Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


What is “racebending”?

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On this website, the term “racebending” refers to situations where a media content creator (movie studio, publisher, etc.) has changed the race or ethnicity of a character. This is a longstanding Hollywood practice that has been historically used to discriminate against people of color.

Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927), Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921)

Charlton Heston in A Touch of Evil (1958), Victor Mature in Chief Crazy Horse (1955), Warner Oland in Charlie Chan in Paris (1935).

More often than not, this practice has a resultant discriminatory impact on an underrepresented cultural community and actors from that community (reinforcement of glass ceilings, loss of opportunity, etc.)

“Asian-American actors have never been treated as full-time actors. We’re always hired as part-timers. That is, producers call us when they need us for only race-specific roles. If a part was seen as too ‘demanding,’ that part often went to a non-Asian.”Mako, the voice actor of Uncle Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender

In the past, practices like blackface and yellowface were strategies used by Hollywood to deny jobs to actors of color. Communities of color were helpless to control how they would be represented in media. Because characters of color were played by white actors, people of color were hardly represented at all–and rarely in lead roles. While white actors were freely given jobs playing characters of color in make-up, actors of color struggled to find work.

A 2006 UCLA study found that in 2005, 81% of lead roles went to white actors.

Our society has yet to escape the legacy of these casting practices, which still continue in a subdued form today. Even today, although actors of color are disproportionately underrepresented in the media, films with lead characters of color are still cast with non-minority actors.

Mike Myers plays an Indian man in The Love Guru (2008), Mena Suvari portrays a black woman in Stuck (2007), Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular Prince of Persia (2010)

Jim Sturgess portrays the real-life leader of the MIT blackjack team (renamed from Jeff Ma to Ben Campbell) in 21 (2008), Max Minghella portrays real-life Facebook rival Divya Narendra in The Social Network (2010), Nicola Peltz plays the Inuit-inspired character Katara in The Last Airbender(2010)

“Racebending” can also change our perceptions about history. For example, the film Extraordinary Measures (2010)–based on a true story–erased the significant role an Asian physician, Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen, played in curing Pompe disease, by creating a fictional, Caucasian “Dr. Stonehill” played by Harrison Ford.

By failing to showcase the diversity found in the American landscape, the practice of “racebending” a character of color with a white actor does a great disservice to viewers of all ethnicities. This practice reinforces glass ceilings against actors of color, who are prevented from playing white characters as well as characters from their own communities. This practice minimizes the achievements and discredits the contributions people of color have made to American society.

This practice directly impresses upon media consumers that the most qualified people to represent people of color are white actors. This practice directly and indirectly sends the message that the only stories worth telling in major productions are stories about white people.

Can “racebending” have a positive effect?

Occasionally, “racebending” a character can have a positive effect, such as adding diversity or a new perspective to a story. This seems to happen very rarely, and the practice is often misunderstood as “political correctness” or “affirmative action.” Even as these actions attempt to correct an imbalance, clumsier attempts can worsen an already bad situation by reinforcing even more stereotypes. Successful portrayals can make a world of difference.

The casting of Samuel L. Jackson to depict Nick Fury in Marvel films added a person of color to Marvel’s otherwise all-white slate of Avengers, and matched the modern Ultimates version of the character. In 1997, the Wonderful World of Disney retold the universal story of Cinderella with a black actress in the lead role of Cinderella and an Asian American actor in the role of Prince Charming. It was also one of the first television programs to represent an interracial family. In 2009 and 2010, Cartoon Network’s Scooby-Doo films featured a multiethnic actress in the role of Velma Dinkley.

These rarely-seen depictions of people of color challenged historical stereotypes: A black male action hero leads a military organization. A woman of color is a beautiful princess. An Asian man is a love interest. Interracial, mixed, and adoptive families exist. Scooby Doo will work with non-white mystery solvers, too!

Our organization’s primary concern is the impact of “racebending” on underrepresented communities. Casting established characters of color with white actors has a huge, harmful impact on underrepresented communities of color and their struggles for representation. On the other hand, casting Nick Fury, Cinderella or Velma with actors of color had no discernible impact on the overall opportunity for white children and consumers to be represented by and relate to the wide array of other Hollywood characters who are white, including other incarnations of Nick Fury, Cinderella, and Velma.

For communities of color, these casting decisions meant representation and meaningful inclusion in the American storytelling landscape.