When I was young, I watched a lot of movies and TV shows and thought it seemed like an ideal job. After being allowed to perform briefly in one for an extremely minor role, I fantasized about doing more. But that was before I found out that Asians only made of 1.4 percent of speaking or lead roles in films and TV shows.
That seemed reasonable to me at first; I could never imagine an Asian being named Harry Potter, Lucy Pevensie, or Matilda Wormwood and would never imagine Asians being cast for those characters. I could, however, completely see Light Yagami being Asian, and yet, Netflix’s adaptation of “Death Note” has changed his name to “Light Turner” and cast Nat Wolff for the part.
Originally a popular Japanese manga featuring the intense cat-and-mouse chase between two Japanese characters, Netflix has decided to Americanize the story, moving the setting from Tokyo to Seattle, and changing the characters names to fit the people they’ve casted. To defend their casting choices, producers argued they “could not find Asians that spoke ‘perfect’ English” and that they thought that the new cast and setting would “make it more appealing to the U.S. or to the English-language market.”
However, this is not the first time an Asian or some other minority character has been portrayed as white; there has been a long history of media “whitewashing” out characters, justifying their white cast for movies with non-white characters saying that “racially correct casting would have led to box office failure,” when there has been evidence that proves otherwise.
A report titled “Inclusion or Invisibility?” by the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism states that in a sample of 109 motion pictures and 305 broadcast, cable, and digital series, “at least half or more of all cinematic, television, or streaming stories fail to portray one speaking or named Asian or Asian American on-screen.” The report also found that with 71.7 percent of characters being White, 12.2 percent Black, 5.8 percent Hispanic/Latino, 5.1 percent Asian, 2.3 percent Middle Eastern and 3.1 percent other, 28.3 percent of all speaking characters were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, which is below (-9.6 percent) the proportion in the U.S. population (37.9 percent).
And why should this matter, not only to Asians but also to other underrepresented minorities?
“People mentally and emotionally need representation,” Fordham Political Review writes, citing the famous “Black Doll” experiment in which a group of children were shown two dolls differing only in skin color. When asked which doll they thought was better or prettier, the majority of the children responded with the white doll. With the results of the experiment, the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education concluded that children internalize stereotypes very early on through various forms of media, a verdict that emphasizes the need for sufficient and accurate representation.
As Americans, we take pride in a diverse population and the level of acceptance seen almost nowhere else in the world. Unequal racial representation in media is just a reminder that even in our relatively progressive and open-minded environment, inclusion and representation still remains an issue that needs to be addressed, not only for race, but for gender, LGBT, and those with disabilities as well.
If entertainment is for everyone, it’s time it started to include everyone.