Introducing: The Racialicious Casting Couch

By Kendra James

“Casting Couch” by Derek Lane. Image via Flickr Creative Commons.

Sutton Foster and Kelli O’Hara-esque young white ingenues are a dime a dozen on Broadway, but can you name  three Asian women who have risen to that level of fame on the Great White Way? And we all know it’s easier to become the next Julia Roberts than it is to become the next…is there an Asian American Julia Roberts in Hollywood?

All the talk concerning casting in film, television, and theatre this week (plus the advent of television pilot season) had me diving back into my favorite source of online Casting Fails, a few of which I’ve posted under the cut.

… Then Came Elvis:

Here we have an NBC optioned pilot for…Then Came Elvis, based on producer DJ Nash‘s life. Despite being pitched for television, the breakdown for the role of the protagonist’s best friend, Runyen, actually goes along quite nicely (unfortunately) with one of the main points Jezebel’s Laura Beck made last week. Beck points out that while many casting calls declare they’re looking for actors who can “play Asian,” what that often turns into is the casting of white actors in Asian roles.

The description for Runyen doesn’t ask for actors who can “play as Asian,”no…but it does demonstrate a willingness to abandon the one assured spot of diversity in the cast so far. Remember, “open to all ethnicities” isn’t the diversity safeguard network execs would like you to believe.

The Jungle Book:

The trend continues here, as I try and figure out how–even for a non-Broadway production–one justifies sticking “or other ethnicity” at the end of a casting for Mowgli. It’s Mowgli!

Aladdin: A New Musical:

It seems the people behind Disney’s latest musical aren’t even going to bother with the pretense of appropriate casting. With all roles clearly listed as “any ethnicity,” it’s very possible that when Aladdin takes over the New Amsterdam Theatre in 2014, we’ll be watching some very pale faces sail through on that magic carpet ride.

I guess it would be too much to ask whether they’d consider searching specifically for a Chinese male, as Aladdin was in the original tale? Granted, this is Disney, where Mulan can’t even catch a break–that’s probably a lot to ask.

South Pacific:

This Chicago production of South Pacific is one more to drive the point home. Why find an Pacific Islander to play the role of a native Pacific Islander in Bloody Mary when you can just find an “exotic looking” actress with a tan instead? (Well, there is precedent …)

And finally, one more that struck me as particularly bothersome…

Infinitely Polar Bear:

Infinitely Polar Bear, a J.J. Abrams production, stars Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo as a married couple, so I’m already interested. I’d have nothing bad to say about this, if it weren’t for the breakdowns for Amelia and Faith, meant to be the daughters of Saldana and Ruffalo’s union. Dominican (Saldana) + Italian (Ruffalo) = potentially Middle Eastern? What they’re looking for is obvious: a pair of brown children who can pass as the children of this particular mixed-race couple. It’s about color for this casting, not background. But I find myself incensed that we’re still playing this game where brown is brown is brown.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem like the biggest of deals, but our willingness to accept the casting of anyone with a tan as a
generic ethnic/exotic look is what got us Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl (A Mighty Heart), Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin (Iron Man 3), and Janina Gavankar as Luna Garza (True Blood). People of color aren’t as interchangeable as Hollywood would like us to believe, but Infinitely Polar Bear‘s casting calls prove that that belief has yet to successfully challenged.

Beck reminds us that this systematic problem in casting doesn’t boil down to the idea that all directors, producers, and casting directors are evil racists that need to be stopped. Yeah, something needs to be stopped, but it goes beyond shaking up the people making decisions. We need to shake up our school of thought. We need to stop finding excuses and loopholes for monochromatic casting, even if that means that I crawl through breakdowns every day with the sole purpose of publicly shaming those who deserve it. We need to stop defaulting to white.


About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

The founders of Racialicious are Carmen Sognonvi and Jen Chau. They are no longer with the blog. Carmen now runs Urban Martial Arts with her husband and blogs about local business. Jen can still be found at Swirl or on her personal blog. Please do not send them emails here, they are no longer affiliated with this blog.

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  • QueerJock2

    Well said. And the thing about the Mandarin bothers me especially. Because they decided to cast a Non-Chinese actor because they didn’t want to alienate Chinese audiences or the Chinese financial backers for the movie. But then go cast a half-Indian actor instead.
    Maybe if your character is so offensive that you have to shift him to another POC group to avoid offending one, you should just not use him period?