Whitewashing and Stereotyping in Film: The Real Effects

Hollywood has long been criticized for its racially insensitive casting choices. Throughout film history, audiences have been exposed to countless roles that should be played by a person of color. Additionally, minority roles have a history of being written as immoral criminals, or stereotyped comedic contrasts to their fellow white actors. And the implications for whitewashing roles spread far beyond the Hollywood sphere, affecting both actors and society at large.

Early Hollywood flicks are unsurprisingly guilty of whitewashing. Several early films featured white actors adopting racist accents and offensively altered skin color. One film’s star went so far as to drink on the job  in order to “make his speech more halting and to put a grin on his face — like the perpetually congenial Chinese sleuth.” Gross, right?

Mickey Rooney Breakfast at Tiffany's
Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

Similarly, the 1965 version of “Othello” featured Laurence Olivier in blackface. John Wayne portrayed a racist stereotype of Genghis Khan in the film “The Conqueror.” “Touch of Evil” features Charlton Heston in a role with obvious brownface – and portrays his character as one of the only “good Mexicans.”

Even a renowned favorite, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” has a tarnished casting slate, with Mickey Rooney sporting taped eyelids, false teeth, and a sibilant accent in order to play the role of a Japanese man. The list of Hollywood offenses is almost endless, but it didn’t end after the Civil Rights Movement.

A particularly egregious recent example of this sensation was in the upcoming film “Stonewall.” LGBTQ activists have been highly critical of the film’s casting choice, some even choosing to boycott the film, for  inaccurately depicting the Stonewall riots. Hardly surprising when you consider that Black transwomen and lesbians started the riots, but are seemingly absent from promotional materials and instead feature a white male lead.


TRAILER TALK: “Stonewall” 

While it’s hardly surprising to head to the theater and see a mostly white male cast, the statistics behind casting for both women and minorities are shocking. Studies by University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication indicate that women and people of color are noticeably absent in film, as both actors and directors.

USC Annenberg School of Communication Race Gender LGBT in Film
Statistics from Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race & LGBT Status from 2007-2014

This erasure and stereotyping has a variety of potential consequences, both for our perception of certain ethnic groups, and for the impacts it has on society at large. While many important leading roles are being taken over by white actors, the criminals in the film are often people of color.

Seven Muslim-American actors recently shared their close encounters with racism in Hollywood in an article titled, You May Know Me from Such Roles as Terrorist #4. In it, they document the degrading roles they have been forced to play throughout their careers. Middle Eastern and Muslim actors face unique discrimination, in that often times they’re forced to play terrorists if they want to work at all. Meanwhile, white actors are still cast in films set in the Middle East. Rebelling against this stereotype and rejecting these roles often leads to unemployment.

“…I had an epiphany. I called my agent: ‘Hey! Don’t send me out on these terrorist parts anymore. I’ll be open for anything else, but not the terrorist stuff.’ “After that, she never called. [She used to call] three or four times a week.”

Their story is one that is echoed by various minority groups who have been negatively portrayed in mass media. And this perception affects not only the actors themselves, but also viewing audiences.

Katie Couric Interview Miss Representation
Katie Couric, from a still in Miss Representation.

The film “Miss Representation” touches on the depiction of women and minorities in media and the possible effects this has on society at large. Adopting the words of Marie Wilson of The White House project, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” the film argues that without the presence of role models in media, many young people will be dissuaded from joining certain fields, specifically ones in STEM, politics, and law enforcement.

For instance, “Miss Representation” discusses that an equal amount of boys and girls have ambitions to be President at age seven, but by age 15, the number of girls that say they would like to be President drops significantly in comparison to the boys. Nancy Bocskor is an adjunct professor at George Washington University School of Political Management and a board member for Running Start, an organization that encourages young women to enter public service. She credits her passion for this to her parents: “We watched the nightly news and discussed current events, but more importantly, my parents told me there was a great world beyond my backyard – and one where women could achieve great things.”

This opinion is shared by those who it most severely affects, as well. Sharing her story with her alma mater, Edlih Gallardo, a recent graduate of Arizona State University, born in Puerto Rico, emphasized that pursuing higher education as a minority can be difficult, saying “A lot of our children don’t realize the opportunity is there.”

An old cliche exists stating the only color Hollywood executives see is green, and that by maintaining a largely white male status quo they are giving the public what they want. However, this assumption removes Hollywood from the responsibility of the way it reinforces and can change culture. It is clear, in movies like “The Lone Ranger” and “Stonewall” that Hollywood has no problem in telling the stories of minority characters. It’s time that they place people belonging to those cultures in those respective roles. For minority actors, and for young cinephiles with big ambitions, it’s time for a change on the big screen.


4 responses to “Whitewashing and Stereotyping in Film: The Real Effects”

  1. […] writer Danika McClure just wrote a great piece on the rampant whitewashing and stereotyping in the movie industry. It’s been going on for decades, and in many ways, we don’t seem […]

  2. […] certainly not the first film to completely screw up its casting choices (ahem—Stonewall, Aloha, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Native whitewashing is particularly problematic. Fashion editors, photographers, and designers […]

  3. […] not the first film to completely screw up its casting choices (ahem — Stonewall, Aloha, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Native whitewashing is particularly problematic. Fashion editors, photographers, and designers […]

  4. Bram Avatar

    Like the Egyptians Genghis Khan was a red head with blue eyes.
    Cinema was invented by whites with a predominately white pool of actors obviously the further you go back the more whites there are on TV.

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