11 December 2008

White Privilege: You're soaking in it!

There's a belief among the people who promulgate entertainment that people will only enjoy reading books/watching films/watching TV shows about people who look like them. Unfortunately, for these people, that means making the protagonists (straight) white men.

Women (half the population, after all!) and minorities are expected to sympathize with the white male protagonist and his (usually also white, male) buddies. Sometimes the buddies are women; sometimes they're minorities. But it's never their stories, only Mr Whiteguy's.

Imagine there's a popular kids' TV show about a group of (pre-)teens who come from a world which is based extensively in East Asian cultures, like China, Tibet, and Korea. Two of the main characters are siblings, who are drawn with a medium brown skin tone and whose culture is clearly Inuit-derived. Another main character is clearly based off of Buddhist monks. One of the nations in this world wears topknots to denote rank. There is extensive use of Chinese martial arts in their world.

Imagine a famous director, himself of Southeast Asian origin, wants to make a movie of this, and the creators give him the go-ahead. Imagine that this director casts every main character, including the 2 who are clearly depicted as darker skinned, with white teenagers.

You don't have to imagine too hard. This is the proposed cast for M. Night Shyamalan's Avatar: The Last Airbender movie.

Change the scenario slightly, and you get the SciFi channel's whitewashing of brilliant SF writer Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books. She purposefully wrote a fantasy where the main character was non-white and the villains are blond, blue-eyed white people. Then SciFi cast a white kid as the main character (and changed the entire story, but that's a rant for a different day.)

Ms. LeGuin:
I didn't see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn't see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had "violet eyes").

But when stories with people who aren't "honkies named Joe" are made into movies, the casting is full of honkies. Because it's OK to make people who aren't white males watch movies about people who aren't like them - we're supposed to identify with this character, who is the default and ideal in modern American society - but it's impossible for white males to identify with characters who aren't white males.

There seems to be some sort of cognitive dissonance at work here. Oh, wait. That's privilege.

Edited to add: A fan has made a convenient how-to post for letting Paramount know your displeasure here.

4 comments:

Jennifer Kesler said...

Hear, hear! And thanks for the link. :)

Conni said...

You're welcome! I love your post. Another thing I adored about Avatar was that there were strong characters, regardless of gender - I gave it a "qualified pass" for the Bechdel test (because the female characters talked about the plot, which revolved around guys.)

That there were two main hero roles filled with girls (and 3 sub-villain roles) in a show targeted to 6-12-yr-old boys, and that neither of them was particularly simpering or in distress impressed the heck out of me.

The world that DiM & K created, based on painstaking research, and filled with real characters is what drew me in (OK, and Zuko, I admit). The honest portrayal of Asian-based cultures without resorting to Orientalism or exoticism reflected their admiration and care.

These casting decisions throw all of that in the garbage. It's an insult to the fans and to the people whose culture is portrayed.

(Ha, sorry, got a little wordy there. I love the show, and I hate to see it ruined like this.)

Anonymous said...

It's also funny that at first Mattel was not releasing girl action figures for the show. Saying that the little boys would not want to play with them. Yet both little girls and little boys did want all the main characters including the female roles.

I'm excited to help this cause and am rallying my friends who love the show. It's time to make a difference!

Conni said...

Thanks, anonymous! I didn't even think about the action figure kerfuffle, but you're right -- it reflects the studio execs' idea that white males are the only demographic that matters, and that they won't want to play with or watch The Other.

That's insulting to everyone's intelligence. *kicks them*