February 14, 2013

Argo, Whitewashing, and Race at the Golden Globes

Wynn Teresa gonzalesBy Jonathan Wynn and Teresa Irene Gonzales

Perhaps you’ve seen the award-winning film, Argo, which tells the improbable-yet-true tale of a CIA officer, Antonio Mendez, who, in 1979, pitches an incredible story to the Iranian government—that he is a filmmaker wanting to scout a location to film a sci-fi movie in Iran—to successfully smuggle six U.S. embassy workers out of the country. (You can read the full story here.)

The film received some criticism, however, since its release. On the one hand, the film downplays the role of the Canadian government and the heroics of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor. On the other, Ben Affleck has come under fire for choosing to portray Mendez. Although his surname is briefly mentioned in the film, Mendez’s real-life ancestry and ethnicity is downplayed.  As others have noted, while meticulous care was taken to present “aesthetic accuracy” for most of the cast, this was not the case between Affleck’s Tony and the real-life Mendez. This can be seen during the final credit roll, where the audience is shown an image of the real Tony Mendez shaking hands with President Jimmy Carter.

Recently, when Affleck won a Golden Globe award for Best Director, he stood on stage with Mendez and when he accepted his, stated: “Really this award is about Tony Mendez. You saw him. He's an American hero. He represents the Foreign Service making sacrifices every day for Americans. Our troops overseas. I want to thank them very much."

Representations of ethnic groups are relatively important when thinking about popular media in the United States.  Mexican-Americans (and mixed ancestry populations) are growing at large rates. According to the U.S. Census, the Latino population has more than doubled in the last 20 years; of that 63% are of Mexican descent. They are now the largest minority population in the country.  Yet our local media and popular culture industries continue to deny an accurate representation of a complex Mexican-American narrative or character.

Sometimes Latinas/os are not portrayed at all. Alison R. Hoffman and Chon A. Noriega’s 2004 article, “Looking for Latino Regulars on Prime Time Television” (available here), finds:

The appearance of Latino regular characters on network prime-time television has steadily decreased over the last three years. Latino regular characters appear in just one of the eight series set in Los Angeles County, a region with a 45% Latino population. Latino regular characters account for just 8% of the regular characters on the 16 series set in New York City, a city with 27% Latino population. 50% of Latino regular characters can be found on ABC programs.

If they are represented, too often Latinas/os and Mexicans are viewed as what sociologist Mia Tuan terms “forever foreign” in her study of the Asian-American experience.  This is the idea that descendants of immigrants are not accepted with full American status. When applied to descendants of immigrants from Latin American countries, we can see this image perpetuated within broader American culture, and popular media with films like Mi Familia and Real Women Have Curves, and television shows like Ugly Betty (which won Golden Globes for actress America Ferrera and for Best Comedy Series).

Latinas/os are often considered foreigners, but there are examples of whitewashing Latina/o ethnicity too. For example, 1940s starlet Rita Hayworth—born Margarita Carmen Cansino to a Spanish father and an Irish mother—was whitewashed to make her more appealing to cinema audiences. (Further discussion of whitewashing in American popular media can be found here.) 

Do we see a whitewashing of Mendez through the casting of Ben Affleck in Argo? The answer is trickier than we might think. Mendez’s family migrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, but on his mother’s side, he is French and Irish.

Because of the history of European conquest and the slave trade in Latin America, most Latinas/os are multi-racial. As Gloria Anzaldúa reminds us, Latinos are by definition mestiza, a mixture of races and cultures. The claims for whitewashing are further complicated by the fact that Mendez doesn’t identify himself as Hispanic. He does not speak Spanish and considers himself as someone who grew up in the desert of the U.S. Southwest.

Many third and beyond generations of Latinos (similar to other ethnic groups) in the U.S. do not speak Spanish fluently, and do not have a direct connection to a country of origin other than the United States.  Furthermore, due to the U.S.-Mexican war, many Mexicans found themselves in the United States Southwest (a place occupied by Native Indigenous groups, Mexicans, and White Americans) without having moved.  This complex, and very American narrative is the precise reason why a Latino actor could have been cast or some discussion of Mendez’s mixed ancestry could have been noted in the movie. 

The narrowing or erasing of the Mexican-American experience, and ignorance of the long history of Mexicans in the United States——obfuscates the histories and experiences of these populations, and assumes both a homogenous immigrant narrative and a homogenous Latina/o look.  

Argo could have expanded this understanding of the U.S. and this Mexican-American history. This missed opportunity is particularly important, as noted in Slate, because it is increasingly dangerous to be of Mexican descent within the U.S. Deportations have increased during the Obama administration , Mexican-American and Ethnic Studies have come under fire in many states, brown bodies are profiled in Arizona, and, as Professor Otto Santa Ana notes, the network news constantly broadcasts negative racial depictions of Latinas/os.

Who should care? Well, minority representation in the media matters a great deal in the real world. Seeing positive portraits of Latinas/os, or African American men and women resonates with children and, when there are limited options on television and in film, the stakes are much greater. One example we can think of is Nichelle Nichols as the character Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek television show. Nichols actually wanted to quit the show after the first season, but Martin Luther King came to her and thanked her for being a role model for the African American community. She stayed, and groundbreaking NASA Astronaut Mae Jemison cites Uhura as her inspiration for wanting to be an astronaut. (She even returned the favor and appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

How do the films and television programs that we see today inform a generation of Latinas/os and African-Americans? Do we see the same erasure of difference and complexity happen with representations of peoples from Native-American, Asian-American, Arab-American, or Persian-American backgrounds?  Who will be the next Mae Jemison?

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Comments

Can not believe Argo is actually an acclaimed movie. What a bland production. It is average at best.

What a sad sad statement on the quality of our movies being produced.

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