This article was co-written with Isabelle Nastasia.
The compulsive re-application of lip gloss. Click, click, click. The ritualistic fluffing of one’s hair and contortion of one’s body to get that perfect Facebook profile photo silhouette. Click, click, click. A mouse cursor scrolling over Paris Hilton’s mansion on Google Maps. Click, click, click. Slow motion: five teens walking down the Sunset strip in Louboutins, holding Prada purses, and wearing Gucci sunglasses. The rehearsal of the justification, over and over again: “I never thought that I was as good looking as other people.” Or, “it all comes down to bad choices, who you have as your friends […] this is a learning experience for me, to grow and expand as a spiritual human-being.”
These are the snapshots that make up the trailer of Sofia Coppola’s most recent film The Bling Ring, a two-hour drama based on the true story of a group of Los Angeles teenagers who broke into celebrities homes in order to steal money and clothing. When you watch the whole thing — it’s easy to see that the film itself is so riddled with irony that it actually becomes hard to believe The Bling Ring is a celebration of the burglaries, rather than a vivid satire comprised of hundreds of perfectly timed-out montages.
Before I sat down to watch the film, I read a piece on it written by Jorge Rivas. Rivas’s article blew the lid off of Coppola’s film, uncovering the fact that she chose to cast almost entirely white actors (four whites and one Asian-American) to portray “the Bling Ring” as the media nicknamed them — leaving out the story of a young Latin@ woman, Diana Tamayo, who was also undocumented. But, Diana Tamayo had been a part of the real-life crew. Her portion of the story was significant because it would have drastically changed the way viewers related to the scenario of five teens being arrested in their own homes for burglary. Interestingly, Coppola was not the first to whitewash the casting and storyline of the Bling Ring. The film was first adapted from a Vanity Fair article in 2011 as a made-for-TV-movie. The original Bling Ring movie was slow-moving, less flashy, and had a less star-driven quality to it (admittedly I only got through the first 45 minutes).
Who Benefits from the Whitewashing of Stories on the Big Screen?
While I sat in the theater with approximately 15 other people in the audience, I was stuck on one question: who does it serve to whitewash the cast of this film? I sat through the whole thing and it made my stomach turn, reminding me once again: whitewashing is not just a strategy to make cultural products appealing and easily digestible to white America. Whitewashing also serves to maintain the cultural capital of whiteness and undergirds the existence of white supremacy.
The real life Bling Ring members Lee and Tamayo.
To give you an idea, picture this: Emma Watson (one of the stars of the Harry Potter series whom I had practically grown up watching) is in front of her affluent home in L.A. as her blond mother pleads with the police not to take her away. Emma begs the officer to stop hurting her while he folds her into the police car. How brutal for this young *cough* white *cough* woman to have her life ruined like that — and for the police officers to treat her so badly while bodily taking her from her mother’s home in front of her little sister!
Perhaps the image of a brown girl getting arrested for burglary does not produce the same sympathy in Coppola. Or maybe, she thought that the majority of her target audience would be unable to generate sympathy with a young Latin@ woman getting arrested. The film makes it clear that a young white woman’s arrest is a tragedy but also implies (through the whitewashing of a brown character) that when Latin@s are arrested, it is neither unusual nor deserving of sympathy. There is a presumption that whiteness prefigures innocence, which in turn garners our sympathies.
Throughout the film, we see Watson and her co-stars sneak into several homes of Hollywood darlings like Meg Ryan and Orlando Bloom. We watch them spray on Lindsay Lohan’s perfume in slow motion, snort cocaine while driving on the highway (over and over and over again), and deliver one-liners so ridiculously quotable, they rival Cher’s best lines from Clueless.
There would not have been any outrage on the part of white audience members had they witnessed an undocumented Latin@ being ripped from her mother’s arms. There would not have been an outcry when, as the LA Times reported in October 2012 during the real-time events, Tamayo “shed tears as a statement was read in court, noting the potential for deportation because of the conviction.” Thousands of undocumented immigrants, many among them young people, are deported every day — thousands are racially profiled by the police multiple times a week, with little or no outcry from the general public. But, at least three people in the audience at the Park Slope, Brooklyn movie theater shouted at the screen: “they’re just kids!”
Colorlines.com posted a survey along with Rivas’ article asking readers: “Would seeing immigrants who have had interactions with the law in films be a good thing?” 77.45% of voters said, “Yes, we should have more immigrants with different experiences in the media.” This articulation of audiences wanting “more immigrants with different experiences” present in mainstream media speaks to a strong need to construct the empowering narratives around undocumented immigrants that are present in our movements and beginning to show up in legislation.
Katie Chang as Rebecca in Coppola’s The Bling Ring.
Leaving Out Tamayo’s Story from The Bling Ring Reinforces a False Dichotomy
The current immigration bill and the DREAM Act (which is now over a decade old) put forth a false dichotomy that there are “good immigrants” who are hard working, do well in school and happily assimilate into American culture — these are the immigrants who should be given the opportunity to obtain documentation. And then there are the “undeserving immigrants” who have not been granted the same opportunities and privileges. As this narrative informs us, “undeserving immigrants” have dropped out (though most are pushed out of school) and may have been a part of some kind of criminal activity. These folks are deemed undeserving of a pathway to citizenship. This narrative continues dominate media portrayals of immigrants and is regurgitated on the news every time immigration policy is discussed. If Coppola had stayed true to the real-life events The Bling Ring was based on, the film would have been much more interesting and maybe even would have started to provide a more varied portrayal of immigrants, particularly undocumented youth onscreen. This is why we need more immigrant characters on the big screen to begin with. But as Rivas points out, this is easier said than done. The thought process for production companies, writers, and directors is: what average U.S. born-citizen wants to be confronted with the reality of deportations when they just spent upwards of $10 to escape reality?
We know little about the experiences and motivations of the main character, a young Asian-American woman, Rachel Lee, who is described as the mastermind of the real-life Bling Ring. The fictionalized character based on Lee, named Rebecca in the film, is played by Katie Chang but is repeatedly overshadowed by the sheer volume of Watson’s screentime. Chang, whose beauty, brilliance, and charisma seem to be what ultimately convinces the young white male lead, played by Israel Broussard, that burglary is a good idea, is portrayed as disturbingly obsessive yet clever and cunning. Coppola’s caricature of Lee resembles the 1930s archetype of “the Dragon Lady” (a character common in films and comic books of East Asian women who are strong, domineering, and deceitful.)
Besides Coppola showing us that Rebecca grew up traveling between her mother in L.A. and her father in Vegas, we don’t know much about her past. Despite the fact that she is also supposedly the main character, the film takes it upon itself to purge the story of any race-consciousness whatsoever. Upon researching Chang however, you will find multiple interviews on what it is like to work with Emma Watson who has significantly fewer lines, but whose pale face provided the still shot that became the final image from the film.
The purging of authentic stories from the film poses a huge problem because the real-life Bling Ring was made up of a diverse group of young people whose run-ins with the law posed very different implications for each because of race. The whitewashing of the cast and plot is indicative of the larger colorblind rhetoric present within the U.S. cultural and political sphere. Not surprisingly, for a movie that is being marketed as a story about millennials and our alleged obsession with aesthetic and fame, there was no discussion about class in Coppola’s film, either. We are supposed to think that these phenomena hold no relation to one another. These gaps in cultural critique by Coppola are what brought me to discuss the film to begin with. The most important takeaway for me has been that what is most problematic about this movie is what is not what is said, but what remains unsaid.
Keep up with Muna and Isabelle on Twitter @Muna_Mire and @IzzyNastasia.
Like this? Want to see more youth driven media? Donate to the Youngist Indiegogo campaign.