Source: https://www.heroicgirls.com/mindy-kaling-is-a-south-asian-velma-in-hbo-max-cartoon-for-adults/

Jinkies, Not Every Character Has to Be White!

A response to the "controversy" surrounding Velma from Scooby-Doo being reimagined as South Asian.

Halloween costumes create an interesting dilemma. 

Of course, there’s the issue of cultural appropriation. Although some consider cultural appropriation to be a neutral term, people who use other cultures as their costumes often use offensive and stereotypical imagery, so cultural appropriation in this case is quite harmful. For non-white people, there’s also the reality of not having a wide choice when it comes to fictional characters to dress up as because many cultural icons in Western media are white. I’ve dressed up as white characters since I was younger, from Sleeping Beauty to Katniss Everdeen to Kim Possible. Translate this into the wider context of Hollywood — pop culture icons who were originally white characters being reimagined as other ethnicities — and these casting choices are often faced with backlash. 

In February 2021, it was announced that there will be a new animated series following the origins of Velma from the classic cartoon “Scooby-Doo.” When Mindy Kaling, who is set to voice the titular character, revealed that Velma was to be reimagined as South Asian, Twitter responded with some resentment. Kaling recalls that, though some people were initially excited that she was voicing the character, the conversation shifted into backlash once it was confirmed that Velma would no longer be white.

 In an interview with the Late Show With Seth Meyers, Kaling stated: “I just couldn’t understand how people couldn’t imagine a really smart, nerdy girl with terrible eyesight, and who loved to solve mysteries, could be Indian. Like, there are Indian nerds. It shouldn’t be a surprise to people.” What I think Kaling is getting at here is that the characteristics that Velma reflects — smart, nerdy, resourceful — aren’t just reserved for white people. There is nothing about Velma’s character that restricts her to being white other than the fact that white is the default for Western media. 

Considering the fact that Mindy Kaling, an Indian-American woman, is providing the voice for Velma’s character, it makes sense to me that this ethnicity would be reflected in Velma’s character design. It should be noted that this wouldn’t be the first time Velma has been reimagined as Asian. Japanese-American singer and lesbian Jesus herself, Hayley Kiyoko, played the character in two live action films: Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins (2009) and Scooby-Doo! The Curse of The Lake Monster (2010). 

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The Scooby-Doo characters and stories have a special place in my heart, and as a brown girl who grew up with their stories, maybe I am a bit biased in saying that I was really excited to hear that Velma would be South Asian. Why not give the opportunity for kids, and even an older generation who grew up with this character, to see themselves reflected on the screen? 

This isn’t the first time there has been backlash to this type of casting. When Zendaya was cast as a reimagined Mary Jane, or MJ, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in Fantastic Four (2015), fans pointed out that the actors looked different than their comic book counterparts, which I would argue doesn’t even matter. There is nothing about their characters that means they have to be white, other than the fact that many people expect them to be. I can only assume that these are the same people who took issue with a film like Black Panther, where the entire cast was either African or African-American, as being exclusionary — as if all the Marvel movies before hadn’t centered white men. 

Even when characters are specifically not white in books, there is backlash when it comes to casting for the movie adaptation, because people still prefer  characters white. For the first Hunger Games movie, Amandla Stenberg was cast as Rue fans complained that she didn’t reflect the innocence that Rue’s character evokes in the books. In the novel itself, the author did make it clear that Rue was not white, yet people did not pick up on this nuance as they could not imagine a girl of any other race but white to be innocent. Rhetoric such as this, and even the backlash against reimagining white characters, is racist and upholds an image of characters that can only be white in order to be digestible to Western audiences. 

A counterargument for reimagining white characters as other ethnicities is to bring up the opposite: what if a non-white character were to be imagined as white?

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Quite frankly, this argument infuriates me because it completely neglects the fact that, for so long, whiteness has been at the center of Western media and popular culture. People of color have been watching white characters be the focus of Western media for decades; it’s not like there’s any shortage of representation for white people, past or present. For people of color, roles in the Western media industry are still somewhat limited, often being typecast as side characters. 

The reality is that the Western media industry is still so white, so much so that the industry has been marking many of its firsts fairly recently: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) being Marvel’s first Asian led superhero film, for example, or Crazy Rich Asians (2018) being the first mainstream romantic comedy with an all Asian cast. Since white is the default for Western storytelling, white characters are essentially upheld as blank slates for people of any race or ethnicity to imagine themselves as. Turn this around and introduce a non-white character or reimagine a white character, and suddenly this is considered a niche character who will only be relatable or likable to people who share that identity. 

While it is great to reimagine white characters to create more diversity, I think that it is just as important to create new stories that center people of color. The idea that every character, or even most characters, automatically have to be white limits the ability to tell diverse and nuanced stories, or for people to simply see themselves as certain characters. Though there has been progress throughout the years in terms of diverse representation, there is still work to be done in dismantling the defaults of Western media. 

Staff Writer

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

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We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

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