Why does western cinema whitewash Asian stories?

Yet white saviours continue to pop up in films such as Dances with Wolves, The Blind Side, Avatar and The Help. You can’t imagine an Oscar-winner like The Hurt Locker promoting Iraqi rather than American derring-do. Even children’s animations and, more weirdly, fantasy require Caucasians in their primary roles.

This is a great article about whitewashing as well as racebending - two terms that might not be familiar to you in terms of film. I’m not talking about wallpaper here, folks. Whitewashing is, in terms of film, from Urban Dictionary,

A term that now has also come to refer to the entertainment industry’s attempt at making ethnic characters more appealing to the white, money-spending masses by making exotic characters less ethnic and more “white.”

Criticism of whitewashing is very often received with “but it’s historically accurate!” which is often due to misconceptions about history - take for example Brave, where not a single person of colour appears, even though, historically speaking, the Egyptians, the Ghana empire, Chinese traders, Hannibal, the Moors (from Northern Africa) and the entire Arabic world had made contact with Europe by the 10th century. (x)

Racebending, according to the activist site, racebending.com,

[R]efers to situations where a media content creator (movie studio, publisher, etc.) has changed the race or ethnicity of a character. This is a longstanding Hollywood practice that has been historically used to discriminate against people of colour.

A recent and blatant example of whitewashing and race-bending is the one the article focuses on, The Impossible (2012), a movie about a tsunami in 2004 that resulted in the deaths of many - at the very least, 227,898 people, not to mention the destruction of homes, the economy, and the cause of much trauma. This tsunami happened in the Indian Ocean, at the coastal area of Southeast Asia.

This movie was a “true story” about the tsunami - featuring what must have been the devastating (note my sarcasm) effects on a privileged white family vacationing in the area. The people of colour* that are present are only present in the backdrop - as doctors, or the like, and not, indeed, the victims they actually were. The story’s inspiration comes from an actual Spanish family, however the family portrayed in the film are unapologetically British.And vacationing. As tourists. 

Unfortunately - regrettably - this isn’t anything new, though some of it may seem subtle to some readers. Whitewashing is, sadly, desperately sadly, common - particularly in movies. In movies such as the ones listed above - for example, in The Last Airbender was a movie based off the TV show, Avatar. Compare, if you will:

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The problem here, if you somehow don’t see it immediately, is that in the movie, the enemy is the only person of colour*. All the heroes are not. Look at the TV show. Look back at the movie. This isn’t even accurate casting. 

This is a great article that points out an example of whitewashing and sees the statistics of movies today. Unfortunately, there’s no reasonable answer to the question that it issues at the start - only excuses. 

A refresher course, by the way, on why whitewashing is a problem:

Why is this a problem?

Not only is the act offensive and racist, but it also does a great disservice to people of colour - viewers of all ethnicities - ethnicities, who never receive much representation, let alone proper representation, in films, books, graphic novels, etc. Everyone likes to see someone that looks like them in the media rather than just seeing all white people, all the time. It’s also unfair to actors of color because they never receive a major role and their talent is thus wasted.

But if they can act well, why does it matter what race they are?

Read “Why is this a problem?” again. This argument would work if all races/ethnicities were equally represented in the media to begin with; and if casting director considered all races for all roles. However, most castings result in casting white actors for most characters and maybe a token actor of color once in a while. So when a white person is cast for a role that is written for a person of colour, it’s all the more problematic.

Source: (x).

* I have some reservations about this term, as do other people, but I’m at a loss at what else to use. Sincerest apologies if it offends anyone.

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