Casting Nancy Drew: No Whiteys, Please!

CBS Entertainment has announced plans to remake the classic television series Nancy Drew. What young actress wouldn’t want to audition for the opportunity to reprise the role of this iconic detective? Unfortunately, there’s just one problem: White women need not apply. 

“I’d be open to any ethnicity,” but “[She will] not [be] Caucasian,” said CBS President Glenn Geller.

Imagine if Geller had said he was open to casting Nancy Drew as any ethnicity, but that she would not be black or Hispanic. He would be inundated with hate mail for being a racist. In fact, had any other business suggested that black or Hispanic women need not apply, there would be all kinds of discrimination lawsuits, Al Sharpton would swoop in to stoke the flames of bigotry, and today’s new totalitarian activist groups like the NAACP would make it their mission to have the business shut down.

But we’re talking Hollywood, where diversity (aka color) is considered a virtue of the highest order. How do I know? I’m an actress turned cultural anthropologist who spent several years behind-the-scenes interviewing some of the most distinguished Hollywood insiders about the industry’s obsession with race and social engineering. As for Geller, let’s just say his methods don’t surprise me.

Subtracting White, Adding Color

Nancy Drew made her debut in 1930, with the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories original novel series running from 1930 to 2003. The book franchise became so successful, it spawned an assortment of screen reincarnations, including an ABC television series in the 1970s, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries and a made for television movie Nancy Drew in 2002. Additionally, Warner Brothers Pictures made four Nancy Drew movies in the 1930s and a fifth movie in 2007.

Given the demographic realities of the United States at the time, Nancy Drew was originally written as a young, white woman. This same market driven imperative has also greatly influenced Hollywood’s casting of white actresses in both television and movie versions. Still, changing her race for the new CBS television series wouldn’t be novel. Hollywood has released a variety of entertainment fare where casting was “reworked” in order to give the appearance of something new, different, and above all, inclusive and diverse.

For example, in the television series The Wild Wild West (1965-1969), the lead role of Captain James “Jim” West was played by a white actor named Robert Conrad. Nearly thirty years later, the story idea was adapted into a movie and released by Warner Brothers Pictures under the title, Wild, Wild West (1999). This time however, Captain James West was played by a black actor, Will Smith. In the end, the film was considered a huge financial disaster.

The following year, another highly publicized movie was released, Charlie's Angels (2000). It was based on the popular television series Charlie's Angels (1976-1981), kicking off the careers of white actresses Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Jaclyn Smith, who were cast to play the Angels. However, the movie version updated one of the Angles by casting an actress of Chinese descent, Lucy Liu. 

Three years later, Charlie’s Angel’s: Full Throttle (2003) took diversity a step further by also casting a black actor (Bernie Mac) to play the role of John Bosley, the conduit between the Angels and Charlie. In both the original series and the 2000 remake film, the role of Bosley had been portrayed by white actors David Doyle and Bill Murray, respectively. Mac’s casting prompted immediate criticism from moviegoers on the basis that his character underwent such a major rewrite to fit the actor’s persona, that it made Bosley into a farcical buffoon in the extreme. Needless to say, the movie was financially disappointing at the box office.

You may also remember the casting of yet another black actor, Ving Rhames, who revived the title role in the 2005 remake of the 1970s television series, Kojak, a role that had originally been portrayed by an actor of Greek (read “white ethnic”) descent, Telly Savalas. The show was quickly cancelled due to poor ratings.

Some news reports have suggested that these roles and others were the result of color-blind casting -- when actors of various races and ethnicities compete for a part and the best actor is ultimately cast. However, most casting directors I talked with believe that color-blind casting has deviated from its original goal of casting the best actor to one that has evolved into an ancillary system for meeting new politically motivated demands of diversity in films and television. After all, Shaft or the Huxtables would never be recast as white. 

White Actresses Will Not Be Considered

In spite of the fact that the role of Nancy Drew could realistically be filled by an actress of any race or ethnicity, Mr. Geller has already made up his mind: anything but white. This turns the true purpose of color-blind casting completely on its head. CBS is promoting color-conscious casting and white women have been excluded from competing altogether.

But has Geller considered that he may not find the right actress of color for the part? What then? Would he reconsider a white actress? Or is he so hell-bent on casting color that he’s willing to risk everything else down line just to make a political point?

These questions are meant to draw attention to what many casting directors have observed but have never made public. Two cases in point:

Harlan (pseudonym), a white casting director with decades of experience producing and directing musical theater and feature film, was interviewed by a popular industry trade magazine. During the interview, he invited actors to send in their pictures and resumes. As one might expect, this prompted a respectable response. But when I interviewed Harlan a few weeks later, he shared the following observation:

Of all of the submissions that I got based on that article, I got around 200 or so….  It was about 60/40 in favor of men, sending them in. Of all of those total, I got maybe a dozen blacks, male and female. I got a couple of Asians and one Latino and I found that very strange, particularly in light of the fact that all of the ethnics were [bemoaning] about the fact that they never get cast.

Now if you’re wondering how this white casting director could be so insensitive, consider my conversation with Tannen (pseudonym), a very successful prime time casting director, who happens to be black. With respect to the difference between the numbers of white actor submissions and those of others: 

Kim: How many headshots from white talent do you get?

Tannen: Tons more. We could take you into the next office and show you the stacks.

Kim: Oh, really?

Tannen: Our black stack is combined with black, Latinos, Asians, anybody of color. So that stack may be here [gestures a fraction to that of white] to the white peoples stack.

Kim: So you combine them and then there’s the white stack?

Tannen: Just because of room. But if we separated them out, the black stack would definitely be shorter. And we’re doing a black show.

If Tannen can’t even get enough black actors to submit their credentials to a predominantly black show, what could this foreshadow in Mr. Geller's search for an actress of color to play Nancy Drew? Perhaps he should have a plan B. Unless, of course, it’s all about color and not about talent?

Better yet, Geller should really try to expand his narrow vision of diversity, rather than identity politics (aka cultural Marxism). Clearly, he’s well aware that equal opportunity doesn’t necessarily mean equal results, and therefore feels compelled to tinker with the results and then credit himself with a certain level of sensitivity. 

Nothing is more convincing of this than when Geller talked about his other projects, “We're not casting color blind, we're casting color conscious.” What could be more racist?

Will actresses of color stand up to defend white actresses? After all “equal opportunity” has also become a popular catch phrase these days. Only time will tell. Unfortunately, double-standards are nothing new in Hollywood and neither is hypocrisy.

Kimberly holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology.  She is the author of a forthcoming book, a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood’s race politics. You can find her writing about Hollywood, education, and culture at SnoopingAnthropologist.com.

CBS Entertainment has announced plans to remake the classic television series Nancy Drew. What young actress wouldn’t want to audition for the opportunity to reprise the role of this iconic detective? Unfortunately, there’s just one problem: White women need not apply. 

“I’d be open to any ethnicity,” but “[She will] not [be] Caucasian,” said CBS President Glenn Geller.

Imagine if Geller had said he was open to casting Nancy Drew as any ethnicity, but that she would not be black or Hispanic. He would be inundated with hate mail for being a racist. In fact, had any other business suggested that black or Hispanic women need not apply, there would be all kinds of discrimination lawsuits, Al Sharpton would swoop in to stoke the flames of bigotry, and today’s new totalitarian activist groups like the NAACP would make it their mission to have the business shut down.

But we’re talking Hollywood, where diversity (aka color) is considered a virtue of the highest order. How do I know? I’m an actress turned cultural anthropologist who spent several years behind-the-scenes interviewing some of the most distinguished Hollywood insiders about the industry’s obsession with race and social engineering. As for Geller, let’s just say his methods don’t surprise me.

Subtracting White, Adding Color

Nancy Drew made her debut in 1930, with the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories original novel series running from 1930 to 2003. The book franchise became so successful, it spawned an assortment of screen reincarnations, including an ABC television series in the 1970s, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries and a made for television movie Nancy Drew in 2002. Additionally, Warner Brothers Pictures made four Nancy Drew movies in the 1930s and a fifth movie in 2007.

Given the demographic realities of the United States at the time, Nancy Drew was originally written as a young, white woman. This same market driven imperative has also greatly influenced Hollywood’s casting of white actresses in both television and movie versions. Still, changing her race for the new CBS television series wouldn’t be novel. Hollywood has released a variety of entertainment fare where casting was “reworked” in order to give the appearance of something new, different, and above all, inclusive and diverse.

For example, in the television series The Wild Wild West (1965-1969), the lead role of Captain James “Jim” West was played by a white actor named Robert Conrad. Nearly thirty years later, the story idea was adapted into a movie and released by Warner Brothers Pictures under the title, Wild, Wild West (1999). This time however, Captain James West was played by a black actor, Will Smith. In the end, the film was considered a huge financial disaster.

The following year, another highly publicized movie was released, Charlie's Angels (2000). It was based on the popular television series Charlie's Angels (1976-1981), kicking off the careers of white actresses Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Jaclyn Smith, who were cast to play the Angels. However, the movie version updated one of the Angles by casting an actress of Chinese descent, Lucy Liu. 

Three years later, Charlie’s Angel’s: Full Throttle (2003) took diversity a step further by also casting a black actor (Bernie Mac) to play the role of John Bosley, the conduit between the Angels and Charlie. In both the original series and the 2000 remake film, the role of Bosley had been portrayed by white actors David Doyle and Bill Murray, respectively. Mac’s casting prompted immediate criticism from moviegoers on the basis that his character underwent such a major rewrite to fit the actor’s persona, that it made Bosley into a farcical buffoon in the extreme. Needless to say, the movie was financially disappointing at the box office.

You may also remember the casting of yet another black actor, Ving Rhames, who revived the title role in the 2005 remake of the 1970s television series, Kojak, a role that had originally been portrayed by an actor of Greek (read “white ethnic”) descent, Telly Savalas. The show was quickly cancelled due to poor ratings.

Some news reports have suggested that these roles and others were the result of color-blind casting -- when actors of various races and ethnicities compete for a part and the best actor is ultimately cast. However, most casting directors I talked with believe that color-blind casting has deviated from its original goal of casting the best actor to one that has evolved into an ancillary system for meeting new politically motivated demands of diversity in films and television. After all, Shaft or the Huxtables would never be recast as white. 

White Actresses Will Not Be Considered

In spite of the fact that the role of Nancy Drew could realistically be filled by an actress of any race or ethnicity, Mr. Geller has already made up his mind: anything but white. This turns the true purpose of color-blind casting completely on its head. CBS is promoting color-conscious casting and white women have been excluded from competing altogether.

But has Geller considered that he may not find the right actress of color for the part? What then? Would he reconsider a white actress? Or is he so hell-bent on casting color that he’s willing to risk everything else down line just to make a political point?

These questions are meant to draw attention to what many casting directors have observed but have never made public. Two cases in point:

Harlan (pseudonym), a white casting director with decades of experience producing and directing musical theater and feature film, was interviewed by a popular industry trade magazine. During the interview, he invited actors to send in their pictures and resumes. As one might expect, this prompted a respectable response. But when I interviewed Harlan a few weeks later, he shared the following observation:

Of all of the submissions that I got based on that article, I got around 200 or so….  It was about 60/40 in favor of men, sending them in. Of all of those total, I got maybe a dozen blacks, male and female. I got a couple of Asians and one Latino and I found that very strange, particularly in light of the fact that all of the ethnics were [bemoaning] about the fact that they never get cast.

Now if you’re wondering how this white casting director could be so insensitive, consider my conversation with Tannen (pseudonym), a very successful prime time casting director, who happens to be black. With respect to the difference between the numbers of white actor submissions and those of others: 

Kim: How many headshots from white talent do you get?

Tannen: Tons more. We could take you into the next office and show you the stacks.

Kim: Oh, really?

Tannen: Our black stack is combined with black, Latinos, Asians, anybody of color. So that stack may be here [gestures a fraction to that of white] to the white peoples stack.

Kim: So you combine them and then there’s the white stack?

Tannen: Just because of room. But if we separated them out, the black stack would definitely be shorter. And we’re doing a black show.

If Tannen can’t even get enough black actors to submit their credentials to a predominantly black show, what could this foreshadow in Mr. Geller's search for an actress of color to play Nancy Drew? Perhaps he should have a plan B. Unless, of course, it’s all about color and not about talent?

Better yet, Geller should really try to expand his narrow vision of diversity, rather than identity politics (aka cultural Marxism). Clearly, he’s well aware that equal opportunity doesn’t necessarily mean equal results, and therefore feels compelled to tinker with the results and then credit himself with a certain level of sensitivity. 

Nothing is more convincing of this than when Geller talked about his other projects, “We're not casting color blind, we're casting color conscious.” What could be more racist?

Will actresses of color stand up to defend white actresses? After all “equal opportunity” has also become a popular catch phrase these days. Only time will tell. Unfortunately, double-standards are nothing new in Hollywood and neither is hypocrisy.

Kimberly holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology.  She is the author of a forthcoming book, a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood’s race politics. You can find her writing about Hollywood, education, and culture at SnoopingAnthropologist.com.