Survival of the whitest: the “necklace of stereotypes” and Hollywood whitewashing

I walked into a room where my sister was attentively watching a film. It was Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. I was immediately drawn to the screen, seeing Charlize Theron move in sensually to kiss Idris Elba. With no prior knowledge of the film nor of its contents or cast, I commented that Theron had to be playing a secondary, slightly less important role. Because they would never pair her with a black actor had she been the protagonist, that privilege would have to be reserved for a white actor. I was right.


There is a limited paradigm that precedes any non-white actor’s involvement in film. It has existed long before the actor was interested in being in the film. Riz Ahmed aptly addressed this in his essay for The Good Immigrant. He talks about the hybridity of being a British-Asian actor, dubbing the experience as having a ‘necklace of stereotypes’ in which a non-white actor is subject to a handful of generic roles.


Recalling the experience from a series of mishaps at the airport, Riz says the necklace tightens, with both sides pulling. On one side, the filmmakers, storytellers and producers who cast you as the stereotype. On the other, the people who look like you that resent you for adhering to a preconceived narrative and not challenging it.


As an Asian, Muslim actor, he is consistently restricted to the ‘necklace of stereotypes’; terrorist, cab driver, corner shop owner. If you’re a woman, then you are usually the victim of domestic abuse or honour killings. Black actors can occasionally be granted protagonist roles but are rarely paired with a non-black partner, maybe a light skin black person at best. Their necklace of labels usually includes the angry/sassy black person, criminal, joker, gangster or rapper and often a combination of all of them. Or, equally detrimental, the token black person; a one dimensional character thrust into the scene in a feeble attempt to diversify it (see: the black best friend).


But why? It’s not as if real life is all white. “The reality of Britain is vibrant multiculturalism, but the myth we export is an all-white world of lords and ladies” says Riz. Even in dystopian, authoritarian, zombie wastelands, the few specs of diversity are wiped out quickly. It’s survival of the whitest.


Worryingly, Hollywood shows no attempt to rectify it. There’s a plethora of roles that would be best suited to certain ethnicities and yet they get overlooked. Take for instance Scarlett Johansson being cast as a Japanese anime character in Ghost in the Shell, as if there’s a huge dearth of Asian actresses. Paramount even admitted to toying with visual effects to make characters appear more Asian, and again in Aloha where Emma Stone was hired to play a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian character, and in Marvel’s Doctor Strange where Tilda Swinton plays a Tibetan monk. Recently there have been talks of Leonardo DiCaprio being cast in the biopic of Sufi mystic poet Rumi, of Persian descent. And if the Oscars nominations are anything to go by then Hollywood is loud and clear about its whitewashing; there’s little room for non-white actors.


This is all the more puzzling because, statistically, racial diversity is popular amongst audiences. An article by the New York Times showed that movies made more money when only half of the cast were white. So if audiences support racial diversity, why does mainstream media choose not to bring it to the forefront?


Professor of Harvard Business School, Michael J.Norton puts it best, stating “research shows that in highlighting everyone’s differences, you can create a kind of commonality- [that] we are ALL different, and my differences are no more or less valued than yours.”


Hollywood might want to start managing diversity in this way.

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