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Hollywood’s Colour Problem: How ‘Whitewashing’ Reveals The Dark Side Of The Film Industry

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By Gayle Sequeira

Racism, much like the Lernaean Hydra, keeps finding new ways to rear its ugly head(s). The implicit prejudices of those in power repeatedly rendered explicit through new mediums do not immediately arrest the attention of the masses and thus, over time, become normalized and internalized. Whitewashing – the practice of casting white actors in roles that are canonically to be played by ethnically diverse actors, noticed in Hollywood as early as the 1930s is becoming increasingly prevalent in modern cinema. Here are a few examples of whitewashing in recent films:

whitewashing in hollywood

In January, Scarlett Johansson was cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the Japanese anime film ‘Ghost In The Shell’ based on a Japanese mange, set in Japan and featuring a majority of Japanese characters. The backlash was swift and immediate. A petition entitled “DreamWorks: Stop Whitewashing Asian Characters!” garnered 49,584 signatures on last count. This casting is problematic as it adds to the marginalization of an already under-represented group. A USC study discovered that in 2013, Asian characters accounted for only 4.4% of speaking roles in the top-grossing films.

Avengers: Age of Ultron’ whitewashed the Romani twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, scripting them as Caucasians, having them voluntarily work with a neo-Nazi organization (a slap in the face of their Jewish heritage and identity as the children of Holocaust survivors) and ultimately casting white actors Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor Johnson in the roles.

Exodus: Gods and Kings’ was considered to be one of the worst offenders of this kind, featuring an almost exclusively white cast despite being set in Egypt. Director Ridley Scott’s feeble attempts at a justification – “[If] my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such, I’m just not going to get it financed,” reeks of thinly veiled racism.

Benedict Cumberbatch found himself at the center of not one, but two whitewashing controversies when he took on the roles of Khan Noonien Singh (in the ironically titled ‘Star Trek: Into The Darkness‘), explicitly described as being Sikh in the episode script of ‘Space Seed‘, and that of Dr. Stephen Strange in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange movie. That’s the sixth character in the Marvel universe (out of six) to be cast as a white man.

Closer to home, films such as ‘Love Aaj Kal‘, ‘Mickey Virus‘ etc. that cast foreign, light-skinned actors/actresses as Indians further contribute to this problem of whitewashing.

Why is whitewashing wrong? Well for one thing, it is deliberate racism, characterized by a discrimination against specific ethnic groups, those in the minority. Such groups are rarely seen as main protagonists, they mostly do minor blink-and-miss roles. Even worse, stereotyping occurs when such groups are made to play the villains juxtaposed against white heroes. The best, or worst example of this would be M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender‘. Casting calls for this movie “indicated white actors for leads and people of colour for villains, secondary characters and background extras“.

In addition to this, whitewashing also radically re-writes history in a manner that is racially skewed, painting such groups as villainous caricatures of their real selves and trivializing their successes. Such films make it seem as though the only successes worth celebrating are those that feature the white man at the helm.

However, re-interpretations of classics such as ‘Annie‘, featuring African-American actors Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis in the leads, and the much-publicized social media campaigns promoting the inclusion of diverse actors in mainstream movies and television shows such as the campaign for a non-white Spiderman, and the petition for Idris Elba to play the first black Bond, show that global audiences are actively crusading against the erasure of minority cultures. What remains now is for the film industry to address its xenophobia and end racism on celluloid once and for all.

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  1. Divyansh

    Yet nobody speaks about how Marvel casted Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury(originally white), Idris Elba as Heimdall(ironically, the fairest of all Aesirs). Sigh. 😛
    And yea, HYDRA (the Neo-Nazi division you’re talking about) was experimenting on Pietro and Wanda, which further highlights their “Nazi” nature. 😛

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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