Stop the Whitewashing
It seems obvious for Disney to cast an Asian American as Mulan in the live remake, but Hollywood has whitewashed authentic characters in the past.
By Terry Nguyen, University of Southern California
Since the release of “Mulan” in 1998, “Reflection” remains one of its most powerful soundtracks, capturing the hearts of audiences nationwide in just a two-minute scene.
Gentle flutes imbued with elements of traditional Chinese music heightened the sentiment behind Mulan’s words, touching on the emotions of others struggling with self-identity.
“Who is that girl I see? Staring there, back at me.” It was a stirring scene that pulled viewers beyond the screen away from Mulan’s crisis to look inside at their own reflection. However, it is a scene many fans fear will become an ironic revelation for audiences worldwide if the camera pans back to reveal a white actress with an ethnically ambiguous face.
Since Disney announced its live remake of “Mulan,” netizens were quick to respond in defense of their beloved Disney classic. Even before the casting was announced, a petition to Walt Disney Studios had surfaced, recently gaining over 100,000 signatures. The petition, titled “Tell Disney You Don’t Want a Whitewashed Mulan,” is another example of the diversity issue facing Hollywood film culture that has been brewing for the past year since the so-called “White Oscars.”
Hollywood has been notorious for its casting of white actors and actresses in roles designated for people of color. Over the years, a variety of “white-washing” drew national media attention to the outrage of audiences and Asian American actors.
In 2012, the movie “Cloud Atlas” was under scrutiny for using “yellow face” on Jim Sturgess to accommodate his role as a Korean man in a dystopian world. Scarlett Johansson’s casting for the lead of “Ghost in the Shell,” a script based off a Japanese manga, was criticized earlier in April. The list goes on and on as activists seek examples of failed films to reveal how the Hollywood film industry continues to be blatantly racist in its casting.
The most irritating aspect of Hollywood, for Asian audiences and actors, occurs when a movie script is purposefully rewritten to fit a cast of white actors. The rewritten result strips away the authenticity of the story, seen in remakes like “Dragonball Evolution” and the upcoming “Death Note.”
Many may argue: Why does authenticity matter? Why complain if it creates a good film that will sell at the box office?
Hollywood culture has allowed the casting of white actors over people of color in the hopes of drawing larger audiences and profit through name and face recognition. The “Mulan” petition reveals audiences’ exasperation toward an industry that takes promising film ideas from outside cultures and delivers unsatisfactory results for the sole sake of profit.
When producers or scriptwriters recreate stories that contain pieces of ethnic history or culture, they often negate cultural elements that could have brought the story to life. These missing elements, whether it be through an ethnic lead or a cast of predominantly colored characters, really make or break how films are received. For example, films like “The Last Airbender” (2010) and “Dragonball Evolution” (2009) failed horribly in the box office.
The legend of Mulan is a story that originates from China, and if Disney or any entertainment company decides to take inspiration from the tale to the screen, they need to consider the cultural roots bound to the legend in order to accurately create the story. Many may disagree: A story is a story, regardless of race. A cultural story, however, without racial representation becomes irrelevant in its message to viewers.
A white Mulan, or any actress cast who does not hold Mulan’s ancestry, does not do the legend justice. Just as Hua Mulan sheds her femininity to ride into battle, a producer who sheds Mulan’s ethnic history will create only a temporary illusion of an “authentic” remake.
Although Hollywood has sought to represent Asians and other people of color in their cast, they have often done so embarrassingly. In “Suicide Squad,” Japanese-American actress Karen Fukuhara played Katana, the Squad’s samurai swordswoman. Despite her representation on the big screen, Fukuhara only spoke Japanese while playing the role and had minimal lines in comparison to other actors.
Although definitive steps have been made in encompassing diversity in film, the marginalized Asian acting community still seeks larger roles on the big screen to break stereotypes that have prevailed throughout mainstream media. An accurate representation of Mulan in the live remake would forge a new identity for the Asian community and modify the perception of Asians in film culture. Asian Americans are nearly silent, invisible to the entertainment industry.
Roles are few and far between, and often, roles created for Asians are seeking to fulfill a specific trope that many are tired of seeing. According to a study done by USC Annenberg, only 1.3 percent of lead roles in Hollywood go to Asians, and out of 109 films, 50 percent don’t have a speaking Asian actor.
Coincidentally, the report was released in late February, several days before the “White Oscars.” The Oscars have always been a predominantly white award show, but the race card was brought to the forefront after host Chris Rock made explicitly racist statements toward Asians. He brought three Asian children on-stage, clad in oversized glasses and suits, and proceeded to joke about how the kids are hardworking and good at math.
The joke didn’t last for long. Asian actors nationwide expressed their horror at the blatant racism occurring in the entertainment industry, namely in Hollywood, and attracted national attention to the issue of diversity.
Months after the Oscars, the Emmy’s television awards were praised for its diverse casting and producers, not only in the realm of race, but in embracing gender minorities and LGBTQ+ representation.
Nevertheless, Asian representation on-screen is still significantly less when compared to other minorities.
Producer Alan Yang expresses the sentiments of the Asian American community in his Emmy’s acceptance speech.
“There’s 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian Americans. They have ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Rocky,’ ‘The Sopranos.’ We got Long Duk Dong. So we got a long way to go, but I know we can get there,” Yang said.
The “Mulan” petition is one of the many stepping stones on the path to inclusion for Asian Americans, starting from the demands of fans. The reality that audiences had to confront whitewashed casting is astounding, and it illustrates the shameful lack of social progression in a major industry.