Hollywood’s habit of (or insistence on) whitewashing, or casting white actors in roles that are historically nonwhite, has been an issue for as long as the small screen has been around. For almost as long, challenges to the practice have fallen largely on deaf ears. But as criticism of Hollywood’s diversity deficiency has grown, so has the work of hashtaggers and fan bloggers, many of whom vocalize disappointment with certain characters only being visible on screen in a stereotypical light. Or worse, these characters are erased out of their own narratives altogether. These groups have dedicated themselves to holding studios and networks accountable for what is being considered an “invisibility epidemic.” Although that push back hasn’t stopped studios from using the outdated and offensive practice, it has resulted in a slightly different casting trend: racebending.
Originally coined by a founder of Racebending.com, a fan-led site created to protest Avatar: The Last Airbender’s whitewashing, the term is used to describe the alteration of a character’s race in the process of adapting their story for a new medium. While the term is meant to serve as a synonym to whitewashing, it has been adopted as a way to discuss casting actors of color in roles typically played by white characters. In the last several years, racebending has become a practice used more and more to help networks diversify their ensembles and capture a bigger audience. Not only has it resulted in more racial visibility on the small screen, but in a far more unexpected way, racebending can generate deeper and more significant depictions of characters. Here are five shows that have offered their viewers stories both familiar and more nuanced through the use of racebending.
Shadowhunters, Freeform’s adaptation of The Mortal Instruments book series, expertly avoids mangling its racial metaphors as it follows Clary Fray, a young woman who discovers she’s part of an elite race of half-angel, half-human warriors. The books address “racial” discrimination through figurative metaphor, but the series is able to tackle it literally due to its racebending of several main and supporting characters. This includes shadowhunter Isabelle Lightwood, who goes from white in the books, to Latino in the show, and spends the entirety of Season One turning the “spicy Latina” trope on its head. While Isabelle’s portrayal came under fire early on for playing her as a temptress, the series used all thirteen of its episodes to develop a confident and adept shadowhunter whose unquestionable loyalty, compassion, ferocity and intelligence (she is the best forensic pathologist in New York) made her one of the show’s most multifaceted characters.
Clary’s surrogate father and werewolf pack leader Luke was also racebent. Turned from white to Black, the casting resulted in his relationship with white shadowhunter Jocelyn Fray becoming a literal and figurative metaphor for interracial dating. As Clary’s dedicated and protective stand-in father, he also knocks the common portrayal of Black father absenteeism. Shadowhuntersdelivers its most interesting subversion, however, in its handling of racism between shadowhunters and their half-demon, half-human downworlder counterparts. Illustrations of racial tension are scattered throughout the series, from prejudiced language and perceptions, to segregated spaces and laws. Where most young adult fantasy whitewashes the metaphor (see: The Hunger Games), Shadowhunters used its established and racebent non-white downworlders to strengthen those narrative connections about the damaging notion of racial supremacy. All the while, the series continued portraying a realistic racial makeup of one of TV’s most whitewashed cities and avoiding several white savior situations by putting its lead downworlders of color in powerful positions.
Seth Rogen’s small screen adaptation of Preacher is arguably AMC’s most under-appreciated currently airing show. The supernatural road trip series follows Jesse Custer, a former criminal turned preacher after returning to his dust bowl Texas town to take over his father’s church. Custer is not a particularly religious or good man, but he’s certainly battling to stay in the light—an internal pull that makes him a good vessel for a half-demon, half-angel entity that’s escaped its angelic handlers. Just as Jesse begins settling in and the entity begins stirring things up, an old flame by the name of Tulip makes her way into town to lure Custer into doing one final “job.”
Fans of the comic will know Tulip as a down home blonde with a mean bite, but AMC’s adaptation racebent the character when it cast Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga. While Tulip’s surly demeanor and razor sharp tongue feel right at home on Negga, racebending the character—in all her powerhouse glory—offers a rare representation for black actresses. Tulip is a romantically desired, self-sufficient, street smart but vulnerable woman who refuses to let go of the people she cares about. Especially when they’re no good for her. But Tulip is also never a victim or at the whim of any man, even when she’s dragging their drunk limp bodies onto the couch. With Tulip’s racebend also comes a different portrayal of black southern culture. Usually heavily tied to religious over or undertones, Preacher’s Tulip comes from a seemingly godless background. In the series, we even see the young woman reject the religious notions shared by those in the small town, in favor of believing in herself to get the job done. It’s a layered role that black women are often never up for, and Negga nails it.
The full list first appeared at Paste Magazine on August 29, 2016.