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Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Real Whitewashing Is Not In Casting

To my mind, the whole issue of 'whitewashing' misses the point. I honestly don't give a flying toss what colour actor is cast in the role of Othello, Major Kusanagi, or whatever - a faint whiff of racism seems to me inherent in the idea that skin colour is the only reliable indicator of culture. What does bother me, however, is the whitewashing of meaning.

Let's take Mulan as an example. Mulan, in either of its original forms, is a fable about self sacrifice for communal or family goals, as well as the absolute requirement to preserve both male and female honour. In both versions of the original story, there is a strong ethic of service - the obligation to serve their lord is never questioned, and much more is at stake than just her aged father's welfare. Mulan risks her future and person to preserve not just her father's head, but the honour of her family and community, the idea being that failure to fulfil their obligation of service would be shameful. And then there's the question of marriage - there are two variants of the story, but both involve Mulan refusing marriage as the specific offers (one from an enemy, the other as part of a more or less financial transaction) would be dishonourable.

Now let's compare this with the Disney version. As far as I can make out, what passes for deep messaging in this inane mash-up is the idea that feminism means proving you can do whatever boys do, and then ending up in a princess gown anyway. The other values which come through most strongly are those of individual liberty, individualism just generally, and the absolute comitment to make snide comments about anything that isn't an exact analogue of western parliamentary democracy. In short, the story of Mulan has been deliberately warped in order to deliver unmistakably western values. Whitewashed, in fact, in the only way that really matters.

This leads to me to ask several questions. Firstly, is this a conscious process? Are these people deliberately appropriating an alien culture in order to peddle their own values in an annoyingly superficial way, or is it possible that they just haven't understood - couldn't understand - the tale's more alien elements? A quick reading of the promotional bumf answers that question - it's deliberate. Which then leads to the next question, which is: If the intention was to deliver a western message to a western audience, why then was it necessary to piss all over a Chinese cultural product?

Surely, if the message one wishes to deliver is so inconsistent with the material, the sensible thing to do is to just use other material, right? Wrong. The fundamental factor at play here is deep racism. It's my impression that adaptors like Disney actually believe they're making stories like Mulan and Alladin and so forth better by ignoring the cultures from which they originate, and warping them into carriers of western values; western values presumably being the only valid values around.

And now I hear that the ABC is producing a re-telling of 'Journey to the West', the seminal tale of Buddhist sacrifice and self-denial, for kids. 
"The 10-part half hour series follows a teenage girl and a trio of fallen gods on a perilous journey as they attempt to bring an end to a demonic reign of chaos and restore balance to their world."
Seriously? A teenage girl in the Tripitaka role? And this nonsense:
"The Legend of Monkey is big budget fantasy drama series that will surprise and delight family viewers globally and locally. We’re a business built on highly original content and this ticks all the boxes: it’s a tremendous tale, visually imaginative and made by talented people. Kids are going to love it."
I believe that I can translate this. It would read:
"We have ripped out the deep messaging of the key foundation story of an entire religion and culture in order to make a sort of mediaeval cross between 'Kung Fu' and 'Power Rangers'." 
Perhaps I'm overreacting, but I can't help but think that if all you're trying to achieve is the creation of an entertaining kids' fantasy series, it would be eminently possible to do this while simultaneously leaving the deep fables of my culture the hell alone.

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