China must stand against Mulan whitewashing

By S. T. Wong Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/20 18:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

A petition has gathered almost 90,000 signatures opposing the whitewashing of the recently announced Mulan reboot. The petition describes whitewashing as "the practice of casting white Caucasian actors and actresses in roles originally meant to be characters of color, is all too common in Hollywood. The Last Airbender, Pan, the upcoming Ghost in the Shell adaptation, and many, many other movies have demonstrated this problem."

We've seen this issue raise its head just a little while ago. A courageous Constance Wu brought widespread attention to Matt Damon in The Great Wall. There were attempts to explain away the issue by saying Damon's character was never meant to be Chinese. Whoever says this is clearly missing the point.

Forcing nonsensical characters and plot points just to appeal to foreigners is part of the problem. Doing that intentionally isn't any better and Chinese doing it to themselves is bafflingly worse. Unfortunately, Chinese actors, actresses and companies have a film history of being complicit.

For those that criticize the reaction as being repetitive, I would agree. It is repetitive, which is precisely why there must be strong reaction every single time until the problem stops. Hollywood has consistently portrayed Asian men and women in toxic limited roles for decades. One is desexualized while the other is hypersexualized. Both are stereotyped and both are there as support characters to white male protagonists.

With a surge in Chinese Hollywood involvement in recent years, it is the responsibility of Chinese to ensure those old yet persistent problematic portrayals don't receive Chinese money, support or audiences. This is relevant in the case of the Mulan reboot, because it has been reported there is a Chinese partner involved with the film.

As we saw with The Great Wall, Chinese involvement is only used as an excuse to dismiss the issue. It is vital that Chinese involved with entertainment understand and take these issues into account. Ignorance is not an excuse and if Chinese investors help perpetuate the same offenses, then it is better they not be in entertainment at all.

Whoever the Chinese partner of the Mulan reboot is, it is their responsibility to think very carefully about how Chinese men and women in that film are being portrayed and what message it sends to Chinese people and the world. It isn't just about the main characters like Mulan and Li Shang.

This is not just an issue of film either. It is fundamentally about how Chinese see themselves. Blind foreign worship in films, much less films Chinese help make, is not aligned with the "rejuvenated China" that Chinese leaders speak about. It is no different than rural areas hiring foreigners with no qualifications or skill just to appear "international." This is a symptom of an outdated inferiority complex.

It is not a secret there are guidelines and preferences China has for film. The problem is that China tends to overthink secondary issues and ignore whitewashing.

This is a mistake, because whitewashed portrayals of Chinese are going to influence the mentality of the people. A country portrayed well in film, but its people nurtured with blind foreign worship, is only going to create a severe disconnect.

A Chinese society infested with inferiority complexes is going to have far-reaching consequences for the country that no amount of films can fix. When it comes to ideology and values, entertainment is just as influential as media.

It is worth mentioning that Wang Jianlin, chairman of Wanda, has made comments regarding these sorts of issues before. For example, he has been outspoken regarding theme parks recently. Yet it is not just comments that China needs from people like Wang. China needs influential people in entertainment that don't just have the spirit, but the knowledge of the issues. The issues are not complex, they are not new and they are not hard to solve.

The issue of whitewashing and toxic Asian portrayals in Hollywood doesn't look like it is going away on its own any time soon. It is long past time Chinese in entertainment started thinking very carefully about what messages they are sending, especially to Chinese people. China must have Hollywood understand that the old ways of doing things are over.

The Mulan reboot is the film for China to make this clear.

The author is a writer from KultureMedia, a media watchdog on behalf of Asian Americans.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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