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Necko L. Fanning - Jul 22, 2019

The Little Mermaid, Scarlett Johansson, and Race-Based Casting in Hollywood

With conversations about representation growing—President Trump’s most recent attack against four junior congresswomen being the newest example of growing racial tensions here in the US—it’s important to address arguments as they emerge. The most recent debate around representation has centered around Disney’s most recent decision to cast “Little Mermaid” lead with a dark-skinned young woman. While black advocates and Liberals applaud the choice, a counterargument has risen among conservatives: why is it okay to give white (predominantly straight) roles to People of Color (POC) or those of differing orientations or genders but it’s not socially acceptable to cast a white person in the role of a minority? If you need examples think of Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Machine” or Tilda Swinson in “Doctor Strange”; both white women taking over traditionally Asian roles.

The simplest answer is the most obvious: the majority of all acting roles (from writing to screen) are given to white actors and actresses. So overwhelming is the favoritism of white actors on screen that rare occasions when a role is specifically designed for a POC but instead finds a Caucasian individual cast has given rise to the term “white-washing”.

White-washing is fundamentally different from diversifying traditionally white roles because statistically there are still more opportunities for white actors than there are for actors of color. Non-white, non-heterosexual actors also face an issue of typecasting: gay actors as comedic, flamboyant support; black actors only finding roles in inner-city movies about poverty or as villains; Asian Americans only getting cast in martial arts films. Therefore, when a minority actor gets cast in a traditionally white role this shouldn’t be seen as a detraction but rather as equilibrium.

POC have scored major victories in representation with the recent casting of Halle Bailey as “The Little Mermaid”’s Ariel and Lashana Lynch taking on the traditionally white and male “007” mantle. Meanwhile, a live-action remake of “Mulan” will feature an entirely Asian cast, and Marvel’s upcoming film featuring superhero Shang-Chi will follow in the steps of the “Black Panther” franchise and feature a nearly entire Asian cast with a Chinese lead. In these latter cases, actors from representative backgrounds will play the roles of the stories being brought to film. A great step in confirming that Hollywood has hopefully become conscious of its bad habit to white-wash leads.

While racial representation has taken great steps forward, the LGBTQ+ community finds itself frustrated with dialogues about casting choices in major features. Scarlett Johansson—who didn’t seem to learn her lesson after being cast in an Asian role—will be playing a transgender man in an upcoming film, while Ewan McGregor will play the first-ever gay supervillain in the upcoming movie “Birds of Prey”. Many are frustrated with these casting choices, believing that openly gay and trans actors should have been given these roles to better represent both communities as they truly exist, rather than how a straight actor interprets their existence.

Scarlett Johansson has been vocal about her casting, stating in an interview with David Salle that “as an actor [she] should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is [her] job and the requirements of [her] job”. The comment received mixed reviews, elucidating the differences in conversations about race and orientation. While some were supportive of Johansson’s comments as they pertained to orientation, others took offense at the idea that one individual might be able to accurately depict the experiences of a community or identity that wasn’t their own.

Perhaps it’s true that flexibility should be extended to actors, the allowance to step into different roles and identities being central to their work in the first place. But where is the line? At what point does artistic interpretation and expression need to be superseded by representation? Have some thoughts? We’d love to hear from you. Comment below on how you feel about our current representation trends.

Written by Necko L. Fanning

Necko is a veteran, LGBT activist, and writer. In addition to his work as a freelancer Necko writes fiction with the purposes of providing strong LGBT and female protagonists to the world. More of his work can be found at neckofanning.com.

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