Words by Vik Chopra
Fantasy creatures, y’all. The world of make believe. Underwater sea maidens with fish tails singing Disney tunes and mythical races with pointy ears living in fantasy lands. This is what many white people in America have been in a frenzy over the last month, yelling outcries of “woke leftist casting stunts” and “this is robbing us of our childhoods.” All because a handful (and we’re talking a sparse handful) of fantasy characters in The Little Mermaid and Lord of the Rings, roles formerly occupied by white actors, have now been given to actors of color.
If the outrage seems ridiculous to you, you’re right. It is ridiculous. About as ridiculous as when directors cast white actors to play Asian characters, like Tilda Swinton in Dr. Strange or Emma Stone in Aloha (and trust, the list goes on). Especially ridiculous when reading tweets such as one (tweet has been deleted by author) that specifically stated, “I lived vicariously through Ariel (The Little Mermaid). This (casting of an actor of color) takes something from me. This hurts me.” Statements like these are pathetic attempts at feigning nostalgic ennui meant to mask blatant underlying racism and xenophobia. Bish, are you serious? What this sad person doesn’t realize (other than the fact that they’re a whiny racist) is that people of color have been “living vicariously” through white actors and white characters since the dawn of American visual storytelling, because we’ve had no other choice. So if we can do it, why can’t they? What does that say about us as people of color, and what does that say about these particular angry white folks?
What this sad person doesn’t realize...is that people of color have been “living vicariously” through white actors and white characters since the dawn of American visual storytelling, because we’ve had no other choice. So if we can do it, why can’t they?
I’ve loved movies and television for as long as I can remember. My family tells me I would obsessively watch Clash of the Titans and Grease 2 at the age of 2 (don’t judge… I was a trendsetting toddler into cult classic queer cinema), flying with Harry Hamlin as Perseus on his Pegasus, or singing “Cool Rider” at Rydell High with Michelle Pfeiffer. As I got older, I would go on adventures with Mark Hammil as Luke Skywalker or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Me, a young South Asian boy “living vicariously” through all the white actors and white characters I was seeing on my screen.
Becoming an adult hasn’t stopped me from continuing my love affair with the movies (anything Marvel, by Tarantino, horror, I could on). So when all this insane outrage began to erupt about The Little Mermaid and Lord of the Rings, it got me wondering why it was such a big deal to certain white people. I have never had a problem seeing myself in the characters of the movies or television shows that I love, no matter what race they were. And let’s face it, even to this day, the majority of major roles still go to white actors.
The main difference between my perspective and these angry white folks, is the simple fact that I view everyone equally. Just because Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, or even Iron Man were white, I could still see myself in them because I didn’t see them as anything different than myself…well except for being superheroes, of course. (I’m still working on that, but Gamma radiation is really hard to find these days, even on the black market.) So if a person has an issue with the new Ariel being Black when she was previously white (and, lest we forget, a cartoon), they obviously are incapable of seeing themselves in people of color. They behave as if this casting switch is an affront to their entire identity or existence for one simple reason: they don’t view us as equals. We are something that is “different” or beneath them. In their eyes, these roles or characters are being “taken” away from them by people that they just don’t view as worthy. I don’t buy the reverse racism or appropriation argument here. First, these are fictional characters. In this case specifically, they’re actual mythical creatures. Second, I see no shortage of white characters anywhere, period. Third, in a historical human existence filled with colonialism and white supremacy, I say it’s about damn time people of color had their equal share of the pie.
They behave as if this casting switch is an affront to their entire identity or existence for one simple reason: they don’t view us as equals...In their eyes, these roles or characters are being “taken” away from them by people that they just don’t view as worthy.
Furthermore, just because we have been able to “live vicariously” through white characters in our movies and TV shows, that doesn’t take away from the fact that seeing ourselves on screen matters. In an industry that has been dominated by white actors and directors and producers and crew, it’s disheartening when you never see someone that looks like you on screen. Or when you do see a character of color, it’s once again played by a white person, like Scarlet Johannson in Ghost in the Shell, or every actor except Dev Patel in The Last Airbender.
When it does happen, it’s truly a magical feeling. I can remember the first time I saw an actor in an American movie that looked like me. It was Sarita Choudhury in Mira Nair’s film Mississippi Masala. It blew my little movie-obsessed, adolescent mind. This wasn’t some Bollywood film out of the motherland filled with Indian actors that spoke Hindi, or some white actor yet again (and this list ain’t comprehensive y’all) like Fisher Stevens in brown-face playing a cringeworthy Indian inventor in Short Circuit (literally the first Indian character I saw in an English-language film). This was an American film about American South Asians that looked like me and talked like me on the big screen! I never thought I would see an Indian character in a feature film that I could relate to, but here it was. And for me, it changed everything. Since I was a toddler, all I could think about was making movies or television shows, or even starring in them one day. I just didn’t think it was possible. But seeing Choudhury up there with Denzel Washington, I knew that someday it could be.
Movies and television (now streaming) shows have the power to feed the soul and comfort the spirit even in the darkest of times. And I truly believe they can change the way we view the world. So why can’t they be accessible to everyone? If it’s so upsetting to see a person of color cast as the lead role in a fantasy film, then really, your issues run deeper than racism…and for the record, it is racism. I’m a firm believer that everyone deserves a seat at the table, but also that there is never a lack of seats. Racism breeds this scarcity mentality that just isn’t based in actual reality. There is plenty to go around! Every human deserves to see themselves in the stories they watch. So when I see videos of little Black girls lighting up with excitement at seeing Halle Bailey as Ariel, it gives me goosebumps and brings me to tears. This is such a moment for them! Let them have it! Let them dream of being a mermaid princess. And let little white girls see Halle Bailey and dream of being a mermaid princess, too.
Published on October 24, 2022