“It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.”
Should we be praising whitewashed diversity? Here are my thoughts, broken down…
13 Reasons Why is a Millennial Hype
Every few years a pop culture phenomenon takes the world by storm and being a millennial, I, of course, had to jump on the bandwagon. I found myself reading and watching Thirteen Reasons Why with the vigour of a teenager and soaking in the drama and trauma like a sponge. Written in 2007 and adapted for television by singer Selena Gomez, the Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s young adult (YA) novel has gotten media attention for its ground-breaking discussion on teen suicide. When I started watching the adaptation on Netflix, it was refreshing to see such a diverse cast that incorporated multiple races and sexual orientations. This is a big step for young adult TV and for TV in general, as the Gossip Girls, O. C’s, 90210’s, and Pretty Little Liars have always featured a predominantly straight white cast.
However, it’s a Few Tokens Short
As I watched, I was excited to see many diverse characters that for the most part felt real. Real problems, real teen angst, real and raw right there in front of me. There was finally a high school based drama where everyone wasn’t white. I watched and quickly realized after the first few episodes that even though there was representation in the cast, there was something important missing. I had to stop and ask myself: Where are the Middle Eastern characters? Although they made many of the book’s main characters’ people of colour (POC) and chose a range of diverse backgrounds in which to represent them, there still wasn’t a single Persian, not a single student in hijab in the hallway passing by, no third-generation Lebanese Americans. The show managed to include multiple African Americans, Asian Americans, and one Latino, but no, not one single representation of a Middle Eastern person.
I was excited and ready to praise this adaptation for finally bringing us all something different but again, it was a superficial solution to a deep problem in America. During casting, there was obviously a conscious effort to cast diversity but it hurt that no one bothered with the Middle East. Why didn’t anyone catch this? It was clear that there was a huge effort to include a wide range of people of color (POC) and not a single person producing the show stopped to say, “Hey, maybe we should include some Middle Eastern people?” It hurt that yet again, Middle Eastern people were left out of a show that depicted normal life in America. (Although, at least we were saved from the terrorist roles, the roles involving camels riding in the sand, shisha and coffee at a dirty café, the immigration scene, and the rest of the negativity.)
While I was initially upset about not seeing my minority group represented, I realized that there was a deeper problem with the casting. Pop culture circles have said that they love the Netflix adaptation for its refreshing view on race and for not “tokenizing” but there are other major problems with simply throwing people of color in roles because “it’s the right thing to do.”
The Problem of Whitewashing
Note: It wasn’t until I watched the the first episode of the Netflix show that I realized that I, based on my previous reading of the book, had imagined all the characters to be white. I read the book in a weekend and enjoyed every moment of it. However, I never imagined a single character being anything other than a suburban, small-town Caucasian. I am not saying Jay Asher is a bad writer but no descriptions led me to believe anything different: no dialect, no description of diverse bodies, no discussion of socioeconomics, no glimpse of heritage, nothing. There wasn’t anything to lead me to believe otherwise…I felt awful thinking back to the book and wondering if I missed something, or if my mental lenses had been so formed by Hollywood and mass media and skewed by years of seeing only one type of “person” in TV and movies.
My problem with the casting and all of the color they tried to include is that it was a complete whitewashing of people. Real people have layers, real people have defining features that make them who they are. I’m not talking about stereotypes; I am talking about the beautiful parts of people that make them unique. Having different skin tones, different hair, cultural norms, belief systems, accents, attitudes, body shapes, you know… This is what makes the world great. Yes, it gets old seeing POC in stereotypical roles, the African American gangster, the Persians with white Mercedes and too much cologne (why is this one so true though?), the Latinas with painted-on eyebrows and hoop earrings. Yes, these portrayals are problematic. No one deserves to be fetishized or put into a box.
However, to act like POC are just “white people” who look different is a terrible mistake to make. Families don’t have different skin colors because of a roll of the dice, they don’t speak different languages because of a Duolinguo app. They don’t eat traditional foods because they bought a “Best of Iran” cookbook and thought it seemed like a good idea. No, these things carry weight and are meaningful and powerful. The way people look, the texture of their hair, the stories their bodies carry, the foods they eat, these things are all part a family’s story. Showing POC as just “white people” that happen to look different is to erase generations of history, years of stories, and well…real life.
I don’t believe you can just haphazardly cast POC and stop for the day, pat yourself on the back, and say that you’ve solved the problem of representation in television. I think its almost as racist and ignorant to just plop people into roles because they’re available. What if they did a remake and Harry Potter was Chinese? Well, it would be weird, because, of course, Harry Potter COULD have been Chinese, but he is not. In the book, the character’s races and sexual orientation were not specified or even hinted at.
Of course, it was nice to see diversity and an attempt at realistic representation but it was superficial diversity. We all know superficial diversity: like in Gap commercials when they get a bunch of skin tones in a size 0 together to pose in skinny jeans. Whitewashing characters to place them in a white narrative by stripping them of their heritage, culture, and uniqueness is bizarre to me. It isn’t racist to acknowledge that people are different and do things differently. It isn’t stereotyping to show that people have layers and are multidimensional. It is, however, in my opinion, racist to omit these details when its convenient. Selena Gomez got to pick and choose a colorful cast without having to acknowledge that people of color have stories.
The Problem of Racial Hierarchy
So, in summary, thus far: 1. there’s no Middle Eastern representation at all, 2. people of color are represented but only with the superficiality that comes with being whitewashed. What else could be a problem?
Let’s also look past the superficiality of the ratio of POC to white cast mates. While many people have praised the show for being “token free”, it also didn’t radically change the face of POC on the big screen.
Does a POC fill a main role or a role of power? Nope. The school’s administration team plays a major role in the narrative as most the TV version takes place at school. The principal is white, but the guidance counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke) is black. There is a hierarchy there. The main character Hannah Baker is white but her best friend Jessica (Alicia Boe) is black: the leading lady with a colored best friend. Tony (Christian Navarro), the only Latinx on the show, is always hinted at as being “from the wrong side of the tracks”.
In contrast, the white rapist, womanizer, and creep, Bryce, is by far the wealthiest character living in a giant home with a pool and pool house (remember the O.C.?). This is ironic and stupid and why couldn’t the gay Latinx character have been rich? Why couldn’t the principal instead of the counselor been black? While people of color are present in large numbers, they exist, in the Netflix version, as props to white characters. This wasn’t a problem in the book, but the casting director chose to include people of diverse backgrounds without realizing that people have diverse backgrounds and you can’t separate a person from their story.
Yes, the story was about a white girl who was suicidal, and the message of this story is powerful. I just wish it could have been powerful in more ways than one.