(WOMENSENEWS)— Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly is to the bone, as the expression goes.
The ugliness in this case has been exposed by increasing outcry over Hollywood’s blatant whitewashing practices, such as reports about Paramount and DreamWorks studios’ consideration of using computer generated imaging to give white actors east Asian looking features in the remake of the Japanese anime film, “Ghost in the Shell.”
Simulating ethnicity as if it were just another special effect hides the ugly reality of how much the entertainment industry still prizes and prioritizes whiteness.
Even where there appears to be progress, reminders of this reality are not far from the surface. Take the New York Times article on TV writer and producer Shonda Rhimes that used the phrase “angry black woman” in reference to Rhimes, and implied that Viola Davis, the star of Rhimes’ show, “How to Get Away with Murder,” is “less classically beautiful” than other lighter-skinned actors. In response to the heavy criticism triggered by these phrases in an otherwise laudatory article, the author said she was misunderstood, and that her intent in using a “painful and insidious stereotype” was to highlight how thoroughly Rhimes’ work has debunked that stereotype.
But, why do such “oops, that’s not what I meant” statements continue to crop up? A large body of research has examined the unconscious ways people associate traits with certain groups.
One way is through language.
The research in my “Group and Interpersonal Communication Lab” at Cornell University has shown, for example, that people unconsciously choose words that reinforce stereotypical beliefs about different social groups. One of our studies found that when we asked students to choose words to describe pictures that showed black and white students engaging in negative behaviors (e.g., cheating on a test), they tended to choose words implying that such behavior was typical of students different from themselves, but atypical of students similar to themselves.
This tendency was even stronger when we applied mild stress to the participants, which illustrates the idea that people tend to revert to well-worn ways of thinking when they are under pressure. Pictures showing positive behaviors (e.g., studying for a test) showed no such biased effects.
We can apply this research to another “that’s not what I meant” comment: in this case Anthony Horowitz’ remark that black British actor Idris Elba was “too rough” and “too street” to be cast as James Bond.
When Daniel Craig was first cast as Bond, he was applauded for reinvigorating the role by portraying the character as “a meaner…bit of blond rough,” as well as “brutal and cold.” Yet Elba is somehow too rough for the part. Although Horowitz said his opinion of Elba was “not a color issue” and named other black actors who could play the part, it is nevertheless telling that when put on the spot in an interview, the word “street” came to mind when he considered black actors.
Characteristics prized in Craig are problematic in Elba.
But now, thanks to computer-generated images, or CGI, Hollywood can manufacture just the right amount of roughness, ethnicity and even acting ability for screen idols.
Baudrillard argued that the advancement of digital technology has given us the ability to manufacture and replicate reality to the point that the connection between make-believe and reality is both unknown and irrelevant.
The facsimile becomes all we know and even what we come to prefer. Baudrillard gives the example of Disneyland, a simulation of idyllic perfection.
Baudrillard’s concern is this: Disneyland’s popularity suggests we are so eager to embrace pretend reality that we are losing the ability and the motivation to discern the boundary between what is real and what isn’t. Although everyone knows Disneyland is a fantasy, we fail to recognize that the real world is equally built upon pretense, masquerades and falsehoods.
This problem with Disneyland can be applied to Hollywood. There too it now seems, simulated ethnic representativeness can hide the persistence of widespread whitewashing.
‘Simulating Concern’ for Diversity
This returns us to the tests of using CGI in post-production to make the white lead actor, Scarlett Johansson, look more east Asian in “Ghost in the Shell” (oh, what irony in this title).
In a “that’s not what we meant” response, Paramount Pictures was quick to issue reassurances that the tests did not involve the lead character, but were “done related to a specific scene for a background actor.”
These reassurances, however, draw a thin skin over an ugly implication: Are we not supposed to notice or care that minor parts—the vast bulk of which are played by non-white actors—can quietly be given to “ethnically-simulated” white actors?
The truly bone-deep ugliness hiding here is the simulation of concern—versus true concern—for diversity and inclusion.
Until examples such as Shonda Rhimes cease to be exceptional, we have to keep challenging the “fake it till you make it” practices used to simulate ethnicities.
If not we will be left with the entertainment industry’s ugliness of “fake it till you fake it.”