Erasing Color: A Social Essay

I’m a little girl playing with a fair-skinned Mattel Barbie doll in a North Hollywood bedroom. She has blonde hair and blue eyes. It’s 1995. All of my Barbie dolls are fair-skinned with light colored eyes, and a part of me wonders why I can’t ever seem to find one that looks quite like me. My little heart feels sad for just a moment, but like most children do, I forget about it and move on to something else.
I’m a little girl who grows up with John Hughes movies from the 80’s, recorded on VHS or constantly played on day time television. I admire fair-skinned and red-headed Molly Ringwald.  In all these movies, there isn’t one main minority character. They’re usually the supporting characters—the tokens. I detest how “cheap” the word sounds. Watching these movies, I identify with the characters, but then I do not.

Fast forward. The 20th century has come to a close. We have survived the Y2K. I am now an adult, and still there are countless TV shows and movies with an all white cast. Many of these shows and movies get put on sites such as Netflix, and when scrolling through, I am bombarded with fair-skinned person after fair-skinned person. Among a sea of many white faces, I can only count several of color.
  1. The Vampire Diaries                            1.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  2. Breaking Bad                                         2.  Mean Girls
  3. Dexter                                                       3.  Sweeney Todd
  4. That 70’s Show                                      4.  Underworld
  5. How I Met Your Mother                       5.  Love Actually
  6. American Horror Story                        6.  The Lovely Bones
  7. Freaks and Geeks                                   7.  Legally Blonde
  8. Portlandia                                                8.  Almost Famous
  9. Pretty Little Liars                                   9.  Chasing Amy
  10. Shameless                                               10.  Across the Universe
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I look in my Peruvian grandmother’s antique mirror and what do I see? I am tan. My skin is the color of lightly sprinkled cinnamon and caramel. I am not white or fair. My eyes are as dark as the universe, not hazel like my half Peruvian, half Italian mother’s. My hair is a dark brown—to the eyes, almost black—with loose wavy curls, like my Mexican-American, part Spaniard father’s. I am not like my childhood Barbie dolls. I am not like the countless Disney princesses and illustrated cartoon heroines of my youth. I am not the witty, well-liked and brave, light haired and light eyed female lead in my favorite movie or TV show, with skin the color of snow or slightly tanned marble. I know I could be, but why aren’t I? Why does the media constantly try to erase me and my identity?

30883783801_ce81748ec9_c

I look in the mirror and see an unfamiliar face—a face that is unfamiliar to the countless billboard fashion and advertisement ads we pass by every day—a face unfamiliar in your cliché light-hearted romantic comedies. This is a face that is rarely even seen in the poorly made, Latin Novelas my fair-skinned mother loves to shamelessly watch. Women with my skin only get cast as the role of the “maid,” or the “gypsy” peasant woman. Fairer-skinned Latina women are glorified and beautiful, while Latina women like myself are poor or unattractive characters on channels like Telemundo. Even in Latin TV, the light skinned and light eyed is favored over the dark.

A White Hollywood

In the land of cinema and movie magic, almost anything is possible. Movie-goers everywhere can enjoy blockbuster hits or underrated independent films and get lost in fantastical or re-imagined worlds. Whether they take place in modern day, the future, or the past, there seems to be all sorts of genres for everyone now. Then why is it so hard for Hollywood and the media to portray equality and diversity? We are dominated by a White Hollywood.

starring_mickey_rooney

White washing in Hollywood has been a major issue since the dawn of early cinema’s golden era to even now, here in the twenty-first century. From Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr.Yunioshi in 1962’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, impersonating a Japanese man in full “yellowface,” to modern day flicks such as Exodus: Gods and Kings, featuring a mostly European cast centered in Egypt, to the upcoming movie based on the popular Japanese Anime, Ghost in the Shell—whose main character is a Japanese woman being played by white, blonde-haired American actress, Scarlet Johansson—or even Iron Fist, a white American comic book hero immersed in Asian culture, coming to life in a live-action show on Netflix in 2017. Sadly, the list can go on. As a woman of color, am I really just biased, or am I trying to draw attention to a much bigger issue? I would like to think the latter rings more true.

Iron Fist isn’t a show I will most likely be watching. And the main reason is because it’s just your typical white American-centered story. So, who is the Iron Fist, exactly? The character is centered around a typical blonde hair and blue-eyed white American male with wealthy parents that travel to a mystical city, where his parents are killed in separate freak accidents. Orphaned, he is taken in by the ruler of the city and trained in the art of Kung Fu, eventually gaining the power of the “Iron Fist.”

power-man-iron-fist-return

There seems to be lots of TV shows and movies on Netflix featuring nothing but a mostly all-white cast. Marvel and Netflix had an opportunity to finally justify the character and take an Asian-influenced story and give that role to an actual Asian-American. But they did not. Asian’s hardly ever seem to get offered main roles in TV shows or movies.

While some people can argue that the character has always been white, therefore Netflix did not need to change him to strictly Asian, the matter of the fact is that this is just another superhero tale of a typical white male from an upper class/privileged family. Minorities are rarely cast as main characters, and their stories are often erased to be replaced with a white character’s instead. Corporations like Netflix and Marvel continue to profit off other people’s cultures for their own gain, while painting the white man as the “hero,” or someone that always saves the day.

With the success of comic book properties being so dependent on accuracy to the source material, is Marvel doing anything wrong by keeping the main character as a white male? The interesting thing is that the character of Iron Fist doesn’t necessarily have to be white. It’s so easy for Hollywood to change a minority character into a white character, so why not the other way around? Iron Fist could have easily been an Asian American male from an affluent family, instead of a white male. The entirety of the story could have remained the same. This is what White Hollywood continues to fail to see. Of course there are also new superhero shows on Netflix such as Luke Cage, featuring a black-male lead, but this is still a rarity.

Without equal representation, people of color continue to feel underrepresented in the media. It’s disheartening and extremely frustrating. White male directors such as Ridley Scott are saying insensitive and ignorant statements such as “I can’t mount a film of this budget … and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” in regards to the controversy of a mostly all-white cast in 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. This is a straight out racist remark and he is able to get away with it. Directors like him also try to shift the blame on the industry, which in turn shifts the blame towards its consumers. It appears to be a never-ending cycle. Interestingly, a cycle that clearly favors money/profit over a consideration of equality or an actual art form. It’s all about profit, and it’s very obvious by now that a White Hollywood sells.

When white actors take roles from people of color, it not only ruins the chances for brilliant actors to showcase themselves in big movies, but it also presupposes that people of color cannot star in these potential blockbuster films, which is an absurd notion.

~Will Tentindo

When will it end? It’s easy for non-minorities to disregard issues such as lack of representation for minorities in the media. Why? The bottom line is that it doesn’t necessarily affect them. Perhaps it’s not because many do not care, but simply because so many don’t often think about it. It shouldn’t just be the job of minorities to speak up, but I believe in the importance of non-minorities helping out and addressing to the media that our stories matter too. Instead, many do nothing and, “When white actors take roles from people of color, it not only ruins the chances for brilliant actors to showcase themselves in big movies, but it also presupposes that people of color cannot star in these potential blockbuster films, which is an absurd notion,” writes Will Tentindo for University Wire.

Why is there a continuous erasure of color? Is it because being fair-skinned is seen as more appealing? Because it dates back to colonial times when more “civilized,” and stronger groups of people took over, destroying people of color’s culture and roots, because they found them to be barbaric? Or because it was also seen as a sign of hierarchy? Is it really just a matter of light vs dark? That’s a problem many seem to find with this issue. For example, Asians can also be light-skinned, and they are hardly portrayed in Hollywood—however—as a whole, the lighter you are, the more chance of success you have in media period. It seems to be a constant division, and although it shouldn’t be, society has made it this way, and seems to want to keep it this way.

New York Times best-selling author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day brings up another side to the issues of skin color in his article, “White Skin: Why Racism in Asia Isn’t Quite What You Think.” He writes that “When you stop making something an issue, it suddenly stops being one. Then we can all sit back and laugh and just enjoy each other—regardless of skin color.” But is it really that easy and can we really be so light-hearted to brush off the fact that society seems to try and erase color every single day? In order to stop making color an issue, don’t we first need equal representation? If the media is constantly favoring light over dark, then it continues to be offensive and a serious matter, therefore, how can we all just sit back and relax and “enjoy” each other’s company when we’re always being shown movies and TV shows that showcase white people’s stories that are seen as always more favorable over the stories of people of color?

What’s Up with Fashion Ads?

kendall-jenner-gigi-hadid-w-magazine-01
Ad in W Magazine

I also continue to ponder how in the world advertisements such as this recent ad in W Magazine featuring Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, are considered acceptable by today’s standards. Why is the woman in the bottom resembling a dog? And look closely. She is portrayed in “black face.” This is a white woman whose skin has been darkened to portray a lesser “character” in this magazine spread. Although this can be argued as “art,” it’s still odd to take a white woman and make her darker, change her hair texture, and designate her as the role of the dog. So is this art, or is this just the media profiting and giving a white model a role that could have at least been given to a woman of color? And even then, however, this woman of color would have clearly been designated the minor role. Of course not all ads are like this. There are women of color that get leading roles in fashion, but as always, it’s just not equal to the amount white models are getting. (Yes, I’m aware Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner are not exactly white, but they are still white passing and are exactly what the media eat up daily).

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Erasing color—it seems to happen right before our very own eyes every single day. What is society really doing about it? Not much, and there are times when I feel like there really isn’t much we can do. While writing, I felt like I had the answer, but it never came. I suddenly feel overpowered. I almost feel hopeless. Hollywood and the media—it’s all a business. It’s not really about equality, and maybe it never will be. Although some may argue that it isn’t just about light vs. dark, the world has evolved to see light as more beautiful and appealing and the media profits off this. This we cannot deny. The cycle repeats over and over, and people of color continue to remain as after-thoughts. And although they now have much more diverse Barbie dolls for little girls than they ever did back when I was a child, and there seems to be more awareness and people fighting for equality, it’s still just not enough.

∗∗∗

I am a minority. I am a woman of color. Although somewhat discouraged and like I may be fighting for a lost cause, I will not let Hollywood and the media make me feel inferior. I will not look at my reflection and wish I could paint over features such as my eyes—dark pools of a lost galaxy I wish I could turn to hazel—swirls of green and light brown and brilliant gold. I will never wish for the perfectly straight blonde hair of my childhood Barbie dolls, but I will embrace my unruly, thick-textured dark hair instead. Most importantly, I will not paint my skin lighter to match the TV heroines of my youth, or the majority of women featured in high-end fashion ads. You can taste the bold, delicate taste of dark chocolate, the bitter sweetness of cinnamon and caramel, you may enjoy the light taste of peaches and cream, but snow? I will not let this world erase me.


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