Great Wall film perpetuates tired ‘white savior’ narrative

By Juli Min Source:Global Times Published: 2017/1/17 18:18:40


Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

As we counted down to midnight on New Year's Eve, I wondered who would be kissing whom. Would the girl from Yunnan Province kiss the boy from Israel? Would the girl from Beijing kiss the Swede? Would the local Shanghainese bestow bisous onto the boy from France?

At least one thing was clear: the only people getting kisses at the party that night would be Chinese girls and foreign boys. Yes, during the last evening of 2016, at a house party in Xintiandi, almost every single person in attendance was either a Chinese girl or a foreign male.

I almost did not notice the demographic disparity until I overheard a man from Sweden announce that the reason he had come to China was because he was "attracted to petite women with dark hair." He wanted nothing more of blonde, long-legged beauties from the land of Vikings and flat pack furniture.

I was surprised at his candor, and I was also surprised at how I hadn't noticed the disproportion earlier. Perhaps I've gotten used to seeing foreign men and Asian women together, that a party full of these pairings set off no alarms.

Exactly one week later, I spent two hours of my life that I'll never get back watching The Great Wall, China's latest blockbuster collaboration with Hollywood.

Matt Damon portrays a European trader who comes to China looking for gunpowder but stays to rescue the entire Chinese race ... from aliens. While doing so, Damon of course catches the attention of China's top female warrior, played by Jing Tian.

The Great Wall is a prototypical "white savior" movie; a standard Hollywood narrative in which a Caucasian male swoops in to save non-white natives from others (or themselves).

Similar films include The Last Samurai, Avatar and The Blind Side. They show leading white men as moral and romantic centers of action, simultaneously saving primitive-minded natives and seducing women of various ethnic backgrounds. They associate whiteness with power and righteousness, and non-whiteness with weakness and inferiority.

For Hollywood movies catering primarily to white audience, racist and/or idealistic narratives sell. So it makes sense that movie producers keep reusing these formulas.

But what bewildered me while watching The Great Wall was why a Chinese production team would ever agree to produce a white savior narrative where all the Chinese male characters face gruesome deaths or self-sacrifice their lives for Damon (implied as the more valuable one). In the end, not only does Matt Damon's character saves the country; he also wins the heart of their women. Think about what kind of message that sends to everyone about Caucasian males.

Artistic collaborations between nations are opportunities to showcase both countries' talents and creativity; they shouldn't be used to perpetuate hackneyed plotlines. Even in Hollywood, years of research into the impact of media on our perceptions have sparked initiatives like the Systemic Change Project, funded in part by the Sundance Institute, which works against lopsided and prejudiced portrayals of power, aiming to put more women in leading roles. Entertainment media, like it or not, represents and shapes public opinion.

I for one am tired of our media portraying white men as moral compasses and singular love interests for all. What I would love to see in the next Sino-Hollywood collaboration is a leading Asian man and white woman as a romantic couple. When mass media push back on perpetuating stereotypes that glorify one group of people and also bring less represented groups into the spotlight, entertainment can become both fun and progressive.

Exposure begets familiarity and fondness. When leading men in international blockbuster films look more like John Cho and less like Matt Damon, there will be less of a fixation on the white savior, both in narratives and in life. Maybe then, latent romantic preferences and prejudices may begin to shed, and future new years' eve kisses in Shanghai may become much less predictable.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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