Cultural Appropriation & Whitewashing: Everything I Loved about Step up Suddenly Seemed Wrong
When I was a child, I loved dancing, and everything to do with hip hop. For the longest time, I was in love with the Step Up series, and thus, as a result, I refused to see anything wrong with the films that mixed my passion for hip hop with my love for underdog stories.
It was only after a considerable amount of time, and after a lot of readings on cultural appropriation that I understood what was going on in those films that just made me groove — the blatant whitewashing of cultures, peoples, and colours. The music was upbeat, and there were romantic strains in the films, which made me, and many others, turn a blind eye on the sidelining of the African-American, Mexican, and Asian characters who were peppered throughout the films.
According to popular opinion, the Step Up films are getting decisively worse due to bad dance sequences and stiff acting. Not only that, as the newer films arrive, we see more people of colour on the wrong side, as the bad guys or the opponents; which leads the casual observer to believe that the hip hop, rock'n'roll and b-boying is being taken over by the white man, just like all other things in the world. And the worst part is, it is not even only in the Step Up series, but also in Street Dance, and other American dance shows.
There are many western shows and films that take aspects of other cultures and instead of using culturally similar actors, give the roles to white or Caucasian actors. This leads to many problems, the least of which is fueling society's belief that fair is beautiful. Hip hop and street dance began in the streets and in the ghettos as a medium of expressing oneself, and it is sad to see that this has been taken over by Caucasians. Just like the Afro hair, cornrows, and other aspects of black culture, films like Step Up use cultural appropriation to give white folk license to use the culture of other communities without drawing flak for it, while at the same time shaming those communities for the same cultural traits.
Even though the films are a good portrayal of how perseverance and practice pay off, the whitewashing aspect of the whole deal is a little off-putting. There was a whole debate around the whitewashing of Ghost in The Shell, by casting Scarlett Johansson in it instead of an Asian actor, but the same outrage never really reached the dance series like Step Up and Street Dance. Maybe it is because the protagonists almost always come from an economically and socially backward class, even if they are white.
The easiest explanation for all this is that the films are commercial projects, which take from the underground culture which is the beating heart of the cities, and then package them to suit the rich, Caucasian audience who want to be a part of something more risque and 'grimy.' Put in lovable characters like Moose and you have yourself a cinematic experience that will make you forget about the not-so-subtle snatching away of the lives of the underprivileged, without losing any of the privilege.
As much as I love the Step Up series, I can never watch them again without thinking about the scores of young dancers from different ethnicities who are still waiting for someone who is not white to portray the roles that are theirs in their hearts and minds.