Last week, Jem fan Lindsay Taylor took to YouTube to decry the whitewashed casting for Shana Elmsford, the shy African-American character in the 1980s cartoon about a group of foster kids who become a neon-scorched girl band.
Director Jon M. Chu and his team had already caught flack back in March for excluding Jem creator Christy Marx from the live-action adaptation. Judging from Taylor’s video, it appears they’ve learned nothing since about playing nice with the show’s nostalgic fans.
In her six-minute video, Taylor explains why Jem was important to her: “There was a character in it named Shana who looked aesthetically like me. She’s African-American, she’s dark like me, and she could have big hair too like I could have big hair. But mostly, when I saw a character on television like me, I would rejoice.”
She then links the casting of the lighter-skinned Aurora Perrineau (above) to “the industry’s love to fill their quota of black people with lighter[-skinned] black people.” Other examples in this ignoble tradition include the casting of Rosario Dawson in the Josie and the Pussycats movie, Halle Berry in the X-Men movie, and the wholesale whitewashing of Asian characters into white characters in The Last Airbender movie. In each of these cases, animated characters of color are played by white or lighter-skinned actors in the live-action versions.
Taylor considers this routine whitewashing a betrayal to fans. “I’m hurt,” she confesses. “I’ve been erased from the very thing I love. I’m tired of seeing people as dark as myself erased and whitewashed when they enter the mainstream to appeal to the masses.”
She continues, “Is it so outrageous to think someone my color would be rocking out on stage in a girl band? It was clearly acceptable in a cartoon, so what gives? Everyone else’s color is fixed, but the black character’s color is always negotiable.”
I’m with Taylor until that last point, because Hollywood’s tendency to fetishize actresses of color who are closer to white beauty standards doesn’t only affect black actresses. It’s been impossible not to notice that many of the younger Asian-American actresses who have landed significant roles — among them Olivia Munn (The Newsroom), Katie Chang (The Bling Ring), Maggie Q (Nikita), Kristin Kreuk (Smallville), Chloe Bennet (Agents of SHIELD), Hayley Kiyoko (also in the Jem movie) — tend to be half (or more) white. (Granted, in Bennet’s case, her racial mixture may prove important to the show’s story.) Even as the box-office globalizes, Hollywood’s desperate clinging to a white standard of beauty has led to a mass exodus of Asian-American creative talent from America to Asia.
It’s not that lighter-skinned African-American actresses and mixed-race Asian-American actresses don’t deserve a shot — of course they do. But there’s no denying that Hollywood’s institutional racism makes it an unequal field for those who happen not to be born in the way their society deems the most desirable. That doesn’t just mean employment discrimination for actresses who are darker, but also, as we can see from Taylor’s video, feelings of deprivation, neligence, and erasure by media at large for viewers who struggle to find mirrors of themselves in film, television, books, and games.
Chu and his team embarked on this adaptation project to profit off Jem nostalgia, but based on the way they’ve managed to consistently anger fans, they clearly have no idea why so many girls loved Jem and the Holograms and made it special.
[h/t For Harriet]