White hand painting white paint on a tree.

Just a little whitewash

There’s been a lot of internet talk lately about whitewashing. In this context, it means taking a character, story, trope or hero from a culture and recasting it as a white character or a white story. Here is a definition from the blog sociological cinema. Like cultural appropriation, which I admit I still don’t completely understand, whitewashing makes people of color disappear from history and from stories. (Not just people of color, but this column will deal mostly with people of color as an example.)

A big, and shocking, example in the SFF world is  Walt Disney Studios, which decided to remake the classic Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell as a live action film. ( Whaaaat? Nooooo! Why?) That’s the first problem right there, but in case they hadn’t already gone wrong, they decided to cast well-known American-Japanese actor Scarlett Johannson as the lead character of Motoko Kusinagi. What? You didn’t know that Johansson is of Japanese origin? Neither did anybody else. It’s because she’s not.

I didn’t know enough about Dr Strange to be upset by the casting of the awesome Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in the upcoming movie, because I didn’t know the Ancient One was Asian. Frankly, I didn’t know the Ancient One was terrestrial. I love Tilda Swinton, but again, there are plenty of American-Asian and Asian actors who would have melded to the role perfectly.

Studios can make money-based arguments for both of these cases. These are name actors who bring an audience, or that’s what the studios probably think. And after all, Scarlett Johannson deserves a vehicle as an action-hero, doesn’t she? And it isn’t like she’s associated in anyone’s mind with an existing action-hero character, perhaps from an American comic book. Wouldn’t it be great if she were?

Anyway, in both these high-profile missteps, studios can mount an economic argument, and when Ghost in the Shell fails they can blame Johannson –women superhero movies don’t work– and the perfectly balanced closed system will chug merrily along. Sometimes, though, whitewashing isn’t done in gallons, with an economic rationalization. It’s done for no reason whatsoever, and it’s just baffling… or worse, it’s not baffling at all, it’s proof of unconscious bias, and a system that makes sure we never see too many people of color (for an in-determinant value of “too many”) in any piece of entertainment media.

An example of this is Syfy’s series The Expanse.

I loved The Expanse, and I watched it before I had read any of the books. It made me want to read the books, which makes it a success by my reckoning. The casting is excellent mostly and these actors own their characters. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it; I reviewed it at FanLit and you can read the review.

About that casting. The major roles are perfect. There is a minor role that is confusing though. She’s only in two episodes, and in one of them she is having low-gravity sex, which required the actor to do wire-work, so, you know, “Good Work!”. The character’s name is Ade, and she is the girlfriend of James Holden, one of the two main characters. Spoiler alert; a bad thing happens and that’s why she is only in two episodes.

Ade had blond hair, white skin and looked rather Scandinavian (the actor who plays her is named Kristen Hager). I didn’t think much about it, because I wasn’t familiar with the name Ade, which did sound like it could be Scandinavian or at least futurist-Scandinavian. Then I read Leviathan Wakes. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Ade is Nigerian. Nigerian. Ade is a name of African origin. And I don’t think that the Ade of the book was part of that tiny enclave of Swedes, or Finns, or Danes who settled in Nigeria in 1362, and which I’ve just made up. No, I think James S.A. Corey imagined Holden’s onboard squeeze as a gorgeous dark-skinned woman.

Why in the world would you bleach Nigerian Ade into white Ade, even giving her a Scandinavian last name (Nygaard, according to the credits)? Who thought this was necessary? I’m pushed into a position of actually hoping it was patronage and corruption, and that Hager got the job because she is someone’s girlfriend. Because there is no other reason. None.

Or, there might be. There is another stunning dark-skinned woman in the series, Naomi, and she and James will become a couple at some point. Did casting people think we’d be confused if James had two dark-skinned girlfriends? (It’s easy to tell them apart in the show. Ade’s gone. The one who’s left, that’s Naomi. See? Easy.)

Did they just reach a point, without reflection, without decision, without thought and without discussion, that somehow some threshold had been met; there were “enough” dark-skinned people in the series, so they’d bleach one? Did that unspoken gauge of “too many” tick over into the red zone?

Or, Hager tested really well in an audition for some other role and they liked her, so they bleached Ade and gave it to her. Okay, that might be fair. I could be persuaded it was fair if I believed they would do the same thing for a dark-skinned actor who they really liked, without talking about whether it was right to “change” a white character. And I don’t believe, for a minute, they would do that.

Idris Elba

Dude, it’s Idris Elba

(I know, I know, Heimdahl in Marvel’s Thor movies. You think casting Idris Elba makes an argument that they would do that. I can refute that argument in three words; it’s Idris Elba.)

I’m choosing the example of Ade because it is tiny and insidious. Ade is part of a background; part of a futuristic world where, still, there aren’t many dark faces. And there’s no story-based reason why not; in fact, the books have all kinds of people, with all kinds of skin color, hair color, cultures, habits and lives. Blond Ade doesn’t reflect the future world of The Expanse; she reflects the white inner world of studio executives.

Ade is less than a cup of whitewash, but that’s too much. Studios and casting directors, you try hard to rationalize away the big plum roles when you bleach them to whiteness. What excuse do you have for the Ades? Stop whitewashing the small roles first, to give yourselves some practice. Maybe, eventually, you will build up the courage to cast the bigger roles right as well.

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