ret-conning actual history to pretend that a white dude is responsible for the actual Great Wall.

This is also a problem from a representational standpoint. Here we have a movie with a premise that BEGS for a cast of entirely non-white people. Ideally, of Japanese actors (actually from there, or of Japanese ethnicity, at least). It is a perfect chance to give people of color big roles in a big blockbuster movie. And yet, we literally have a white dude as the poster child. And that, in itself, is ridiculous. And disappointing. 

And this is where the casting of Kubo comes back into play.  While the characters are all Japanese (or... animals... or... ghosts... or whatever...), the actors portraying their voices are not. And sure, as the piece I linked already states, they're animated, and we aren't seeing any actors' actual faces. But. It isn't like there are no Asian actors out there. And taking away these roles from them, is egregious. I mean, these characters in Kubo aren't just generic characters that were, as per usual, cast with white actors. They are Japanese people that are being voiced by white people. I mean, I love Matthew McConaughey** and Charlize Theron. They're wonderful actors. But they're both pretty damn white. I mean, c'mon:

I've referenced this blog post before, but I just don't think I can better describe why whitewashing is problematic, and don't think I ever will, because it is so simplistic and perfect. I encourage you to read it, and think of it in the grand context of representation in film, or in comics or books, or on TV, in video games... whatever. And while the version of whitewashing she's talking about is when a character's reboot or remake or whatever is changed from being a person of color to being white, the principal  is the same: The characters in Kubo are animated as Japanese, but portrayed by whites, so think of the bowls as the roles different actors could take; the left bowl, then, is roles that go to white people, and the one on the right is those going to people of color. See how it's a bad thing now? Yeah.

What's worse is that actors of color already have it harder, so casting a character that is written as Japanese with a white actor is exceptionally egregious. The best way I can describe it is imagine you were applying for a job, with the father of a friend of yours. Now, this friend, you may love the pants off of them (not literally), they may be a great person, but you know they don't need the job- they  already have one, and their dad's connections could get them another in less than a day, if something ever happened. But, more importatly, they aren't half as qualified as you. Like the job requires a degree in math, which you have, and theirs is in creative writing. But you get a rejection letter, and then come to find out their dad gave them the job, instead. It's basically racial nepotism, preventing people of color from getting acting gigs for which they're perfect. And it's bad enough when it's a generic casting call; when the role is for someone of color, it's not borderline offensive, it IS offensive.

And this has a lot to do with the financial aspect/ what Hollywood “will allow,” so to speak, etc. I find it very unfortunate that Matt Damon, who apparently has even promised his production company will strive to increase diversity in film, would agree to star in yet another White Savior film. Elysium is a wonderful example of how “Hollywood wouldn’t allow” a person of color star in a movie about… people of color. The writer and director of that film (Niell Blomkamp, same person that did District 9) wrote it with a cast mostly of people of color  in mind (at least, on the good side- anyone on  actual Earth was intended to be of color, and we’re supposed to root for people on Earth, not on the space colony), and, importantly, with a central character of Hispanic ethnicity. But the Sony mucky-mucks told Blomkamp he had to cast mainstream actors (read: a white man as the lead), or they’d pull funding and support. So this put him in a tricky spot: Decline on moral principal because he wanted to tell an intersectional story about race, class, and human  rights, or keep going to tell as much of the story he still could, sacrificing most of the racial element. In the end, obviously, he went with the former, and Matt Damon ended up taking that central role, previously intended for a Hispanic man.

Now, if Matt Damon is as smart as he seems (don't let the South Park goons fool you), then why didn't he decline? I would guess because he sometimes passes himself off as an activist, and a movie with such strong political messages was something he couldn't pass up, despite how white-wash-ee it was. He and Blomkamp may have denied it, but whatever. 

So the main thing to think  about is WHY a white executive would insist on a white lead. There’s no solid and real answer, but I personally  think it has to do with institutionally racist assumptions about what “people want” in movies. These white executives, perhaps subconsciously, project their own worldview onto what everyone that may watch a movie they fund would want to see. These guys may or may not be overtly racist in their everyday lives, but if subconscious, it's more about projecting the kind of people they personally would relate to on who they assume everyone else would. In the case of Elysium, and I think in the two films under larger scrutiny here, I think it's more that the companies want big actors to attract big dollars.

But this, of course, leads to the chicken-egg conundrum. If actors of color aren't given the chance to be in big movies, they won't ever draw in the big bucks. And having a handful like Sam Jackson, Halle Berry, and Morgan Freeman isn't nearly as proportional as for white actors- again, remember the raisin bit. And even if the Chinese companies involved in The Great Wall wanted a bunch of white actors, that doesn't preclude those decisions and actions from being racist. It's institutional racism, some of the worst kind. They may be Chinese companies, but they want to make money in a capitalist system, and capitalism is inherently racist, misogynist, ableist, etc.  The actors that have already drawn in the biggest money are white, so, naturally, the executives want  mostly white actors leading the cast. It's a self-sustaining, system, a self-fulfilling prophecy, IT'S AN ADORABLE DOG CHASING ITS OWN TAIL!

But Kubo also suffers from having an entirely white production crew and executives. Kubo, in my opinion, is a bad case of backdoor cultural appropriation. It  would be one thing if they bothered to give some of the main characters Japanese actors for their voices, but they didn't. It's a bunch of white people getting together to tell a Japanese story because it's cool. I'm sure the movie has great messages and is probably  really fucking amazing, but damnit, it's frustrating as Hell that the big wigs just decided they wanted to make a movie that is "a samurai movie at heart" and talk about making their characters "feel real" and not even match the characters' ethnicities to those of the actors portraying them. It's sloppy, lazy, and depressingly exemplary of white privilege.  I'm sure they picked  the white actors for similar reasons as the people behind  The Great Wall, but at least with Great Wall, some people of color will benefit, even if it's Chinese executives; and in that case, Chinese people were involved in telling their own story. In this case,  it's a bunch of white people.

Also, while we're on cultural appropriation, there is a larger discussion about white pressure on people  of color that are involved, not necessarily the filmmakers themselves, when it comes to film making, and how white people like to use token involvement to excuse their racist garble (the involvement of Comanche in The Lone Ranger is a lovely example of that); even though I don't see any evidence any Japanese people  were involved, it's important to remember this  happens a lot, that the white people Doing a Thing will get a blessing from a token person or small group of persons of color and say all's good in da hood, and despite a large amount of people of that minority group disagreeing. 

So sayeth errbody else

But we don't have to worry about that here too much... since they didn't involve any Japanese people. 

So, the short version is that The Great Wall is offensive because it perpetuates ideas that people of color can't solve problems or be heroes; and Kubo is problematic because it's an example of cultural appropriation; while both are kind of bad because they're casting perpetuates racist norms that prevent people of color from getting jobs in the acting business. I do think the decisions in the case of The Great Wall were driven more by capitalism, while those in Kubo's case had more to do with cultural appropriation. Neither is really okay with me, and neither should still be going on in this far into the 21st Century. 

*Oh, dude, that totally should be in Urban Dictionary; I already got one thing in, but I had at least heard that before... "Internet Indignation," I just made that up.

**CHRIST is that dude's name hard to spell. I had to have the IMD page open in a second window next door the first time; the second time, I copy-pasted it. Yeesh.

**This commercial could, itself, get analyzed, but the short version is Charlize is presented as the newest "bombshell," if you will, in a long line of iconic white actresses. There is one person of color I can spot after watching it a few times in a row: A black woman that gets shoved out of the way by Theron as the actress power walks to the runway. Sigh.

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