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This metaphor about action figures perfectly explains representation in pop culture

Ghost in the Shell.
Ghost in the Shell.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Over the past few weeks, entertainment news has been dominated by the idea of representation and the backlash toward it.

When the first trailer for Star Wars: Rogue One premiered, some (predominantly male) fans were upset that Rogue One will be the second consecutive Star Wars movie with a female lead character.

Tilda Swinton's appearance as the Ancient One in the first trailer for Marvel's Doctor Strange was met with criticism that the character has been whitewashed and the movie looks to be a beacon of Orientalism.

Last week, a promotional photo of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell was released, followed by a news report that filmmakers tested visual effects to make the movie's white actors look more Asian (instead of, say, hiring Asian actors).

And in the comic book world, there's been an ongoing push for diversity and representation — via a black Spider-Man and Captain America, a Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel, a female Thor — contrasted with fans who believe that push is ruining comic books.

In response to the controversies over Swinton and Johansson playing Asian characters, Marc Bernardin wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times about the importance of diversity and representation and what happens when you whitewash a character of color. In that essay, he provides a simple explanation of why this all matters:

Look at it this way: Take two children. One of them has 1,000 action figures, while the other has just one. If you take a single figure away from that first child, it is possible, if not probable, that he or she won't even notice it's gone. And even if he or she did complain, any sane person would explain to that child the virtues of sharing, of generosity.

Now, if you turned to that child with the solitary toy and tried to take it away, that child would be devastated. That toy might well be his or her lifeline to imagination, to hope, to the idea that play could unlock something within that he or her didn't even know existed.

You'll have to look past the reality that most action figures are male and white, but Bernardin makes a good point that's applicable to television and movie roles, superheroes, and many other forms of art. There are many more opportunities for white people, especially white men, to see themselves in pop culture (and, implicitly, many more opportunities for white actors). It also shows how few opportunities there are for women and minorities, and how damaging it can be to take away those roles.

Further, Bernardin's example illustrates exactly why many male fans' outrage over Star Wars' female leads, or the same fans' defense of whitewashing, seems so ridiculous: They have thousands of other "action figures" to play with.

Color film was designed for white people

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