One of the hottest topics of discussion in the online film community right now is a recurring Hollywood problem that’s been dubbed “whitewashing.” Essentially, the term refers to the casting of a white actor in the role of a non-white character, and upcoming films like Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell are currently the primary targets of this very problematic issue. Why, for example, was Scarlett Johansson cast to play Major Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese character in the latter, rather than a Japanese actress?
A question we should all be asking, at the very least.
But no matter which side of the fence you reside on when it comes to this debate, one thing is for certain: Hollywood whitewashing is nothing new, despite the fact that it’s only recently been given a name. Thanks to the internet, fans are more vocal about the industry’s problems than ever before, but the reality is that problems like this one have been problems for a long time. And we need only reflect on Aliens, released in 1986, to realize that whitewashing is somewhat of a Hollywood tradition.
Aside from Ellen Ripley herself, the most badass character in James Cameron’s action-packed sequel is Private Vasquez, the tough-as-nails Colonial Marine who is almost always holding a big gun and leading her fellow Marines into battle with the Xenomorphs. When we first meet Vasquez, she’s doing pull-ups straight out of hyper-sleep, and when we last see her, she dies one of the most heroic deaths in the entire franchise. In between, Vasquez spouts off one-liners and blasts away Xenomorphs like it’s going out of style, and it’s no secret why she became one of the most fan-favorite characters in the movie.
What most did not realize at that time, and what many still haven’t figured out, is that Vasquez, a Latino woman, was played in Aliens by Jenette Goldstein, a freckle-faced white actress. It’s a testament to Goldstein’s acting abilities, to say the very least, that most never caught on to the fact that Vasquez was not played by a Latina actress, but what’s worth discussing here is that Vasquez was, well, not played by a Latina actress. In an effort to appear less white, Goldstein was outfitted with dark contact lenses to hide her blue eyes and yes, she was even covered in full face-and-body makeup to cover her white skin.
“The makeup took an hour,” Goldstein told Starlog Magazine back in 1987, reflecting on the film. “The makeup woman said I had the most ornery freckles she had ever seen. It was freezing cold on the set, and we were oiled up all the time. The fake sweat and water made the makeup run a lot, so it was a toss-up between looking sweatier and having my white skin show through.”
It may not seem fair to retroactively cast stones at a 30-year-old film, especially when that film just so happens to be one of the most beloved in franchise history, but if we’re all angry about the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a once-Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell, shouldn’t we also have an issue – if not back then, than at least now – with Vasquez not only being played by a white actress, but a white actress made up to look Latino? Upon revisiting Aliens, it’s an issue I couldn’t help but notice and ponder.
Mind you, I’m writing this post as a means of encouraging discussion rather than criticizing Aliens or the casting of Jenette Goldstein in it (I must reiterate that she was fantastic in the role), and it is my personal opinion that the character of Private Vasquez did more good than harm. Sure, it would’ve been nice for a Latino actress to have been given the chance to play a Latino character in a major Hollywood movie, but regardless of who played her, one simply can’t deny that Vasquez was a strong, important, and altogether inspiring Latino role model in a major Hollywood movie. And isn’t that what really matters here?
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this one, so feel free to sound off.