Can You Have a Grey Area if You’re Whitewashing?

So lately we’ve been talking about fiction and especially fantasy/science fiction and race, and I just finished Malinda Lo’s Ash, which was so incisively reviewed by Raz. I found it an interesting read in light of what the author has to say about race in the novel, and how she leaves it open for every reader to construct race individually as they read:

I think that sometimes readers tend to give too much credence to an author’s thoughts about her own work. Every reader brings his or her background to a book, and a book’s meaning is always a negotiation between the reader (and her experiences) and the story itself.

This is a nice theory, but it begs the question: why is race left up to the reader, when queerness is built into the structure of the novel?

One of the nicest parts about reading Ash is the way characters can dance and flirt and fall in love with characters of either gender. It’s no big thing, and that’s really, really awesome. (I could read an entire book of just the queer fairy tales that get narrated at various parts of the book.) And there’s definitely such a thing as too much physical description of characters in romance (as always, Smart Bitches has all the evidence). But when she says her characters can’t be Asian because in the world of the novel there’s no Asia, it’s really hard not to respond that there are ways of describing an Asian body without using the word “Asian” and nothing else. In light of the discussions in comments about writers of color whitewashing their own fantasy novels, this reticence feels troubling. If I hadn’t read her blog about this issue, I never would have known how she viewed the characters.

Which is okay. Malinda Lo can write her books however she wants. But I do feel a little betrayed — worse, I feel like a bad reader — when I go to her blog and find I’ve missed a large chunk of the context she had in mind as she wrote the book. Not excluding the possibility that the protagonist is a person of color is not quite the same as including a protagonist who is a person of color. It’s not precisely whitewashing — but it feels kinda close.

And today I found this item about the upcoming film version of The Hunger Games:

The debate over Katniss’s on-screen ethnicity (or lack thereof) has raged in the Hunger Games fan community ever since a film adaptation was announced, owing to author Collins’ seemingly specific descriptions of the young heroine’s ethnicity. Described as having dark hair, olive skin, and gray eyes (in contrast to her fair-haired mother and sister), Katniss is thought by some readers to be of Mediterranean, Latin, Asian, or mixed descent.

By the same token [note: HA HA HA SOB], Katniss’s colorings could also suggest a brunette Caucasian girl, as in the novel’s official marketing materials (above). Either way, it’s fair to say that Collins’ ambiguity was purposeful in this regard. So the question isn’t, “Is Katniss white?” but “Could Katniss possibly be anything other than white?”

In casting only for Caucasian performers, the filmmakers seem to close the door on that possibility.

So because race was considered an ambiguous aspect of Katniss’ identity in the book, it is considered unimportant to the people casting the (probably white) actress to play her in the movie. This is not Suzanne Collins’ fault — it is the classic White People Are The Only Real Protagonists problem in Hollywood films.

And the only antidote for that particular poison is more protagonists of color.

But if you make skin color and race a strong part of your character’s identity, you become Niche Art. And the mainstream — who are of course all white people, it goes without saying — feels like they can comfortably ignore you.

It gets worse, though:

The candidate must be between the ages of 15-20, be Caucasian, appear “underfed but strong,” and be “naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.”

Now, the point of the whole entire series — which I’ve only read snippets of, because hot damn that is some good dystopia, by which I mean thoroughly and unrelentingly depressing and so I’ll save it for summer when I’m not already halfway down Dreary Lane — is that Katniss and her family are starving. So yeah, she’s gonna be malnourished. But there’s something creepy and unpleasant in the use of the term “underfed” when you’re using it to describe 1600 actual teenage girls — 1600 is the number of unsolicited resumes received in the open casting call. (Not to mention the thought that putting “underfed” next to “pretty” in this instance only works for a given value of pretty.)

So the author’s description of the character is unimportant when considering race, but significant when considering weight.

And it all just plays to me as so terribly convenient — I don’t have to think about race in Ash because it’s up to me in my own head. I don’t have to worry about Katniss and the idealization of thinness because she’s starving, so obvs she’s not gonna be, like, fat. (Because Hollywood, they really care about realism and plausibility above all else, you guys.)

This is what it looks like when privilege reinforces itself.

13 thoughts on “Can You Have a Grey Area if You’re Whitewashing?

  1. Your last line sums things up nicely.

    Those who are at least receptive to the possibility of there being bias simply shrug it off as being too difficult a thing to change, because of all the self-reinforcing business as usual stuff going on, in Hollywood.

    The grey area is simply, well it could easily fall into our comfort zone, so why bother with the risk, to change things?

  2. Not excluding the possibility that the protagonist is a person of color is not quite the same as including a protagonist who is a person of color. It’s not precisely whitewashing — but it feels kinda close.

    Exactly.

    there’s something creepy and unpleasant in the use of the term “underfed” when you’re using it to describe 1600 actual teenage girls — 1600 is the number of unsolicited resumes received in the open casting call. (Not to mention the thought that putting “underfed” next to “pretty” in this instance only works for a given value of pretty.)

    *blech!* I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. And this month was going so well.

  3. “This is a nice theory, but it begs the question: why is race left up to the reader, when queerness is built into the structure of the novel?”

    Exactly. That comes across as suspect to me.

    “This is what it looks like when privilege reinforces itself.”

    This! In a post-racial color blind society, leaving race up to the reader would be one thing but in this society where being a person of color means being treated as a second class citizen and this being a society that still erases and white washes characters of color, not to mention that white is considered the default unless otherwise stated (and even then that gets argued), this doesn’t sit well with me.

  4. But when she says her characters can’t be Asian because in the world of the novel there’s no Asia

    Huh, I read the link and I guess what she means is that these characters can’t “actually” be Asian, i.e. can’t be from Asia, but it’s such a weird caveat–nobody expects characters to be OMG ACTUALLY HONESTLY FROM THE LANDMASS KNOWN AS ASIA!1!! when a book takes place in a secondary world, as in non-Earth. So that’s an asinine thing to say.

    I also definitely agree that her compromise–saying what amounts to “I think they have Asian features but you’re free to read them as white if you like!”–makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Writers of color shouldn’t have to do this.

    The whole “underfed but pretty teehee” thing is super-duper doubleplus gross.

  5. I still haven’t gotten around to reading Ash (I’m overseas doing ‘research’) but I think it sounds brilliant.Like Neo-Preodigy I too, however, think that it’s a cop out to leave race to already white washed imaginations. The result will only be too, too predictable.

    You have to specify, otherwise the usual white CCS (centre stage syndrome) will play out amongst readers, both white and ‘other’wise.

    As for the Hunger Games? I always wondered what would happen to the text if Katniss and Haymitch were cast as American Indian (though I know there is a risk of stereotype with Haymithc being an alcoholic) and Peta as black – or at least Peta as he was in the first book before he seriously started to get on my nerves and creep me out. (Yeah, yeah I can just imagine the uproar. I mean, folks can’t even handle the idea of Willow Smith as Annie so there you go …)

    There is a specific speech that Peta delivers fairly early on in book one regarding the Capital’s games. Put the speech in a blonde white character’s mouth and meh.

    Put it in a black male character’s mouth and it takes on a whole other dimension of meaning. But hmmm, whatever. I just don’t bother with Hollywood films anymore unless I have to teach them.

  6. I just finished Ash and I have to admit I assumed the characters where fantasy-European rather than fantasy Asian simply due to the naming structure. For example, the characters have names like Aisling, Aiden (Irish/Celtic), Kaisa (Estonian), Isobel, Clara, etc. Characters were described as having brown hair, red hair, green and blue eyes, pale skin, etc. And the girl on the cover looked white.

    It crossed my mind, the possibility that these characters could be PoC, but I kind of wrote it off. Which is sad and indicative of the perils of fantasy writing when the genre is oversaturated with whiteness.

    That being said, I’m prepared to read Lo’s next novel, Huntress, with the assumption that the characters are Asian. Check out the cover art! The protagonist is named Kaede (a Japanese name.)

    • It crossed my mind, the possibility that these characters could be PoC, but I kind of wrote it off.

      What made it cross your mind? Then what made you write it off?

    • @Marissa Lee — I did exactly the same thing with all the names. Plus, it seems like every other chapter they’re going to a Yule ball.

      And yet — a lot of the worldbuilding stuff, like the conflict between the priests and the midwives, is much more interesting if you know the novel had an Asian context. And yeah, I can envision a novel that mixes two otherwise wildly different cultures — Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union leaps right to mind — but it helps if both cultures are actually present in the text, rather than just in the author’s imagination.

      • Speaking of gray areas and Michael Chabon, I’m wondering if anybody else has read his young reader’s fantasy take on fairie, Summerland? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

        Chabon uses a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-species cast of characters, but the central protagonist is still a straight white boy. He points out the silliness of white assumptions and white perceptions of others and white centrality, while telling a story where all the Others in his modified fairy realm play baseball because it’s the universal constant. There is a literal Magical Negro in the story. Anyhow, it’s entertaining, and complex. And I’d really like to hear thoughts on the book from anybody here who’s read it.

  7. It’s funny you would mention grey areas in regards to whitewashing because a friend and I were actually discussing instances where whitewashing actually helped POCs.

    One instance was Batman Begins. For those of you who don’t know Ra’s Al Ghul is actually of Arabic descent. While he is an amazing complex and compelling character who deserves to be played by a POC, because we live in a post 9/11 world, having a Middle Eastern villain plot to destroy an (albeit fictional) American city would’ve done more harm to POCs than good. In that case it was actually more responsible to go with an Irish actor.

    Another example would be the Flash Gordon series that was on SyFy. The racefail of Ming the Merciless (and Asian characters of the era Flash Gordon was conceived) is pretty well documented. So to avoid any potential racefail, they changed the character and made him white and changed his demeanor which to me was a smart move on the show’s part.

  8. That’s an interesting idea — I’d seen some of the changes they made for Ra’s Al Ghul, but not Flash Gorden. Though I wonder if there’s a better term for that than whitewashing, since both Ra’s and Ming the Merciless were stereotypes to begin with, and created by white people.

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