“Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who’s confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.”
– Joss Whedon
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know where I’d be without movies, video games and media, but after sharing Felicia Day’s blog post on Facebook (with regards to the under/misrepresentation of ethnic minorities in Hollywood) I thought that I would share the final term paper I wrote last Friday, as well. Although my term paper resulted in me receiving an 87.5% (a 21 out of 24 points, because I steered too far away from the topic’s connection to the Pacific Rim), I came to notice that I shared a lot of same passion for equality as Felicia Day. For those of you that are interested, feel free to read on and leave any feedback and/or critiques if you have them. Thank you for your time.
Media plays a large role across the world and the Pacific Rim, in the 21st century. We see media through art, advertisements, movies, video games, we turn to it for information and even for our leisure. It is because of its large role in our lives, we are able to see our society for not-only what it wants to become, but also for what our society currently is. Media also has an impact on an individual’s perception of self-image, but can also have an impact on how an individual sees the world and cultures around them. Although it seems evident that the world is becoming better at establishing a sense of equality in a more globalized society, it’s important to look at the subliminal and/or non-subliminal messages portrayed by multinational corporations, such as Disney, that have the ability to influence and enculturate people through their films and various forms of media.
As children, we are often taught by our parents about how to act appropriately within society, but as technology continues to advance, kids worldwide are beginning to learn a great amount of the socialization process through media and digital means. Lane Crothers, the author of Globalization and American Popular Culture believes that as global cities become more urbanized, people become more “exposed to exploitative, manipulative media” and children in particular are the most prone to manipulation due to their gullibility (28). These forms of media, which are often targeted at young audiences can vary from Disney movies, Sesame Street, and various other cartoon/TV shows geared towards children.
According to an article published in the Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, children spend approximately 2.5 to 3 hours a day watching television, which averages to approximately 20 hours a week (Towbin 20). In some cases, a child can spend more time watching television than actually speaking to or interacting with a parent. As a part of American pop culture, it’s almost typical to expect everyone we come into contact with, to have seen at least one Disney movie within their lifetime. Disney has been making movies for decades (almost an entire century) and have locations in California, Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo. Seldomly, however, do we focus on some of the small minute details that may be contextually taught to kids through Disney’s vast array of children-oriented films, nor do we think about the cultural differences and the messages being conveyed.
A great example of this can be found in Disney’s Aladdin, a story about a young Arabian ”street rat” who unintentionally crosses paths with the princess of the city of Agrabah. The two fall in love with each other, but troubles arise as Jasmine is only allowed to marry a prince. Interestingly, throughout the entire portrayal of the movie the protagonist, “Al,” is slightly lighter skinned and sporting a more European look (Angeloni 112), as opposed to the Arabs in the movie, who have distinct accents, facial hair that’s depicting of their culture, and yet “are portrayed as dirty, cheap, and thieving” (Towbin 32). While watching the movie it becomes even more apparent that Aladdin also has a more western accent and European nose. Not only this, the movie also puts an emphasis on the idea that love-based marriages are a much more preferred alternative than the culturally-criticized arranged marriages.
Mia Towbin also goes on to explain the similarities between the complaints made by the hyenas in The Lion King and urban life. Throughout the movie we often see the “alpha dogs” of the hyenas, Shenzi and Banzai (voiced by two minority actors: Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin), continuously complaining about how “the lions” maintain the power within their society (36). The hyenas can easily be connected to minorities living in slums, like the elephant graveyard, while most lighter/fair-skinned individuals live in closely guarded communities, similar to Pride Rock, adding a touch of racial (American) bigotry to the film. It can also be noted that the hyenas have the darkest complexion within the movie, and are constantly portrayed as thieving, sinister and conniving. The Lion King also depicts Simba’s uncle Scar to have a darker complexion than the rest of the lions, a darker mane, and his affiliation to the hyenas makes him appear more villainous.
With specific connections and ties to the Pacific Rim, we can see a variety of different renditions of culture and identity within the movie Mulan. According to Towbin, out of a list of twenty-five different Disney movies, Mulan was the only one that had “both exaggerated and accurate portrayals of the [Chinese] culture” (p. 32). One of the examples she pulled from this movie consisted of the over exaggeration of (one of the most disliked characters in the film) Chi Fu’s ethnic features, such as his “long mustache, slanted eyes, and bad teeth” (32). Besides being disliked by the majority of the other characters, Chi Fu’s character was also given the role of believing that women were inferior to that of men. This can inadvertently lead to the misconception (especially in young children) that people that have similar features to that of Chi Fu could be villainous and/or detestable. Despite the exaggerations, however, the movie also managed to successfully portray other Chinese characteristics such as their architecture, their names, and some Buddhist methodologies and mannerisms.
Shifting gears towards Hollywood and the actors they hire to portray protagonists, Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures are planning on creating a live-action rendition of a popular Japanese movie and manga (which means ‘comic book’ in Japanese), Akira. Unfortunately, this has many Asians and Asian-Americans angry, as the main roles are not going to be played by Asian-Americans, but by an exclusive list of popular, white Caucasian-American actors. Although the setting will take place in “Neo-Manhattan,” the main characters will still maintain their Japanese names of Tetsuo and Kaneda. In a response to an interview with CBC radio, regarding the issue concerning Asian-American actors in media, actor George Takei asks, “How would you get someone who has a track record, if they don’t give anybody the opportunity to run the track? You’ll never have that” (“Is Hollywood Guilty of ‘whitewashing’?”). Warner Bros Pictures is a multinational enterprise in America, which strives for record breaking revenues at the box offices worldwide. It is for this reason that they are recruiting big named Western white-Caucasian actors to assist in drawing in the majority of consumers and movie enthusiasts, even though it may be offensive to the Asian and Asian American communities. The members of Racebending.com, an online community who are striving to promote equality in the entertainment industry, are slightly eased by the idea that a new contender has arrived for the role of Tetsuo:
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the multiethnic actor (1/8th Native Hawaiian and 1/8 Chinese from his father’s side) has people talking to the studio about playing Kaneda […] At the same time, it’s unsatisfactory to see [Keanu] Reeves [as the] default to Hollywood’s only go-to actor when they need to find someone to portray an Asian lead character. (“Tetsu-whoa! Akira Rumor Round-Up”).
As the world continues to globalize through transnational immigration and various other means, it is apparent that issues regarding ethnicity and identity will also begin to permeate as people become more culturally aware of the need to express these differences, regardless of how minute they may be. Despite the fact that Hollywood may be short on Asian and/or Asian-American A-list celebrities, it only leads people to questions with regards to race and cultural identity. Not too long ago, Hollywood released several movies (two of-which, were based off of a popular cartoon and anime series, and the other based off of a popular video game) where the main protagonists were ethnic minorities, however, the leading roles were cast to Caucasian-American actors. These movies were The Last Airbender, Dragonball Evolution and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Despite the fact that these movies didn’t do too well in theatres, there continues to be an ongoing outcry due to the misrepresentation of the cultural relevance of these characters.
Lane Crothers explains this difference as a type of cultural imperialism, which “suggests that the interaction of different cultures will inevitably be conflictual” (28). Furthermore, in John Tomlinson’s article Globalization and Cultural Identity he believes that as we continue to integrate and globalize, the notion of national identity will become more vulnerable as the “proliferation of identity positions may be producing challenges to the dominance of national identity” (274). Although the United States considers itself to be a ‘melting pot’ of cultures and ethnicities many places around the world, to include Japan, are still very homogenous. It is partially due to the fact that so many different cultures are interacting that conflicts stemming from identity and various forms of stratification arise. Regardless of how hard we try to ignore these issues, however, culture and identity (even if it pertains to a fictional character) plays a significant role in our lives.
Although cultural imperialism can easily describe a reason for conflict between people of different ethnicities, others believe that a type of cultural hybridity occurs as a form of cultural globalization. Crothers goes on to state:
Brought into the context of contemporary globalization, the interaction of Western values, institutions, products and services does not necessarily have to lead to the elimination of local norms; […] Instead, businesses can adapt their practices to fit the needs of their workers and the culture of their clients. (Globalization and American Popular Culture, p. 30)
This statement in-and-of itself is a prime example of what has occurred with the Disneyland franchise, particularly in Japan. In her section of the book, Re-made in Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society, Mary Yoko Brannen explains Walt Disney Company’s initial desire to plan Tokyo Disneyland to consist of “home-country attractions such as a ‘Samurai Land’ or a show based on a Japanese children’s tale like ‘Little Peach Boy’” (216). Unfortunately, this idea was turned down by the Japanese owners (owners of the Oriental Land Company) who were adamant about their decision to make an exact replica of the Disneyland in California.
Upon reaching this conclusion, the Tokyo Disneyland spokesperson, Toshiharu Akiba, was quoted saying “We wanted the Japanese visitors to feel they were taking a foreign vacation by coming here, and to us Disneyland represents the best that America has to offer” (216). This decision actually proved to be successful as Tokyo Disneyland is visited by more Japanese people than the amount of Americans visiting Disneyland or Disney World within the United States. Brannen continues on by saying that “[i]n this view, the Japanese fascination with representations of American popular culture exemplifies the westernization of Japan” through the homogenizing culture (Brannen 218). Interestingly, however, some children in Japan that were born after the construction of Tokyo Disneyland in 1984 have grown up with the idea that the entire Disney franchise was created and/or inspired by Japan. Brannen even goes on to state that although Tokyo Disneyland consists of American cultural artifacts they often lose much of their contextual meaning when they move from a context-free culture to a context-bound culture (such as Japan). In this sense, she believes that it’s necessary for Tokyo Disneyland to become recontexualized on Japanese terms. “This recontexualization of Disneyland is a specifically Japanese construction of cultural consumption and takes two forms: making the exotic familiar and keeping the exotic exotic” (Brannen 219). By conducting this form of glocalization, Tokyo Disneyland can manage to continue to appeal to its consumers without fear of making the park feel too mundane. Interestingly, however, the topic regarding recontexualization only raises questions about whether-or-not the same subliminal (contextual) messages that individuals and children see in the American renditions of Disney films hold the same meaning and context on a transnational level.
Although we continuously hear people say ‘the times are changing,’ in many aspects this is true. It is through the Information Age that we are able to connect with people on the opposite side of the world in a fraction of a second, and we can virtually watch TV, speak to someone, or listen to music from almost anywhere in world. Despite all of these changes, however, I believe that it’s important to realize that through the processes of transnationalism, globalization, glocalization and various other means, it becomes easy to forget that one of the most important constants in our lives pertains to our individual and cultural identities. Even though nationalism may become less meaningful in a world that continues to transnationalize, it’s important to remain mindful of the influence that mainstream media has on the cultivation of identity in not-only children, but in grown men and women as well. As cultures continue to meld together, there will undoubtedly be conflicts, however it’s important that we be vigilant with regards to the media and how Hollywood, and (yes) even Disney, represent people, cultures, women, and sexuality. Although it might be easy to rush to the conclusion of racial bigotry, ethnocentrism, or even cultural imperialism, we must keep an open mind to the possibility that cultural hybridity isn’t just an ideal, but a plausible goal as well.
[Citations available upon request.]