A recent Los Angeles Times article describes how Hollywood producers are being forced to adjust to edits and regulations of their films if they want them to be shown in China.
Some examples of changes that have been made to American films include the attribution of credit to the Chinese if movie characters make scientific achievements, for example, the removal of Chinese villains or scenes that portray Chinese people in an unfavorable light, and in some cases, even the insertion of Chinese characters into a film.
Not surprisingly, such changes tend to increase in depth and significance if the films are being financed by Chinese production companies or if filmmakers are courting Chinese financial support.
While many people may see these regulations as an affront to a director’s creative control and the American right to freedom of speech–taking Chinese political differences and/or controversies out of the equation–I’m concerned with the important lessons in ethno-consciousness that they provide, as well as the possible implications of this level of Chinese influence for the portrayal of all people of color in art and media.
As ThinkProgress’s Alyssa Rosenberg notes in her response to this story, China’s rules could have a positive and necessary influence on the way in which and the extent to which Chinese characters are portrayed in film. Perhaps they can help society to get past the cultural stereotypes of Asians in movies being karate masters and disgruntled chefs. However, even more potentially powerful than that is the manipulation of the very– seemingly American– capitalistic link between economic power and image control that China’s strategy offers all Americans of color.
If filmmakers are being forced to think twice about Chinese representation in their movies, maybe they will begin to be more sensitive to their portrayal of other ethnic groups as well. Maybe writers will re-think a racially insensitive joke or delve deeper into surface depictions of racial tension or a character will suddenly reference the ingenuity of Garrett A. Morgan while at a stoplight. Is it too much to hope that casting directors will think more about how they can assemble a more ethnically diverse cast?
Unfortunately, we know that not enough African Americans are actually producing the films in which African Americans are portrayed, but we definitely still have the ultimate means of financial control: our viewership. What if African American moviegoers refused to support movies in which black men are stereotypically or negatively portrayed as criminals, con-artists or villains? What if we even protested the act of bringing these sorts of movies into our communities? What if Latinos refused to support movies where their women are hypersexualized or their citizenship status or language use is attacked?
These are by no means original suggestions. There are constant debates about people of color supporting forms of art and media that perpetuate negative stereotypes. In many cases, these debates seem to have become so commonplace that many people of color do not even seem to agree on what constitutes a negative portrayal. For example, for every black person that hates Madea, there is one who swears that the character reminds her of her grandmother or aunt. Many people of color argue that we should learn to laugh at ourselves more and not to be so sensitive to stereotypes, especially if we feel that those stereotypes do not necessarily apply to us.
The article also references the inability to mention any of China’s wrongdoings in film, but how often are American wrongdoings mentioned or accurately portrayed, especially as they pertain to other cultures? Influence=image control. That’s not a Chinese thing. That’s a historical thing. A human thing.
Of course, we need nuanced and balanced portrayals that reflect our flaws so that we can have realistic representations of ourselves and so that we can evaluate ourselves (art is society’s mirror), but more often than not, the negative and stereotypical portrayals of people of color are anything but balanced and nuanced.
So, China’s editing process should remind us that it does not make sense to support content that does not contribute to the development of a positive (or at least balanced) sense of ourselves. The same way we would not support a candidate who does not represent our interests, we should not support art or media that does not reflect or represent us appropriately.