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Are We Finally at the Precipice of the Whitewashing Tipping Point?

By Kristy Puchko | Think Pieces | February 23, 2016 |

By Kristy Puchko | Think Pieces | February 23, 2016 |

Rooney Mara isn’t the kind of actress who typically snags headlines. Far from a paparazzi-stalked party girl, she is reportedly deeply shy, and apparently very careful about what she says in interviews. But with Telegraph, the Academy Award nominee for Carol opened up just a bit about #OscarsSoWhite and her brush with whitewashing controversy via the panned Pan. And it gives us a crucial insight into how we get to #OscarsSoWhite.

The topic of #OscarsSoWhite arose when Mara was asked if the controversy would keep her from Oscar night. She demurely admitted she wouldn’t be boycotting, which isn’t surprising. That movement lost steam in the wake of The Academy’s membership changes and increased efforts for greater representation in their ranks and nominees in the future. When it came to commenting directly on #OscarsSoWhite, Mara said:

“Here is the thing, I have a lot to say and I have very strong opinions about it, but it is such a sensitive issue I don’t want to reduce it to a sound bite. I feel like that is what is happening. It is being turned into pull quotes and headlines, and that isn’t opening up a conversation so much as pointing fingers at people and taking their awards out of context. I don’t want to step into the conversation in that way.”

Considering how Meryl Streep’s comments at Berlinale were misrepresented across headlines, Mara’s hesitance to address this matter impromptu is a wise call. But she did have a bit more to say when it came to her controversial Pan casting as the traditionally Native American role of Princess Tiger Lily.

A reminder, here’s a comparison of Tiger Lily from Wright’s Pan and Disney’s iconic Peter Pan.


Mara admits:

“[It was a] tricky thing to deal with. There were two different periods; right after I was initially cast, and the reaction to that, and then the reaction again when the film came out. I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation. I really do. I don’t ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset and frustrated.”
(Emphasis ours.)

This is a thoughtful and honest response, where Mara admits it was hard to watch something she did hurt people. But she stops short of taking any responsibility for saying yes to the casting to begin with. And understanding why people are upset isn’t the same thing as owning up to your actions. Instead, she emphasized that Wright’s intentions were “genuine,” reminding us of Warner Bros response to a 96,000 signature strong petition spurred by her casting. At that time, the studio said in a statement, “The world being created is multi-racial/international — and a very different character than previously imagined.”

A shake-up from the traditional “Indian princess” trope might have been a smart move. But here are the character posters from Pan:


Unsurprisingly, Pan’s “multi-racial” world meant that people of color were sidelined to minor characters (many without names) and extras (all without lines). Mara’s careful about not besmirching the studio or director who hired her, but did admit, “Do I think all of the four main people in the film should have been white with blonde hair and blue eyes? No. I think there should have been some diversity somewhere.”

Admittedly, there’s this whole “logic” that white leads (most often white men) get cast because of a persistent belief that people of color won’t sell a movie overseas. But this ignores the success of the Fast and Furious franchise, and the inexplicable international penetration of such subpar Will Smith outings as Men in Black 3, I Am Legend and After Earth. Maybe this persistent WE NEED WHITE MEN TO LEAD MOVIES belief lead to Pan casting three: bonafide movie stars, Hugh Jackman, newcomer Levi Miller, and Garrett Hedlund, who is essentially human “fetch”. PLUS Mara as Tiger Lily. Yet even with all this lily-whiteness, Pan tanked. The $150 million movie made just $35 million domestic, and only $93 million overseas.

Now, it’s difficult to judge actors for the roles they take. Because 1) We never know all the circumstances that go into these negotiations, including money, future deals, script development, etc. 2) It can be hard out there, especially for young actresses who are often forced to fight for bullshit girlfriend roles before Hollywood deems them unfuckable and therefore unseeable. 3) We like actors and it pains us to realize they’re not the super cool flawless people we imagine them to be.

Yet for all this, I think we as a culture are at the precipice of a tipping point thanks to Aloha, Pan, Exodus: Gods and Kings and a certain movie about Egyptian deities. For one thing, the three of these movies that have hit theaters were all box offices disappointments if not outright bombs, suggesting audiences are rejecting these white washed worlds. But even when we like the actors and the directors, it’s just not enough anymore to excuse them their responsibility.

Since #OscarsSoWhite has been resurrected, the awards ceremony has been recognized as a symptom of a wider problem with institutional racism in Hollywood. (For some fascinating food for thought on what black acting does get Oscar recognition, click here.) A USC study has confirmed what even a casual movie goer can tell you: #MoviesSoWhiteAndSoMale. And this doesn’t just happen. If we only lay blame on the faceless “Academy,” little will change.

Producers and casting agents pitch white actors, because this has been the thing to do for decades. Directors and actors sign on to whitewashed films, and by extension sign on to continue an exclusive casting process that cuts out people of color. It’s a drop here and a drop there of people claiming it’s not their problem, not their fault, and then we get a flood of movies about white people, many mediocre, that tear through theaters racing toward that big gold finish line of Oscar night.

It’s not a mystery how this happens.

Kristy Puchko lives in perpetual fear that ice cream will become self-aware New York City.

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Kristy Puchko is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.