Editor’s note: “Art in Adaptation” is a bi-weekly column exploring the changes between original works and adaptations as well as their effects on popular culture.
A few weeks ago I revisited a film and book series that I hate to love and love to hate: “The Twilight Saga.” After deliberately putting myself through the pain of reading a vampire love story filled with awkward lip biting and angst, I found myself in a research rabbit hole. I wanted to find out everything about this series that would make me hate-love it even more.
I read through several web pages on the author Stephenie Meyer; the controversies surrounding race and representation in “Twilight” stood out to me the most, especially how a character’s ethnic background can drastically change when the original media receives an adaptation.
The main controversy arose when white actor Taylor Lautner was cast as the shape-shifting Jacob Black of the Quileute tribe, which is native to La Push, Washington. While Lautner does have distant Native American ancestry on his mother’s side, he admitted to not knowing about his remote heritage until preparation for the first film began.
Meyer’s depiction of the Quileute is drenched in controversy. In 2010, the Burke Museum collaborated with the Quileute tribe for “Truth vs. Twilight” to unpack the Indigenous misrepresentation in the film. Several times in the books and movie adaptations, the tribe is associated with sexist and violent practices.
Why does this misrepresentation occur so often? What is this Hollywood phenomenon of altering and misrepresenting the ethnic backgrounds of BIPoC characters? There are a multitude of reasons and excuses for race changing from the original work to its on-screen adaptations — all of which are deeply rooted in white supremacy. In fact, there’s even a word for it — racebending.
The term was coined in response to the heavily critiqued M. Night Shyamalan film “The Last Airbender.” The film is an adaptation of the animated Nickelodeon series that took direct inspiration from Asian and Indigenous cultures — yet the primary characters of the live-action movie are played by white actors.
The term racebending was a reference to the show’s concept of manipulating natural elements, similar to how films and shows “bend” the ethnicities of characters from their original source material. It now refers to instances where adapted media changes a character’s ethnic background from the original work.
On-screen characters like Jacob Black fall under a certain category of racebending called whitewashing, which occurs when white actors portray people of color so as to cater to a white audience. Whitewashing is rooted in racism and discrimination, tracing back to the usage of blackface, brownface, and yellowface to paint harmful caricatures of non-white people, as was performed in the past when white people played non-white characters as a form of insult to mock marginalized peoples in the United States. Nowadays, the damage of whitewashing is a bit more subtle.
Many Hollywood executives want to tell non-white stories and explore other cultures, but they often do so without utilizing the lens of the original storytellers. These filmmakers do not see the point in casting BIPoC actors, because they do not want to cater to BIPoC audiences. This is a shame, especially considering they gain nothing from only hiring white actors.
Whitewashing essentially holds the same values as blackface, brownface, and yellowface: to preserve white supremacy and misrepresent BIPoC cultures. You see it in the Indigenous misrepresentation of “Twilight:” the rich and very-much-white vampire family is elegant, and the shape-shifting wolf pack is “uncivilized.” Sound familiar?
Recently, we’ve seen action to push racebending in the other direction — white characters are now being adapted on-screen to be characters of color. Some directors wish to add more depth to the original work’s storyline or represent marginalized communities in otherwise majority-white productions.
The upcoming “The Little Mermaid” live-action adaptation will star Halle Bailey as Ariel, the main character of this classic Disney film. Although whitewashing has received a fair amount of criticism throughout the years, Bailey’s casting sparked a heated debate on social media platforms. Many people questioned — and still do question — the decision to cast a Black actress for an originally white role, and cite it as an attempt to win public favor via forced diversity.
While this may be true in some regard, the character of Ariel was not rooted in her whiteness. Her storyline surrounded her qualms with being a mermaid and her desire to be human. In films where characters are whitewashed, however, they almost always take the cultural roots of characters away from them.
When a non-white actor plays an originally white character, there are rarely any cultural ties lost. In fact, further character depth is added when conversations about race take place in otherwise predominantly white media. The Netflix series “Shadow and Bone” had a white protagonist in the original book series but was changed to portray a half-Shu main character (a fictional ethnic identity adjacent to East Asian cultures) to add depth to her alienated upbringing. While the discussions of race in on-screen media are often clumsy, the creation of opportunities for actors of color takes the right step toward furthering representation in popular culture.
There is a lot of criticism regarding the racebending of characters, and some of it is justified. Why do we need to change the ethnicity of an originally white character, when we could create more robust original media starring non-white characters? Does forcing on-screen diversity actually mitigate a lack of BIPoC representation in film or does it force these actors into a box where they can only play roles that are attached to their ethnic identity?
The answer is not entirely clear. In my opinion, if Taylor Lautner was allowed to play a major Quileute character in “Twilight,” then racebending the other direction is completely fair game.
Reach columnist Kimberly Quiocho at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @kimberlyquiocho
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