Last year, there was a petition circulating calling for a boycott of a joint New Zealand Australian production of The New Legends Of Monkey because the petitioners claim the show is guilty of “whitewashing“. I refused to sign the petition at the time as I was unaware of the background behind it. However, if I had known the details, I still would not have signed.
The petitioner’s argument was that “media producers who replace Asian characters with white actors reinforce the idea that ‘whiteness’ is the standard and European features are the epitome of beauty, thereby convincing non-white children to loathe their own appearances and develop self-hate”. The four lead roles are played by Kiwis and Aussies.
The show is the latest in a line of fantasy TV series produced in Aotearoa New Zealand, some for NZ viewers and some for international audiences, including Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Legend of the Seeker, Dark Knight, and The Almighty Johnsons, among others.
With the exception of The Almighty Johnsons, which was set in present day New Zealand, the shows depict mythological worlds loosely based on legends that themselves are set in a specific place and time. However, the shows are simply themed on the legend and make no attempt to accurately portray a specific place and time in history.
The same can be said of The New Legends of Monkey. The story is loosely based on a Chinese legend, and while the legend was set in China (after all, the story tellers and audiences were Chinese and possibly knew little of other cultures), that setting isn’t essential for the retelling of the story. The theme of the show is not an attempt to recreate a historically accurate depiction of a particular time in Chinese history. In the words of its creators the story is set in a “magical fantasy world“.
If the the actors were made up to appear as though they belonged to a different ethnicity by changing facial features (often in exaggerated form), then I believe that would be inappropriate, especially if race (I dislike that word), culture or ethnicity was part of the plot. If the series was filmed in China, then I expect it would be natural for all the cast would be Chinese, including all the minor roles and walk on parts.
However, it was shot in New Zealand, and the the ethnic mix of the actors, both lead and minor are not that different from a typical cross section of Kiwi society. Two of the lead actors speak in a fake accent, but it’s not in a hammed-up Chinese accent, which would indeed be a case of whitewashing. It’s a North American accent to make the show more attractive to a wider Netflix audience. The rest use accents commonly found in New Zealand.
I also question whether “whitewashing” could be applied under any circumstance in relation to the show. Josh Thomson (Pigsy) and Luciane Buchanan (Tripitaka) are Tongan Kiwis, and Chai Hansen (Monkey) is Thai-Australian, leaving Emilie Cocquerel (Sandy) as the only “white” actor. So the term is clearly inappropriate in the case of The New Legends of Monkey.
While I’m not claiming whitewashing doesn’t happen, as it certainly has in the past and still does to some extent, I really think those promoting the boycott were way off the mark with this particular show. In fact I feel like they are a “tiny bit racist“.
In Aotearoa New Zealand The New Legends of Monkey can be viewed on TVNZ On Demand and Netflix. I confess I’m a fan of this genre. Below are trailers for the six TV shows mentioned in this article.