With the recent controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s casting as a Japanese woman in the film Ghost in the Shell, more and more people are taking notice of Hollywood’s failure to hire Asian actors and actresses in Asian roles. This failure, along with Ghost In the Shell’s failure at the opening weekend box office, can be attributed to the practice of whitewashing: casting white actors in historically non-white character roles.
Whitewashing of Asian roles often involves complete ignorance of the Asian character’s roots. For example, in M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2010), characters like the heroes Aang, Katara, and Sokka were stripped of their Asian ethnicities that were clearly presented in the original television series, and cast with white actors. It’s easier to ignore the fact that these characters were Asian in this instance because, technically, the characters’ ethnicities were not explicitly stated in the source material, and the characters’ ethnicities were not imperative to the story. However, these kinds of technicalities are the backbone of a main argument against casting Asian people: Why should we hire Asian actors?
The better question is: Why shouldn’t we?
Casting directors seem to need some kind of justification to hire Asian actors, whereas white actors are the norm in mainstream movies. This treatment of white actors as the default in casting is harmful to the representation of racial diversity. Moreover, it’s harmful to Asian representation in American film and television. When there has to be special reasoning to hire Asians for a production, that reasoning often results in typecasting — only using Asians for characters such as the Uneducated Foreigner or the Overly Geeky Asian Friend or the Seductive Dragon Lady.
You might say at least typecasting uses Asian actors as opposed to another notorious filming practice used to exclude Asian people from the industry: yellowfacing. “Yellowface” refers to the theatrical makeup that white actors apply to portray a caricature of an Asian character. This often involves literal yellow face makeup, facial prosthetics (for enlarged teeth or ears), or eye tape (for slanted, monolid eyes). Yellowfacing was all the rage in old Hollywood, with performances such as Katherine Hepburn playing a Chinese woman in Dragon Seed (1944), Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of August Moon (1956), and Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in the acclaimed Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).
The most recent use of cosmetic yellowfacing was in Cloud Atlas (2012) where the filmmakers applied prosthetics and makeup to white actors in an effort to make their eyes smaller and more slanted — because the only defining trait of any Asian person is, of course, their small eyes. The good news is that we’ve gone five years without this kind of incident. The bad news, however, is that a new kind of yellowfacing has surfaced in popular American television and film.
As cosmetic yellowfacing often reveals racist attitudes toward Asians with the use of visual caricatures, the use of Asian cultures and people as a backdrop to a narrative featuring white heroes also reveals a different kind of racist attitude towards Asians, one riddled with trite story tropes and stereotypes. And while nobody is, fortunately, donning a rice hat and taping their eyes to the side, this appropriation of Asian themes and aesthetics in a film with very little in the way of actual Asian characters is also a type of visual caricature that contributes to misrepresentation.
For example, in Marvel’s new Netflix series Iron Fist, Finn Jones plays Danny Rand, a superhero who calls upon the mystic power of the Iron Fist to perform kung fu. The character obtained his skill set after training and studying Buddhism in the hills of China for 15 or so years. Though this narrative is chock-full of orientalist clichés with a dash of yellow fever as a result of the sidelined Asian female love interest, we can’t attribute its trite storytelling to whitewashing or yellowfacing.
The original comics emphasize Danny Rand’s approach to Chinese culture and martial arts as that of a wide-eyed foreigner — clearly enlightened by the exotic practices of these simple folk. It helps soften the blow to remember that the first issue of “Iron Fist” was released in 1974, a time that was less culturally conscious of minorities, especially Asian Americans.
However, the Netflix series premiered this year, in 2017, when Asian Americans are indeed alive and well and slightly bitter about the lost opportunity to revert the racist stereotypes of an outdated narrative. Using Chinese culture as a backdrop for the premise of a white savior’s story is not, necessarily, yellowfacing. It’s yellowplacing.
While Asian Americans are ignored in the entertainment industry, our culture is not. Our martial arts, our religions, or anything that seems exotic or aesthetically pleasing are good enough for directors and producers, but we, ourselves, are not.
To speak very candidly as an Asian American, the lack of dynamic representation of Asian people and culture in film and television tells me that we are not wanted. We are not beautiful. We are not complex. We are not worthy of having our stories told.
To speak even more candidly: None of that is true.
Why should we hire Asian actors? Why should we be aware of what casting and narrative decisions in TV and film are harmful? Why should we, as some who may go on to work in media and entertainment, take into consideration the impact of minority representation in the United States?
Well, it all comes down to the worth of Asian people and cultures in this country, and, truthfully, I should not have to justify my worth as a human being. People who look and speak like me all have stories worth telling.
The call for better minority representation is often oversimplified as a movement for forced diversity. However, the term “forced diversity” implies that the world isn’t actually diverse and that people of many different types of sexualities, races, ethnicities, etc. do not exist. Rather, the call for better minority representation is a call for media depictions to be a more accurate reflection of the world we live in and for the inclusion of better stories worth being told.