Naomi Watts was recently cast in the role of Four’s mother in the Divergent sequel, Insurgent. It’s no surprise to see a relatively big name in the role since YA adaptations have attracted some of the oddest names to their projects (Emma Thompson in Beautiful Creatures, anyone?) However, this one is a particular problem due to a continuing problem in Hollywood and the entertainment world at large.
Four is mixed race. That’s not fan-casting or race-bending, that’s straight from the author Veronica Roth’s mouth. He’s mixed race, although Roth goes to lengths to ensure us all that he looks white, thus ensuring diversity cookies are still earned while appeasing the prevailing whiteness of our society. Theo James, the actor who plays him in the film, is decidedly not mixed race. Roth, who had previously said “I really hate whitewashing… I really do. It’s VERY important to me that it not happen”, was delighted by James’s casting and remarkably silent on the elephant in the room. Of course, authors generally have very little control over such aspects of the adaptations since it’s an entirely different system, but for Roth to go from being so vocal to so complicit in the very practice she decried hurts more than a little.
Now it’s happening again with Evelyn, a character she explicitly called a POC (person of colour) in the link below.
In the book, she is described thusly:
“She has curly black hair and olive skin. Her features are stern, so angular they almost make her unattractive, but not quite. …At that moment I realize that he and the woman have the same nose— hooked, a little too big on her face but the right size on his. They also have the same strong jaw, distinct chin, spare upper lip, stick-out ears. Only her eyes are different— instead of blue, they are so dark they look black.”
Roth can try and pass Four off as somehow being acceptably white, but the evidence is on the pages she wrote that Naomi Watts cannot play that character without there being some serious and much justified backlash.
Whitewashing is nothing new sadly. Nor is this particular brand of “diversity” that rests on “passing” as white. There’s an awful lot of this in other areas too – the gay character who doesn’t “act gay”, the trans character who “passes”, and so on. This extends to the world of casting and results in the exacerbation of the problem at hand. Theo James “looks biracial”, Jared Leto can “pass” as a trans woman if he loses enough weight or puts on some make-up, Sean Hayes is too “queeny” to play a straight man in a musical but any number of straight actors can play queer to nothing but acclaim, and Daniel Day-Lewis gets an Oscar for playing a severely disabled person while actors with disabilities struggle to get work. This kind of erasure of anything beyond the accepted norm of straight, cis, able bodied and white isn’t just taking jobs away from great actors, it’s strengthening a socially enforced and utterly false whiteness (among other things) that continues to reign supreme.
It’s so disheartening not only to see this whitewashing continue, but to see it done so blatantly and with little backlash from the very community that has worked so hard to broaden its horizons in terms of diversity. I’m not expecting Roth to spit in the faces of the studio and producers who have taken her work to the big screen and made it a relative success, but for someone to backtrack in such a way on an issue she had previously talked about as being so important, that sends a very clear message as to what she considers important and what’s just a minor inconvenience. You don’t get to talk the talk on diversity as a white author of extreme privilege if you don’t walk the walk. If there was a time for Roth and the YA world to be dauntless, it is now.