In the past, I’ve touched on different themes in the media world, including stereotypes in entertainment media, fake news, and the myth of the American dream. I now turn to another pertinent theme: portrayals and messages about race in entertainment media.
Just as social class, gender, and sexuality have been common threads of stereotyping in entertainment media, race has also appeared frequently and, arguably, to a larger extent. Depictions of racial stereotypes and prejudice have been present in entertainment media for a long time. It should be no surprise, then, that many of our cultural ideologies tend to influence the way race is portrayed in television, film, and music.
In my last post, I described the preliminary outline of a media analysis on historical film. Specifically, I’ve chosen to look at the film October Sky (1999) to understand how entertainment media (in this case, historical film) creates ideas about real events that have been translated into feature length film. Here, I’d like to expand on these ideas and focus on how race intersects with this topic.
Entertainment Media and Socialization
Because popular media permeate the very essence of our lives, it is hard to escape the perpetual and sometimes invasive messages film, TV, and music offer through entertainment. Media have the uncanny ability to reinforce strong-held beliefs and condemn alternative, countercultural ideas about those beliefs. Media also allow consumers to absorb information at a dizzying rate, and this information is often taken at face value without question. With this kind of power, it is no wonder media can shape public opinion.
Messages about race are often very common in popular film, television, and music. Because America has a not-so-smooth track record of racial inequality, media seek to both subdue ideas and messages that challenge commonly held stereotypes and reinforce them by cultural hegemony.
White is Right
Take a look at film culture from the last fifty years and it will become obvious that American popular film is rampant with whitewashing, a practice in entertainment media that casts Caucasian/European (white) actors and actresses for traditionally non-white roles.
Movies like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), Gods of Egypt (2016), and Ghost in the Shell (2017) are notoriously criticized for whitewashing. In the films mentioned, well-known actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Gerard Butler, and Scarlett Johansson, respectively, hold main roles as characters from non-European origins.
While you might say, “Hey! Those actors probably got those roles because they’re great actors! They’ve been in the business forever!” there is something dangerous about this assumption. I do not contest that Gyllenhaal, Butler, and Johansson are famous for their talent, but whitewashing sends a clear and chilling message to consumers: white is right.
By practicing whitewashing, producers of entertainment media are sending a message that whites and white culture are somehow superior (a concept called white supremacy) and individuals of other races fall short in one or more ways. This is no new ideology; in fact, this was the justification for colonization of Native people and lands and the American slave trade. When white actors are cast to play non-white roles, it devalues the people and the cultures of other ethnic origins.
When consumers view these films and television programs, it reinforces the idea that whites are dominant in society and that they always will be. This message can be especially damaging in societies that have well-established ideologies about race, dominance, and power. America is one such society and whitewashing plays a huge role in the perpetuation of racial stereotypes and white supremacy ideology in our country.
Whitewashing & Historical Film
Whitewashing is a common practice in Hollywood, and perhaps even more so when it comes to films based on real people and true events. Not only does whitewashed historical film devalue people of color like other films, but they also add a new, more demeaning dimension to the practice. Films that portray real people of color as white not only underrate the value of diverse cultures but also discredit the struggles and accomplishments of those historical figures.
Several examples of whitewashed historical figures can be seen in A Beautiful Mind (2001): Alicia Nash (bottom left), John’s wife, was originally from El Salvador but played by Jennifer Connelly (top left); 21 (2008): Jeffrey Ma, the card-counting MIT student whose name was changed to the very white Ben Campbell, was played by Jim Sturgess (top right); and Argo (2012): Ben Affleck was cast as CIA operative Antonio Mendez (bottom right).
The producers of these films had an opportunity to proudly represent Central American, Chinese, and Mexican cultures in their adaptions, but instead, they employed three well-known white actors. These are just a few examples of whitewashing in historical film.
(White) October Sky
The 1999 film October Sky is no exception to whitewashing, yet it employs “whiteness” in a more subtle, perhaps more deviant way. The film is based on the true events recounted by Homer Hickam in his memoir of the same name, and much of the film plays in favor of a white 1950s America. Although the film stays true to the ethnic backgrounds of Homer Hickam and most of the people of Coalwood, West Virginia, being primarily Caucasian/white, the film washes over the presence of African American townspeople documented in Hickam’s memoir.
Hickam’s memoir mentions a few “negros,” including Junior, the clerk at the Big Store. Junior is left out completely in the film, and the only other African American portrayal is a character named Leon Bolden, a former WW2 “Red Tails” Tuskegee Airman. This is where it gets interesting: Bolden is loosely based off a man Hickam refers to as “Leon Ferro” in the memoir, a name he admits is a fabrication itself. Leon Ferro is a pseudonym for Bill Bolt, a white WW2 vet working in the mine at Coalwood.
So, not only does October Sky ignore the real African American people who played (even minimal) roles in Homer Hickam’s dream of becoming a rocket scientist, but it also completely fabricates an African American character who never existed. Perhaps this was the film maker’s way of adding a little racial diversity without adding trivial characters, but if this is the case it certainly falls short of its goal.
There is a different trend here, one more significant than typical whitewashing. Not only are the few African Americans who helped Hickam reach his dream completely invisible in the movie, but the representation of racial diversity in Coalwood is no reflection of actual demographics of the time. Although some may argue adding ethnic characters increases a multicultural aspect to the film, it also distorts reality, arguably tricking consumers into believing something that simply isn’t true.
Whitewashing and “racial fabrication” as I’ve now coined it are serious issues in entertainment media. These films are so influential and give consumers a snapshot into the reality of history. If Hollywood insists on the concept of “white is right” and creates a theatrical world devoid of color, people will begin to believe this is the way things truly are in the real world. This effectively reinforces damaging cultural ideologies and racial stereotypes, creating perhaps even more division among consumers. After all, media are a reflection of our world – so why are we choosing to look into a fun house mirror?
This is important because we are a nation built on diversity. To discredit and ignore entire swaths of humanity for the sake of appealing to a majority audience completely undermines everything our country stands for. Entertainment media have a huge impact on public opinion and even minimal exposure to whitewashing and similar practices can influence how consumers think about reality. After all, media are a reflection of our world – so why are we choosing to look into a fun house mirror?