“Whitewashing” in Media



The words “Peter Pan” invoke images of a quintessential childhood fantasy movie: the fantastical island Neverland, the sly, charming titular character, the glittering pixie Tinker Bell and the tribe of “Injuns” with their beautiful princess Tiger Lily. “Pan,” a live-action remake of the classic story, which comes out on Oct. 9, has drawn criticism for leaving out a key element: the “Injuns” are no longer Native American, and Tiger Lily is a white woman.

The controversy surrounding this movie is a relatively common Hollywood practice called “whitewashing.” The term has taken on new meanings and implications in recent years: while the term with its original definition simply denoted any sort of “glossing over” of content, some now use the term specifically to label situations in which white people play non-white characters. The new meaning of the term is charged with implications of racism in the content creators.

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Junior Nick Smith said he believes there is a definite lack of people of color in the media and  thinks there should be better representation of different races.

“Better representation would be when there’s a picture in someone’s head, you want to represent that accurately instead of falsely,” he said. “You want the right people to act the part.”

According to Katie Kelly, AP World History teacher, racism in the media now is a continuation of racism in history.

“I think for a long time people used blackface…Over time, as black people actually took over those roles, they were seen as caricatures and not as leading men or women,” she said. “A lot of people in writing and movies, in their minds, see the heroine or the hero as a white face still today, not 100 percent across the board, but I do believe that there are far more white faces in leading roles than faces of color.”

Sophomore Reese Nordeen has participated in stage shows and said there is often racism in the audition process, with roles that could go to non-white people usually not going to them.

“(It’s) just something I know about the industry,” he said. “It comes from back further in history; like the beginning of television when…racial discrimination was still a big thing, and it’s just kind of carried over. There’s not equality across the entire industry.”

Smith said whitewashing also leaves out role models for non-white kids. He said it is important for kids of other races to have role models in areas of achievement they aspire to who are similar to themselves. To him, whitewashing might make kids think there is no room for them in the fields they wish to pursue, and limits exist because of race.

Racism is not the only issue with casting choices. “Stonewall,” which comes out Sept. 25, depicts the story of the Stonewall riots, which took place in 1969 and were important historical events in the modern LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights movement. While gender nonconforming people of color were at the center of these riots, the movie tells the story of a fictional white cis (non-transgender) man named Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine). The movie faces criticism for erasing the history and struggle of both the transgender and non-white people involved.

Sophomore Elliot Frakine, a transgender person, said he is not terribly surprised about the casting of Stonewall.

“Hollywood is doing what they always do: whitewashing and erasing certain things they feel that wouldn’t get them money,” he said. “It shows that really being transgender is less acceptable than being gay and they’re erasing the ‘T’ from the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual).”

According to a 2014 GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) report, shows containing members of the LGBT community take up only 3.9 percent of all broadcast networks in the media, and Frakine said he wishes to see a larger representation sometime in the near future.

“To the casting directors, thanks for trying, but if you’re going to go through with this, you need to stop (erasing certain parts of the LGBTQIA+), think about what you’re doing, because obviously you’re not listening to the outcries of the people who feel like they’re being erased,” he said.

Nordeen said whitewashing can be harmful, especially in the case of a movie like Stonewall, which depicts a historical event. He said, “I would totally believe that if I didn’t know (the truth) before. It just brings a false representation of what actually happened, and so the viewer’s uneducated about the actual event…I probably have false representations of what actually happened for different events.”