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This is why we can’t have nice things: Casting for Runaways comic book film.

August 8, 2010

[Originally posted at my blog Love is the Slug]

I’ve recently come across two posts regarding the casting call for a film adaptation of the Marvel comic Runaways, a brilliant story about a group of young kids who discover there parents are a super-powered, scientifically-enhanced, murderous group of super villains calling themselves “The Pride”. The kids also discover they have powers/super scientific devices/a telepathically controlled dinosaur (seriously!) of their own and work to stop their parents from committing some seriously heinous evil all in the name of preserving a paradise-like existence for their offspring. The original run of the series – it has since had 2 follow-up series that have paled in comparison – by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona is smart, unconventional and totally compelling. One of the central characters in the entire series, and one of my personal favorites, is Nico Minoru, a Japanese American goth girl who discovers her parents are powerful sorcerers and who becomes the inheritor of The Staff of One, a magical totem that emerges from her chest whenever her blood is shed and she can use it to cast powerful spells.

Anyhow, these two recent posts about casting – the first one I saw was over at Zatanna’s Tumblr (a fine, comic-centric Tumblr you should totally read) which led me to a longer post at Racebending.com, a website originally created to protest the culturally ignorant casting of The Last Airbender (which went far beyond mere whitewashing or Asian-excluding as I had originally read, but got into some seriously ignorant, racist, bullshit territory that beggars belief). It’s clear to anyone who has read the comics which character is being described by which casting specification. For Alex Wilder, an African-American teenage boy who is the leader of the kids in the original series, here is the casting description:

Boy 1: Very smart, natural leader, in need of a father figure
Male, African American, must play 16-18
Must be at least 16 by January 2011

For Nico Minoru, the following casting specifications are listed:

Girl 1: Uniquely beautiful, nurturing but guarded
Female, must play 16-18
Must be at least 16 by January 2011

The “uniquely beautiful” statement in and of itself is a lot to unpack. (I guess we should be grateful it didn’t say anything about “exotic”?) Especially when casting for the blonde, Caucasian character, Karolina Dean, calls for Conventionally beautiful, with an unchecked ego. But putting the non-racially or ethnically specific nature of Nico’s character alongside the racial specificity of Alex’s is even more confounding. Why would it be important to hold true to one and not to another? It seems willfully anti-Asian, especially considering, as Racebending.com points out:

What’s particularly of concern is that the breakdown for Nico–who is explicitly featured in the comics as a several-generations Japanese American–does not mention that the character is Asian, or that Asian American actresses should submit.

So I’m just imagining a bunch of slightly quirky, pretty, young, white girls auditioning for this role (and by “slightly quirky” I mean “having dark hair”) and all of these Asian and Asian American actresses not even getting tipped to it because how would their agents even know to encourage them to audition if the role is so non-specific?? Sure, they could go in with the idea that they are “uniquely beautiful” – a phrase I am hating more and more – but it seems clear that white is the default in contrast to Alex’s casting. Especially when Nico and Alex are the only two non-white kids in the comic. And what it makes me want to ask Hollywood is what the fuck is your problem with Asian people being on screen? I know I am not the only person who sees a dearth of Asian representation in mainstream film and television. It’s still shocking to me that there have only been two television shows centering around Asian characters – 1976’s Mr. T and Tina and 1994’s All American Girl. And it’s equally shocking that, with the success of the Harold & Kumar franchise and the accolades for Slumdog Millionaire, Hollywood still seems so reticent to cast actors of Asian origins in productions based on stories with Asian characters in them!

What’s especially disheartening about the news of the Runaways’ casting call is that the book has been one of the most wonderfully diverse comics I’ve read in a long time. And it was originally aimed at a younger audience but caught on with adult readers as well. There was ethnic diversity, body diversity, sexual diversity and gender diversity – with one later introduced character even being genderqueer. And it never felt forced. It felt like a smartly written book that was a sign of the cultural times and the diverse country that America has come to be. And now it feels like Hollywood wants to erase some of that. I’m hoping that by keeping this discussion going on the Internet that the casting directors will have to be held accountable and specify that Nico is played by an Asian or Asian American actress. And if they don’t change their ways I hope the word gets out and those actresses show up in droves and one of them claims the part for herself. Nico is a character who forges her own way, breaks rules and stands strong even in the face of total uncertainty. Take her as an inspiration and show those fuckwits in Hollywood what she’s all about!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Q.V. permalink
    August 8, 2010 2:38 pm

    Re: casting and The Last Airbender, which I saw right after Dinner for Schmucks so it took me a while to realise how bad it was. What does an Eskimo have to do to get a speaking part? The main characters of the water tribes were all kinds of ill-fitting fur, impractical skin-tent Norse types, and the SKmos were just milling around in the back. I guess it’s better than having k.d. lang fill in (the character Kotz in Salmonberries was a local but she sure as hell wasn’t). It’s boring me already how predictable this kind of thing is when talented Pac-Rim actors are ready and willing to show us how it’s done.

  2. August 8, 2010 3:36 pm

    Ultimately, when you get into casting, it’s really about what the casting agent and the producers/director(s) find attractive. The “casting couch” concept may be old hat, but it still exists in some form or other, and that definitely comes into play to greater or lesser degrees in many cases.

    In addition, there is the “saleability” factor of film, where the mindset is that in order to get the most money, sell the most tickets, the people that the production staff think are attractive are the best people to hire and will help guarantee financial success. It’s pretty depressing to think that this is still, in this day and age, how Hollywood continues to function.

  3. August 8, 2010 6:51 pm

    “Uniquely beautiful”? WTF. I’ve heard that said before, by the way. About me. By my Indian best friend’s mother. I’m white. I guess it was the dark hair…

    I do find it odd that they specify the ethnicity for the African American character but not the Asian American. I guarantee that if you asked the casting folks about it, they would say something about being racially blind or some other nonsense.

    And if they don’t change their ways I hope the word gets out and those actresses show up in droves and one of them claims the part for herself.

    Hells yeah. I wish that more agents would just say “Eff it, they don’t specify anything, so go try!” Or, you know, research the source material (if available) and say “Hey, they don’t specify that she’s Asian, but she is, so you need to go get this.”

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