The Sunday Salon: Racebending the Right Way

According to Racebending.com, who coined the term when they were founded during the hot, racist mess that was the production of The Last Airbender, racebending means “…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.” With the impending release of The Lone Ranger, which features Johnny Depp in red face, Racebending.com’s goals of fighting back against the discriminatory use of this practice, more commonly referred to as “whitewashing”, remains important. (Pro-tip: Do not go see The Lone Ranger. I will be very disappointed in you.)

IMG_5829_wondercon_racebending

But racebending, in fandom, has started to take on another definition—or, rather, the same definition, but instead of being used to discriminate, it’s being used to imagine a different kind of pop culture by providing alternate casting for film and television. What if Game of Thrones was influenced by medieval China, not medieval England? Would Gong Li be the right choice for Cersei? In fandom, a common narrative is that if your media isn’t serving you, you can make it serve you by your own hand, by creating countertexts. As Idris Elba has said, we have to change the assumption that white is the default: reimagining pop cultural touchstones is a good way to start.

Nicki Minaj

Three tumblrs (this kind of thing is sort of hand-tailored for tumblr) have taken this on: fyeahracebending, racebentdisney, and raceboot. The last hasn’t been updated in a year, but their about box specifically says “The Big Two aren’t making any leaps and bounds in terms of diversity, so let’s do it ourselves”, and that’s just dreamy. Plus, the best are both striking and thoughtful—Nicki Minaj as Harley Quinn, someone who can hit just the right level of boundless enthusiasm and girlishness, while still being able to instill fear in the hearts of others through those two things? Genius!

I heartily recommend taking the time to flip through those three tumblrs and imagine a world where our pop cultural touchstones don’t default to white.

This week’s links:

Got any favorite racebent castings?

6 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Racebending the Right Way

  1. The idea of taking existing cultural cornerstones and racebending them strikes me as somewhat self-defeating: it’s still acknowledging that white was the default, and that any other ethnicity is a “variation.” It gives the impression that other ethnicities can only be popular if they’re the ethnic version of an existing popular subject. Gong Li as “the Chinese version of Cersei” is still holding Cersei as the original: why not just make a gritty political fantasy set in an imaginary China that has characters just as Machiavellian and cunning (kind of like what The Curse of the Golden Flower already was to begin with)? Frankly, I think racebending of *any* sort is problematic, and the only “right way” to racebend is to turn a character which was originally of one ethnicity back into one in a new adaptation – i.e. a new Last Airbender film that changes the major characters back to Asian.

    Personally I much prefer taking stories, characters and settings that were always meant to be non-western and elevating them. Why would you want a black Batman when you already have Black Panther? So rather than piggybacking popular white characters, I’d rather see existing non-white characters be boosted without the baggage of being “originally” white.

    That said, the “humanized” Lion King on the RacebentDisney tumblr is really brilliant. Also, thanks for the Max Gladstone posts, that’s exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.

    • I definitely see your point—there is a point when fancasting like this ceases being useful and remains an underground, quiet practice that doesn’t affect Hollywood. I sincerely doubt the decision to cast Laurence Fishbourne as Perry White in Man of Steel was influenced by anything like this. Plus, yes, exactly, why can’t fantasy of color float on its own without being tied to another property?

      However, I also think there’s an element of adaptation at play here, showing how the boundaries of adaptation are actually quite large, and this can be a way of combatting the studio narrative that the acting pool of actors of color is too limited, by providing example after example of actors.

      I’m glad you enjoyed both the art and the links! You might enjoy fantasyofcolor.tumblr.com, which highlights original fantasy works featuring characters of color.

  2. I go to a lot of stage productions of Shakespeare and other classic plays, and although the casts and usually predominantly white, there are a good number of black actors, often in leading roles. Sometimes you’ll even see actual historical figures or people who are blood-related played by actors of different races. Although it would be great to see even more diversity among the actors, I like that the directors don’t seem to be limiting these parts to white actors.

  3. Although I’m not always a fan of Shonda Rhimes’s shows, I really appreciate that she does colorblind casting calls for her shows. It seems crazy to me that this isn’t standard practice. Like…right? Why wouldn’t you? And don’t get me started on The Lone Ranger. I want to take everybody involved in that project and sit them down with Thomas King’s Green Grass Running Water.

    Okay, I have never heard of Mary Robinette Kowal before but now I must read her books.

    • Exactly! How better to reflect the diversity of the real world? BOO. BOO!

      Oh, Lord, The Lone Ranger. People are gearing up for it, and I just want to stop the train. Although it will make for an interesting double feature entitled “Action, Disney, and Racism” with Prince of Persia. I smell a paper…

      Yes! She’s an absolute delight.

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