First of all, to be sure to place myself in context here and be reflexive, I am a white guy. Not just a white guy, but I grew up in a white part of Philadelphia and Denver Metro Area. I was raised catholic in a middle class family and I am straight. Currently, I am adjunct faculty in several anthropology departments and working on a film project and novel. In modern anthropology, many of us feel it is important to acknowledge our background so as to highlight which areas we may be biased, or which parts of our knowledge is limited.
So, there is a lot of debate right now about all the recent (though this is nothing new) Hollywood casting. Tilda Swanson cast as a roll that should be a person of Tibetan origins, Scarlet Johansson cast as a character that should be of Japanese origins (and even talk of her features altered to look Japanese) and a host of others. A lot of people (many white but not all) are asking what’s the big deal? Who cares who plays what role as long as they do it well?
In short this is a question of representation.
To paraphrase a passage from a book called Odd Tribes: A Cultural Analysis of White People by an anthropologist named John Hartigan: The representation of a particular social class, ethnic group, or even individuals often depends on the long-term portrayal of their identity through a variety of social channels.
What in the world does that mean?
It means that how we portray (or the lack of portrayal) a group of people over a long period of time is really important. From repeated images or experiences, our brains create what is known as Implicit Bias, in other words, the images that we are exposed to repeatedly create all kinds of subconscious associations over a long term period. When we see images of black men in a violent context on the nightly news or in film over and over again, our brain begins to create the associate that black man = violence (Malcolm Gladwell does a good job of translating some of this in his book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”) By the same token there is a lack of protagonist characters associated with minorities. Over the long term, this creates a lack of association of minorities with positive qualities in our implicit bias.
Hollywood is a really powerful medium for creating all kinds of implicit bias. The problem is not necessarily when the color of a characters skin changes. The problem is when this is a frequent occurrence in a particular direction and the voices of those who want to represent their culture is silenced. A character, like the ‘Ancient One’ (via Dr. Strange) who is meant to represent the ideas and knowledge of a whole group of people, should absolutely be cast from a person of that particular background. To do so otherwise is a mockery of their culture. Rather than allowing various cultures and ethnic groups the ability to represent themselves, we have a system that has a great deal of bias built into it and that bias is consistently recycled and reinforced over ‘long-term portrayals’.
Consider watching the first ten minutes of the film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. This film highlights the long term portrayals that have created all kinds of anger and hate towards people of Middle Easterner descent. And by the way, this isn’t just a Media issue, this is also an issue in research and science. Back in the 1970s a man by the name of Edward Said, wrote a book called Orientalism that talked about the negative stereotypes within academia towards ‘people of the orient’. Many of us in teaching and researcher positions are trying to ensure that we consider these long term portrayals in our work and teach our students to be critical of them but with media systems such as they are, there is a lifetime of bias we have contend with of the course of a single term.
Obviously, there are additional issues here, such as Hollywood (for whatever reason) feels that if you don’t have big names, you can’t make money. Most of the big names in Hollywood are still white (and often male). If Hollywood truly believes that only straight white men can bring in the big bucks (and they are of course wrong) then that is because of Implicit Bias, which has been reinforced over the last century in film.
Ultimately, the real issue here is, that everyone should have the right to represent themselves and have a voice in the wider American sphere. After all, how can we have meaningful democracy and coherent discussions about the future of our nation if we silence and/or misrepresent huge groups of people with unique knowledge and viewpoints? If we are ever going to solve the major issues we face, we need all the knowledge and viewpoints we can get. Belittling other cultures (via misrepresentation or lack thereof) and silencing their voices are not in anyone’s best interest.
Also, check out this wonderful (and hilarious) piece done on Last Week Tonight not too long ago…