Hollywood: Where whitewashing, cultural appropriation, and fake diversity is applauded and mindlessly consumed.
Just yesterday, Leonardo DiCaprio was the top actor set to play Persian poet Jalaluddin al-Rumi, as announced by the Oscar-winning writer, David Franzoni.
Franzoni attempted to justify this whitewashing decision as “a way to break Muslim stereotypes”, implying that the only way to break Muslim stereotypes is to whitewash the intricacies of Muslim history. Twitter was abruptly set afire with anger and the trending hashtag #RumiWasntWhite. How true is this?
Hollywood parades itself as a grand gesture to the world of what film-making is and should be. In essence, Hollywood is ironically known as the ethos for the movie-making industry, setting the global standard for CGI effects, beauty, storylines and social norms. Hollywood’s international revenue is more than double of its local revenue, illuminating the socioeconomic importance of a global audience to fuel moneymaking in the notorious Americanocentric industry. An economics journal published in 2010 concludes that, after a study of 2,000 films in Hollywood, the recent increase in the international revenues from Hollywood movies accommodates for surges in global demand for Hollywood.
Despite its internationalization, why is it still acceptable that white Hollywood only tells the stories of and humanizes one very rigidly defined type of human being? Hollywood movies that actively promote blatant racism (i.e blackface and yellow-face) continue being celebrated, bought, and idolized. Young children continue to regard people who resemble not a single facet of what they look like as idols, most of the time over their own parents.
As all global and universal standards can, Hollywood’s may spell out trouble for the diversity and relativity of standards in the world. For one, Hollywood movies promote a dominant cultural narrative that propels forward only one ‘standard’ way of living: that is to be white and acceptably attractive. Highly celebrated Hollywood movies (ref. Mean Girls 2004) have absolute power to set definitive cultural norms. The one message that is consistent throughout Hollywood movies: If it isn’t all-white, the male-dominated cast — maybe throw in one Latino sidekick, one Asian brainiac, and a black jock — it isn’t normal. It is ethnic, — or worse, feminist — and deserves to be ridiculed.
Hollywood “Diversity” and Reality
Believing in Hollywood ethos – and all its problematic tropes, stereotypes, preferences – is problematic for diversity in America and the world. A UCLA study in 2011 showed that the diversity-reality discordance rate is extremely high: on the silver screen, for every white person in the movie, three minorities in America are not being presented.
Minorities are underrepresented by a factor of three. What’s worse is that from an analysis of 30,000 Hollywood movies, 70.1% of speaking roles were white actors, even though “minorities” make up over 70%; even then, when the minorities are “represented” in movies with an overwhelmingly white cast, on average, they tend to receive either only minor parts and significantly less speaking time than white lead actors, or seriously problematic roles where their only function is to depict a standardized racial trope, or to ease public anger-fueled complaints like #OscarsSoWhite, or #HollywoodSoWhite.
These roles serve to dehumanize and delegitimize the struggles of the non-white population, asserting that the livelihood of minorities is less important, less normal and evokes less emotion than portraying the stories of white people. Nikesh Shukla, a British blogger who calls for the Shukla test for diversity — where a movie will pass if two minority characters converse with each other for over five minutes on an issue other than race — says that “the implication being that usually, Indians don’t have universal experiences; they have Indian ones.”
Suffice to say, Hollywood’s portrayal of reality is supremely jarred. What’s truly ironic is how much we continue to literally buy into Hollywood’s endless jabs at or exclusion of different races (even if it is our own race), different genders and different sexuality.
Maybe it’s because we pay to see and be what we wish we were. We pay for quick, entertaining stories that present an alternative lifestyle, an escape from our own dreary lives.
Do the celebrities in these stories have a moral impetus to represent individuals, or are they supposed to represent a fantastical fragment of disjointed reality that exists solely behind the screen?
The biggest threats from viewing Hollywood celebrities and cultures as figures of ethos are the stereotype and the illegitimacy threat.
Because we tend to believe what we see and internalize values over time, continually only seeing white faces on screens tells minorities that they are abnormal and chained only within the boundaries of their ethnicity, while whiteness is universally celebrated. This can be very damaging towards how a minority member is perceived.
Scratch that: even calling people of color minorities can be damaging to their psyches, making them believe that their lives aren’t of enough worth to be presented to others.
Directors, agents, actors: race shouldn’t be a hard-and-fast indicator of whether someone deserves a speaking or lead role. Don’t let that (or money) blind you, because Hollywood, due to its scale and pervasive influence, must be a moral agent for diversity.