An Essay on Whitewashing and the “Bankability” of Asian Stars
I know there have been scores of articles addressing the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Dr. Strange and Scarlet Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, but as my frustration with the ongoing practice of yellowface and whitewashing in Hollywood builds, I wanted to chime in with my response to the increasingly hackneyed excuse that they had to do that because of the lack of Asian stars.
Being an engineer and an MBA, I wanted to try and address this argument from a more data-driven, fact-based approach, as opposed to the more anecdotal ones that are probably more visible. There will, however, undoubtedly be plenty of anecdote in my argument, as it’s a tough thing to avoid; after all, movie-making is arguably more of an art than a science, right?
The impetus behind this is probably the latest comments by Max Landis, along the lines of “If you’re mad about “Ghost In the Shell,” you don’t know how the movie industry works.. There are no A-list female Asian celebrities right now on an international level… That is not the fault of the movie industry, really,” etc, which, especially coming from Max Landis, seems like as white-male-privilege-splaining as it gets, because who is Max Landis? He is a thirty year old white male son of much better-known Hollywood player John Landis. And of course, his white male privilege is only perpetuated by the fact that major media outlets decide that his response is a worthy enough response to cover as the primary defender of yellowface casting.
Of course, Max Landis is not the only person who has made these comments. Ridley Scott, the man who made Alien with Sigourney Weaver whose credits at the time included playing “Alvy’s Date Outside Theatre” in Annie Hall and roles on TV series “The Best of Families” and “Somerset,” recently made a comment along similar lines of not being able to get the movie made with Mohammed So-and-so. The self-proclaimed, in all caps “VERY LIBERAL” Oscar blogger Sasha Stone made the same argument when defending the whitewashing casting of Mackenzie Davis in the role of Mindy Park in The Martian, because you know, that very small part amongst a pretty heavy-hitting cast led by Matt Damon, was what the funding of the film hinged on.
So I contend that these comments are all excuses, either out of ignorance or compliance, defending an industry and institution that is inherently racist. I’m going to try and use some data beyond the usual anecdotal evidence to explore these contentions, namely how a star becomes “bankable” and why there are no Asian females in that category, and the contention that the only way to get movies made are with these “bankable” stars.
How a Star Becomes Bankable
As Max Landis says, there are no A-List female Asian celebrities right now on an international level, which begs the question, why not? In my attempt to explain this with data, I’ve looked at all Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominees since 2000 (which I know is definitely not a perfect proxy for an actress’s star power), as I figure it would serve to create a pool of worthy women who have had some success in their careers. Moreover, without much concrete backing, I do feel that your bigger female stars are more likely to have showed up in the Oscar race (as opposed to the men who populate superhero movies).
So I actually looked at every nominee since 2000, and because I wanted to look for “breakout” roles to try and measure bankability with some sort of before/after effect, I only looked at first time nominees who were not already a known entity previously (which I recognize is a slightly subjective measurement). I’ll try to append my list of nominees and who I eliminated at the end of this essay so you can decide how much I’ve biased my arguments.
The actresses I ended up with are:
Laura Linney (2001, You Can Count On Me)
Keisha Castle-Hughes (2003, Whale Rider)
Naomi Watts (2003, 21 Grams)
Catalina Sandino Moreno (2004, Maria Full of Grace)
Felicity Huffman (2005, Transamerica)
Marion Cotillard (2007, La Vie En Rose)
Ellen Page (2007, Juno)
Melissa Leo (2008, Frozen River)
Carey Mulligan (2009, An Education)
Gabourey Sidibe (2009, Precious)
Jennifer Lawrence (2010, Winter’s Bone)
Rooney Mara (2010, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Quevenzhane Wallis, (2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Felicity Jones (2014, The Theory of Everything)
Rosamund Pike (2014, Gone Girl)
Brie Larson (2015, Room)
Marcia Gay Harden (2000, Pollock)
Kate Hudson (2000, Almost Famous)
Shohreh Aghdashloo (2003, House of Sand and Fog)
Virginia Madsen (2004, Sideways)
Sophie Okonedo (2004, Hotel Rwanda)
Amy Adams (2005, Junebug)
Jennifer Hudson (2006, Dreamgirls)
Adriana Barraza (2006, Babel)
Abigail Breslin (2006, Little Miss Sunshine)
Rinko Kikuchi (2006, Babel)
Saiorse Ronan (2007, Atonement)
Amy Ryan (2007, Gone Baby Gone)
Viola Davis (2008, Doubt)
Taraji P. Henson (2008, Hustle and Flow)
Mo’Nique (2009, Precious)
Vera Farmiga (2009, Up In the Air)
Anna Kendrick (2009, Up In the Air)
Hailee Steinfeld (2010, True Grit)
Jacki Weaver (2010, Animal Kingdom)
Octavia Spencer (2011, The Help)
Jessica Chastain (2011, The Help)
Berenice Bejo (2011, The Artist)
Melissa McCarthy (2011, Bridesmaids)
Lupita N’yongo (2013, 12 Years a Slave)
Sally Hawkins (2013, Blue Jasmine)
June Squibb (2013, Nebraska)
Patricia Arquette (2014, Boyhood)
Alicia Vikander (2015, The Danish Girl)
Just looking at that list, you can probably compare yourself anecdotally about the fate of white actresses vs. actresses of color. But I’ve tried to do some sort of comparison in terms of career trajectory pre-and-post so we can try and have some sort of control. Unfortunately, this is where it gets a bit anecdotal, because again, art vs. science.
So I’ve split actors now into those of color and not. I’ve looked up their follow-up Oscar nominations and films and their ages at the time of nomination. In my analysis I’ve noted the budget of their nominated film as well as its gross, just to try and get the scope of that piece if necessary.
Laura Linney, Naomi Watts, Felicity Huffman, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Melissa Leo, Carey Mulligan, Melissa Leo, Jennifer Lawrence, Rooney Mara, Felicity Jones, Rosamund Pike, Brie Larson, Marcia Gay Harden, Kate Hudson, Amy Adams, Abigail Breslin, Saiorse Ronan, Amy Ryan, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Jessica Chastain, Berenice Bejo, Melissa McCarthy, Sally Hawkins, June Squibb, Patricia Arquette, Alicia Vikander
Keisha Castle-Hughes, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Gabourey Sidibe, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Hudson, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer, Lupita N’yongo
Hailee Steinfeld is a tricky one as she’s one quarter Filipino, but from an appearance perspective is not obviously ethnic. There may be similar others that have been miscategorized, but to me, I’ve put them in the obvious categories.
Of course, we must also recognize that age in Hollywood is a huge factor for women, so the career trajectory of the actresses where the “breakthrough” was later in life will also be a huge issue, but we can still compare white actresses and actresses of color in the same age bracket. Furthermore, depending on when these first nominations are in the 2000’s, there will obviously be more opportunity for greater work the earlier they were nominated (so for the 2014-2015 nominees, it’s hard to get much of a gauge as to their career trajectories, but I’m pretty sure Brie Larson and Alicia Vikander have things lined up). I don’t think it will make too much of a difference though before the point is made.
In our group of young nominees, we can compare:
Keisha Castle-Hughes (13), Quevenzhane Wallis (11), Abigail Breslin (10), Saiorse Ronan (13), and Hailee Steinfeld (14)
In our “ingénue” age-group, for lack of a better world (okay, I could have said 20’s, sorry), we’ll compare:
Catalina Sandino Moreno (23), Ellen Page (20), Carey Mulligan (24), Gabourey Sidibe (26), Jennifer Lawrence (20), Kate Hudson (21), Jennifer Hudson (27), Rinko Kikuchi (25), Anna Kendrick (24), Jennifer Hudson (27), Alicia Vikander (26)
In our 30’s group, we can look at:
Laura Linney (36), Naomi Watts (35), Marion Cotillard (32), Sophie Okonedo (36), Amy Adams (31), Amy Ryan (39), Vera Farmiga (36), Berenice Bejo (35), Jessica Chastain (34), Lupita N’yongo (30), Sally Hawkins (37)
And in our 40+ group, we can look at:
Melissa Leo (48), Marcia Gay Harden (40), Shohreh Aghdashloo (51), Virginia Madsen (43), Adriana Barraza (50), Mo’Nique (42), Jacki Weaver (63), Octavia Spencer (41), Melissa McCarthy (41), Viola Davis (43), Patricia Arquette (46), June Squibb (83)
I concede we have a small sample size, but in each of these categories, for the most part, the main differentiator for me in terms of success seems to be race. I’ve made an Excel sheet looking at roles following Oscar nominations, follow-on nominations, budgets of films and grosses of films they’ve starred in, but it’s a lot of info. I’m not going to go into too much detail, but based on how much you recognize their names, you can decide what their trajectories have been like, and I’ll just post some interesting takeaways:
In the young nominees, Keisha Castle-Hughes followed up her Oscar nomination with a bit part in Revenge of the Sith, where she was unidentifiably covered in white make up (reminiscent of Lupita’s Star Wars turn?). Saoirse Ronan has been playing significant leading roles and was most recently nominated for a lead actress Oscar in Brooklyn.
In the 40+ group, the follow up projects for Melissa Leo and Jacki Weaver (while they may not be household names) were subsequent Oscar nominations/wins, and Melissa McCarthy is what she is now. On the other hand, Shohreh Aghdashloo got to play Dr. Kavita Rao in X-Men: The Last Stand, but otherwise pretty much moved to television. Adriana Barraza followed up her nomination with an episode in CSI: Miami and ER, although she is in Thor.
My major comparison is the 20’s group. Carey Mulligan, Jennifer Lawrence, and Anna Kendrick are probably three of today’s buzziest stars. I think it’s a difficult case to make that Jennifer Lawrence became “bankable” in WINTER’S BONE, which grossed $6.5M, but rather when she was put into X-Men and The Hunger Games. Someone made the decision to put her in a major franchise, and this made her bankable. Why did no one do this for Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim came seven years later)? Or Catalina Sandino Moreno? I feel like people might push back with the language issue, but then you look at Marion Cotillard and Lea Seydoux after their ‘breakouts’ and they ended up in Inception and as a Bond girl, respectively. Max Landis, one is not put into a franchise because one is bankable, one is made bankable by being put into a franchise, which seems to only happen when one is white.
Just for kicks, it’s worth noting that:
Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, and Melissa McCarthy were nominated for the first time in the same year, and Octavia Spencer won. That’s enough on that point.
I would say the comparable career trajectory for an actress of color above might be Viola Davis, who followed up her Oscar nomination in Doubt with one in The Help (playing…the help), but has mostly since made her name on TV rather than film. Suicide Squad may change this, although it seems to be capitalizing on her Emmy wins rather than giving her a huge opportunity for being young and white (as, say Margot Robbie is getting).
Movies can’t get made without a bankable star
Even though I’ve already touched on this point, I want to just follow up with some data to examine Max Landis’s assertion again. If Hollywood can’t make movies without a bankable star, then one would expect that all the most expensive (non-continuation on franchise) movies that have been made have a “bankable” star. Furthermore, one would expect that the most successful movies would be led by at least a “bankable” star, because that would justify that “bankable” stars make bankable movies.
To try and judge this, I’ll look at two things:
- Most expensive movies made and who their stars are
2 - highest grossing movies in a year and who their stars are
Here is a list from Wikipedia of the 25 most expensive productions, unadjusted for inflation:
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
John Carter (2012)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)
The Lone Ranger (2013)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
Man of Steel (2013)
The Avengers (2012)
Men In Black 3 (2012)
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
King Kong (2005)
Superman Returns (2006)
If I remove anything that was a sequel in a franchise, since we can assume those greenlights came from the previous installment (as much as I don’t want to remove Ben Barnes in Prince Caspian to illustrate this point) and animated movies, we’re left with:
The Lone Ranger,
Man of Steel,
Oz the Great and Powerful,
And just because that list is really short, I’m going to keep picking more out from the Wikipedia list that fulfil this criteria.
Guardians of the Galaxy,
World War Z,
Jack the Giant Slayer,
The Golden Compass,
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
Okay, first of all it might be noting that spending a lot on a movie seems like generally a bad idea, unless you’re James Cameron. But secondly, it seems like Hollywood is happy to do it as long as they have a white male leading the movie, regardless of how well known they are.
Let’s look at the idea that these movies could only be made with a bankable star in the lead.
John Carter – Taylor Kitsch
Avatar – Sam Worthington
The Lone Ranger – Johnny Depp
Man of Steel – Henry Cavill
Oz the Great and Powerful – James Franco
Battleship – Taylor Kitsch
King Kong – Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody
Titanic – Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet
2012- John Cusack
Green Lantern – Ryan Reynolds
Guardians of the Galaxy – Chris Pratt
World War Z – Brad Pitt
Jack the Giant Slayer – Nicholas Hoult
The Golden Compass – Dakota Blue Richards
Pacific Rim – Charlie Hunnam
Chronicles of Narnia – William Moseley, et al
Tomorrowland – Britt Robertson
At the times their respective films were made, I would probably say that the only films with “bankable” stars were The Lone Ranger, Oz the Great and Powerful, King Kong, 2012, and World War Z. So 5/17 films. And clearly all these big budget movies were worth making with a white actor at the helm, regardless of how much it cost (saying nothing of the quality of the end product). I've also tried to note the main lead of the film, even though films like The Golden Compass and Tomorrowland had more "bankable" stars like Nicole Kidman and George Clooney more central in their marketing. These seem relevant in the "unbankable star" category though, because I think it's very reasonable to cast an unknown Asian lead in Ghost in the Shell and a more "bankable" supporting character.
Now given the success of these films, these might be in opposition to my point, potentially making the argument why using a non-bankable star means your film is destined for failure (although many of those starry ones were arguably worse), since a lot of these seemed like pretty big flops (although given how recent many of these films are, they still seem to be happy to take this risk with an unknown white male star), so perhaps what we should be noting is film grosses.
Under Max Landis’s logic, one would expect that the most successful movies should therefore only have bankable stars in it, because Hollywood must believe that a movie must have a ‘bankable’ star in it to be successful.
This is getting to be kind of a lot of lists, so I’m just going to look at Box Office Mojo for the last two years of worldwide box office grosses that again, are neither animated nor a sequel of a franchise, and pull out qualifying films from the top 25 or so.
The Martian - Matt Damon
Fifty Shades of Grey – Jamie Dornan and Dakota Fanning
Cinderella – Lily James
The Revenant – Leonardo DiCaprio
Ant-Man – Paul Rudd
San Andreas – Dwayne Johnson
Kingsman: The Secret Service – Taron Egerton
Guardians of the Galaxy – Chris Pratt
Maleficent – Angelina Jolie
Interstellar – Matthew McConaughey
American Sniper – Bradley Cooper
Godzilla – Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Megan Fox
Lucy – Scarlett Johansson
Edge of Tomorrow – Tom Cruise
Gone Girl – Rosamund Pike
Noah – Russell Crowe
The Maze Runner – Dylan O’Brien
I mean, for half of these films, can we consider the star bankable? In 2015, Fifty Shades of Grey and Cinderella picked non-bankable stars for a known story, potentially creating bankable stars (which I feel like they could have done for Ghost in the Shell), and Taron Egerton doesn’t seem very bankable (you might argue Colin Firth, is more bankable, in which case I say again, great, cast a supporting bankable star in Ghost in the Shell and make an Asian lead). Paul Rudd and Dwayne Johnson are questionable as bankable (again, this is subjective), but we see that nearly half of these top-grossing films did not have a non-bankable star, so based on the evidence, how does Hollywood decide that bankable stars are the only way to assure that the film will make money?
In 2014, we have a similar breakdown, where I’d say Chris Pratt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Megan Fox, Rosamund Pike, and Dylan O’Brien weren’t “bankable” at the time their film came out, and by most things I’ve read, Lucy was what determined Scarlett Johansson’s bankability, so she wasn’t considered “bankable” before then. I realize this might be a bit off, since Megan Fox was in Transformers, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson was Kick-Ass, which were pretty big, so maybe it’s my subjectivity that makes me think that they’re not particularly “bankable.” It still doesn’t make a particularly strong case for the correlation that a film needs to have a "bankable" star to make money.
In many cases, doesn’t the success of the film make the white lead bankable, especially when the source material is known or when the material is Marvel? So why can’t Hollywood do that with Ghost in the Shell or Dr. Strange? Would the successful films with a relatively unknown white actor have done just as well with an unknown non-white lead? We see films like Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Jungle Book, and it seems like it should be fine if the movie’s good. But now I’m getting anecdotal, because there’s just not that much evidence to make much of a point with non-white leads.
After all this, what can I conclude? It seems to me that Hollywood IS willing to make expensive movies with non-bankable stars, as long as they are white, and someone decides they want them to become bankable. And the success of the film doesn’t necessarily depend on how “bankable” the film star is, as those defending whitewashing are arguing. So I just want to say to Max Landis and every other person who says I don’t know how Hollywood works and they can’t cast minorities as leads because the movies can’t get made because those actors aren’t “bankable” enough: no, that’s not the case. It’s because they’re not white enough. It seems that YOU don’t know how Hollywood works, and I should explain to you that it’s just an institutionally racist bubble, and while you as an individual are probably (hopefully) not racist, you’re just making the excuses that continue to perpetuate the whitewashing of minorities and reinforce the blatant institutional racism that undoubtedly exists. That’s how Hollywood works.
As an extra takeaway, it kind of seems like if a movie is good, regardless of who your star is or how much money you spend on it, it’s going to do well. And if the film is not good, no matter how much you spend on it, it’s probably not going to do as well. Rocket science. So if they just concentrate on making Ghost in the Shell good, then they shouldn’t have to cast a “bankable” white actress. If they make it good, they’ll make a new bankable Asian star. The source material is known, liked, and popular, so do the filmmakers not have confidence that their team can make a good movie? Or maybe it’s just the institutional racism.