I would never claim to be the biggest Marvel fangirl, but as someone who somehow developed a passing interest in the MCU I found myself, alongside my group of friends, in the theater opening week for Civil War. Watching the previews for the upcoming movies was an experience I could only describe as “tired groaning interspersed with slight approval for Rogue One”, but the thing that stuck with me longest was just how much of a goddamned hot mess Doctor Strange is going to be. Oh sure, I’ve heard all the justified cries of whitewashing, not doubting them for a second, but it wasn’t until I saw the trailer for myself on the big screen that I knew my quip of “ah yes, there he is; the only white man in Nepal” was merely masking my absolute disgust at how far Marvel was willing to go to exclude actual non-Black characters of color from their films.
This, however, wasn’t even what prompted me to write this post. A couple days ago on my Facebook wall, I saw someone drop a link that Little Door Gods was getting an English release. As happy as I was to hear that, the casting seemed to be doing everything in its power to knock the wind out of my sails. Meryl Streep? Nicole Kidman? Mel Brooks? All talented in their own right, but seriously: what the fuck is this shit? (Though according to a recent tweet by fellow reported vocal talent Zendaya, this could be untrue. Not that this excludes the problem.)
We need to do better.
This is not a new trend by any means, but the issue of Asian representation in media is finding new life. Recently people have been pointing out the incredibly obvious problems with casting Scarlett Johansson as the very Japanese protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, in the American adaptation of the anime series Ghost In the Shell (echoing the old, but still kickin’ rumor of Zac Efron’s supposed starring role as the titular Akira in another live-action English adaptation of an anime). Additionally, on the tails of George Takei getting fed up and issuing his own criticisms of Tilda Swinton’s casting as Doctor Strange’s spiritual adviser, comedienne Margaret Cho started the tag #whitewashedOUT to discuss the lack of representation for those of Asian heritage in American mass media (which, as we know, is influential globally, for better or worse). Not having various Asian cultures visually represented well in media is harmful and lazy, but going back to my second example, not even allowing them to give their voices to animated characters is more insidiously harmful.
Asian and Asian-American representation is something the media really struggles with when voices from the culture aren’t allowed to contribute. For every Fresh Off the Boat we have hundreds and hundreds of terrible “Asian math kid” and “dragon lady” tropes. With the voices of marginalized groups gaining volume in more influential spaces, it would seem obvious to simply increase diversity. But things are never that easy; and if things aren’t easy in live-action movies, then in an animated, intangible world, it’s even easier to sweep these things under the rug.
In an example of this (though not specifically related to Asian representation), late last year it was revealed that voice actress Laura Bailey was signed on for the role of Nadine Ross in the upcoming Uncharted 4. The only problem is that Nadine is a Black woman, and Bailey is white. The issue of representation in non-real spaces becomes muddled when there is a digital manifestation of representation—a diverse video game/animated movie cast—but the physical casting does not reflect this representation. Adding another layer to this, Bailey later stated that she wasn’t told that the role she was trying out for was for a woman of color, and only after going through the MOCAP did she find out. White actors and actresses do have a responsibility to encourage diversity through the roles they take or do not take; however, it becomes difficult to do when even these basic details of the characters are being withheld. Unfortunately, the creative director of Uncharted 4, Neil Druckmann, has expressed no regrets whatsoever at the casting, seemingly ignoring the problematic aspects of it altogether.
Many people who looked at Uncharted 4’s situation echoed the sentiment that someone added to the Facebook post about the casting of Little Door Gods. If diverse characters are being shown on screen, does it really matter who’s giving them a voice? If Little Door Gods is to be criticized, then do people who cry “whitewashing” want Disney to go back and re-record every Ghibli movie ever dubbed (for example)? And no, going back and re-recording everything to be more accurate would not fix the problem. What needs to be done is shifting the current mindset from “who is already good and known” to “let’s give more people a chance at representing the characters like them”. I would be willing to bet that a large part of the reason why people like Mel Brooks or Laura Bailey get hired for these roles, outside of the fact that they’re good at what they do, is because they’re familiar, both to the audience and the industry. The industry knows they’re successful, the industry likes money—it’s a no brainer. However, what this does is create stagnancy in the industry and gives us inauthentic diversity. When a company (American or any other culture that is not the native culture) takes a story that is not theirs and Anglicizes it to turn a buck, they are appropriating it. They are, in part, taking away what made it great in the first place. By giving these non-white roles to those of the correct culture, we’re not only adding legitimate representation, but also adding freshness to the acting pool, letting marginalized voices tell their own story, and allowing a portion of the audience to really, truly relate to someone on screen when they would not have been able to before.
Although Disney is not the best company at times, they have made steps to further this point. Look at the upcoming Moana, in which they gave the main roles to actors actually of Polynesian descent. It’s really just as easy as that. So when I say “we need to do better” I’m talking about a collective “we”. Casting directors need to work harder at picking people of color for roles of color and being open with those who are auditioning, white voice actors need to get comfortable with taking a stand and deciding not to take roles that a person of color could fill just as well, and we, as an intelligent, informed audience, need to not be complacent with casting just because we like who was cast. Sure, hearing people who you know is great and seeing faces that you’ve grown attached to is fun, but not at the expense of marginalized people or their stories.