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Old March 8 2014, 10:30 PM   #149
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Re: Khan's Into Darkness Appearance change finally explained

BigJake wrote: View Post
(EDIT: Uh, I just realized this reply now contains almost none of your original text, Ovation. Sorry about that, I was trying to trim it for length. I think (and hope) that I summarized the basic arguments I was responding to fairly. This is meant to be more of a general overview of some basic points of contention than a point-by-pointer.)

Ovation wrote: View Post
"Totally fictional" means what it says. No basis in reality.
On taking a break and giving it a re-read, I do see a little better what you're going for here and in the subsequent passages. Yes, I would probably say that for degree-of-offensiveness, you can make a case that whitewashing Khan is not quite up there with whitewashing Nehru. Stipulated.

I can't get all the way to its being irrelevant, though. Later on you say:

when ethnicity is irrelevant to the character, I consider it a non-issue
... and mention characters like Perry White. That's a false comparison: Perry White doesn't come with an inbuilt backstory like Khan does. And at the end of the day, you can't call ethnicity completely "irrelevant" to a character whose ethnicity we all know. And that's the bottom line. If the character is specified as having a South Asian background, you had better expect it to occur to people why one would avoid casting a South Asian in that situation. Whether he came out of a test tube or was born from a bolt of lightning does not make a great difference to the questions about the entertainment marketplace and the treatment of actors and audiences that these things bring up. So trying to say that having an in-universe rationale for the whitewashing makes it unimportant ultimately just doesn't work.

You are also right that Khan -- in particular NuKhan -- isn't built with ethnicity as the core of the character. So, does that make it okay? Actually it can just as easily make the racebending stick out even more.

It would be like casting a white woman as Uhura; technically Uhura's ethnicity is not really that important to the kind of woman she is, certainly not in NuTrek -- she's defined much more by her drive and ambition and brilliance and getting-it-on-with-Spock-ness -- but her ethnicity would still be in frame and whitewashing her would only bring up even weirder and more jarring questions of why an actress of colour was deemed unsuitable to portray those positive traits. Which indeed is exactly what came up for the blogger with Khan (emphases mine):

Marissa Sammy wrote:
But all of that will be marred by having my own skin edited out, rendered worthless and silent and invisible when a South Asian man is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch up on that screen. In the original Trek, Khan, with his brown skin, was an ‹bermensch, intellectually and physically perfect, possessed of such charisma and drive that despite his efforts to gain control of the Enterprise, Captain Kirk (and many of the other officers) felt admiration for him.

And thatís why the role has been taken away from actors of colour and given to a white man . . . villains are generally played by people with darker skin Ö unless the villain is one with intelligence, depth, complexity.
Now, here's what I said about this in my original version of this post:

A much more irritable BigJake wrote:
These questions come up, of course, because not too long ago it was common for Hollywood to openly pass over actors of colour because of explicitly racist assumptions about whether they could be portrayed as having positive traits. The contention that this could not tacitly be happening today is questionable at best and risible at worst. That sort of thing is why I told you your dismissiveness is foolish and dickish in almost equal measure.
Too harsh, perhaps. But I've preserved it here because I don't want to pretend like I'm immune to the same factors that irritate someone like Marissa Sammy, and that are major irritants to nonwhite participants in discussions like this that white participants are typically oblivious to. And I know you're not being wilfully obtuse or trying to be a dick, but I think it's something you've fallen foul of, which is the unseen privilege gap.

You're shocked and think it constitutes being "up in arms" when someone like Marissa Sammy doesn't like whitewashing because (at least I'm guessing this is the reason) you're largely unaware of what a bleak landscape confronted SF fans of colour looking for positive representations of themselves, or representations of themselves at all, in the genre they loved before the Nineties (and to a lesser but still notable extent still today, hence why exists). It seems like it shouldn't be a big deal to you because you've never had to think about it. But it's a big deal to someone like Sammy precisely because of how barren that landscape was. That a character like Uhura was a big deal for Black Americans in the Sixties television landscape was not because they had all this great representation and diversity to choose from; it's rather an incredibly sad commentary on how racist both SF and television had been to that point.

Today's landscape is not the Sixties, but many of us can still remember times in our lifetime that resonate with those kinds of concerns and that kind of barrenness. Instances of whitewashing concern people not because of the performance of this or that actor necessarily, but because they feel like hints of a trend in a retrograde direction that we want to move away from instead of back to. So it's not going to impress those people to be told by someone who has zero clue about those experiences about what being "up in arms" is and whether it's appropriate or not. That isn't up to just you, and that's the most important thing you need to recognize.

This is not to say that an outlet like is always in the right, of course. I think your point about their implying that someone ought to have checked with them before casting Khan -- which Sammy can be read as saying there -- is valid, that's taking it too far. I just happen to think that bog standard attempt to dismiss the whole concern as irrelevant goes equally too far in the other direction.
Don't want to do a point by point of everything here (otherwise it will start resembling work too much).

I'm aware of the overall issue of "whiteswashing" and I am not unsympathetic to attempts to resist it overall. I'm quite happy that no one would even consider, for even a moment, casting someone like Alec Guinness as an Arab prince today. I'm also sympathetic to the desire to see greater ethnic and gender/sex diversity in roles where it is easily done (as referenced by my earlier examples--you may not see a parallel between Perry White and Khan on the basis of backstory, but we can at least agree that casting a black man in the role of Perry White represents a step forward overall, non?).

In the end, I do not see Khan as a representative example because I do not share your view that his ethnicity was as widely known as you think. Among Trek fans, sure (though I maintain that actual evidence is more tentative than has become "conventional wisdom"). Among the general viewing audience, not so. Far more people have come to the character via the films rather than the episode and the ethnicity there is vague at best. Further, I'd wager a majority of the viewers of STiD have not seen TWOK (as hard as that might be to believe for any long-time Trek fan). For them, the ethnicity is not remotely important. And this is where the Uhura analogy you make falls down--unlike Khan (a character seen onscreen a grand total of twice--save brief flashes of still images in a smattering of episodes), the "main seven" of TOS have been seen by far more people. To change Uhura to a white woman would be a far, far more grievous act.

Obviously, not everyone views the specific case of Khan as I do regarding the overall issue of "race bending", but just because I do not share concerns about this specific case does not mean I am insensitive to the issue as a whole. My current research fields for work are immersed in the clashes of perception informed by ethnicity, religion, race, language and other issues (I teach modern Middle Eastern history and I am preparing for a major project examining anglo-franco interactions in policing in early 20th century Quebec, which also includes a religious component as part of the social fabric of that period. I'm also living through an ongoing socio-political debate about religious and ethnic symbolism in the public sphere--look up the debate on the proposed Quebec Charter of Values if you're interested.). It's not that I cannot imagine the difficulty of finding positive representations of one's identity in popular culture (as someone who was "too French" when living in Ontario or in the US, and "too English" when living in Quebec, my plight is not nearly as bad as it is for visible minorities, but it is not without its frustrations). It's simply that I do not find this specific instance of Khan a significant problem. YMMV
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