Yellowface redux: Why is it OK for Hollywood to cast white people as Asians?

Yellowface is back in Hollywood, and it’s as big, ugly, blatant and offensive as ever.

Racebending wrote about this a couple of weeks ago in “The Cloud Atlas Conversation: Yellowface, Prejudice, and Artistic License,” but as more and more people see the trailer for the new sci-fi flick “Cloud Atlas” (the film just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival) the outrage over the casting of white actors as Asian characters is beginning to boil over. I get pretty upset myself, just looking at Hugo Weaving (of “Lord of the Rings” and “Matrix”) shown here with his lids Asianized.

Now, one of the movie’s stars, British actor Jim Sturgess, pokes fun at the controversy by comparing yellowface to a frozen yogurt topping. Really:

Yellowface? Blackface? Pinkface? Pinkberry? Blackberry? Crackberry? Blueberry? Strawberry? Bananas? Frozen Yogurt? All the toppings?.Lovely

It’s easy for Sturgess to make light of this issue — he’s white. But yellowface is deeply offensive to me as an Asian American, and to a whole lot of Asians.

Yellowface is the practice of casting Caucasians as Asian characters, sometimes using buck teeth and glasses, sometimes prosthetic eyelids and taping eyes back into a slant. It continues in Hollywood and bloggers like Phil Yu and I end up writing outraged posts about yellowface every couple of years.

It happened with “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and thankfully, the movie was so dumb it tanked. It almost happened with “Akira,” but thankfully, that project was shelved before the likes of James Franco could strut around playing the role of a Japanese character.

I have to wonder: Would any Hollywood studio do this with other ethnicity in 2012? Would a white actor be hired to play a black character, and smear on blackface? Would a major motion picture have a white man play a Mexican? (Oh right — they did with Will Ferrell and Jack Black). Are American Indians subjected to portrayals by white people and their rich culture mocked and reduced to trashy stereotypes? Oh yeah, that just happened, at Fashion Week in New York during a “powwow”-themed Paul Frank party.

Sigh. There’s obviously a LOT of work to do in this allegedly enlightened “post-racial” era to educate Americans about people of color, and cultural sensitivity and respect towards all ethnic communities.

But I have to say, Asians seem to be the one race that is the easiest target for lazy Hollywood producers, directors and casting agents to sidestep and replace with white actors. Can it really be that hard to find Asian actors to play these parts? If there aren’t enough of us who are big draws, then create stars out of the most talented among us. Someone take a chance and give an Asian a breakout role so that one of us can stand alongside the Tom Cruises and Jim Sturgesses of the world (like he’s such a big star?).

John Cho seems almost there: He’s on the brink of getting a kickass lead role and be a role model that breaks that bamboo ceiling for the rest.

One thing I kind of look forward to seeing in “Cloud Atlas,” which features a whole bunch of big stars playing multiple roles that span time and space (and some Asians playing Asians too, I should add): Halle Berry plays a white Jewish woman. Let’s get an Asian actor to play a white character.

That would at least make me feel like there’s a fighting chance for equal opportunity in Hollywood.

For now, I’m left feeling like we’re banging our heads against a wall, pointing out racist Hollywood movies and yellowface casting over and over again, year after year. When will it stop?

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11 Responses to Yellowface redux: Why is it OK for Hollywood to cast white people as Asians?

  1. Joel Bass says:

    In the case of Cloud Atlas, you also need to ask why it’s okay for Hollywood to cast black people as white Jewish people, and women as men. The answer might have to do with the fact that the film is about reincarnation, and the way all of us are the same people in slightly different skins. But maybe that’s racist.

  2. Ben says:

    I wish we could be as open as you Joel but it’s a measure of the damage that decades of marginalizing Asians in the media has caused that you seem incapable (or possibly unwilling) to understand why this would sting Asian-Americans.

    I fail to see why one instance where a black actress plays a white woman would erase the mountain of evidence that shows Hollywood discriminates against Asian actors.

    This isn’t the sole case where Asians are portrayed by made-to-look-Asian white actors – it is a general rule that Asians are excluded from playing significant roles even when the character is a historical figure of Asian descent. Many of these mock-Asian roles exist to portray the most base and dehumanizing stereotypes of Asians. Most often even when an Asian actor does land a role, their character exists solely as a object of mockery and a means to mock Asia and its people.

    Gil’s post does not mention racism, but is an explanation of why Asians might feel stung and marginalized by the ongoing media habit of misrepresenting Asians and the fully accepted practice of discriminating against Asian actors. Why is that so difficult to comprehend?

  3. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your response, Ben. I agree, racism is definitely at the roots of yellowface, as it was for blackface in the entertainment industry 150 years ago.

  4. Robert Bowen says:

    In a truly post racial society, we wouldn’t care if white people play Asian people, or if Asian people play African people (or ultimately, if we see “blackface” as inoffensive). I admit we’re not there yet, we’re probably not even close. But with this in mind, the question becomes “Is this done because the Wachowskis are developing truly post racial ideas or is that overshadowed by many people’s assumption that whites can do anything they want, thus re-enforcing the racism of our past?”

    I made a short animated film in which I determined that a character should be black after I had already cast the character. The actress was a little uncomfortable with that (more accurately, she just didn’t want me to write any n-bombs into the script, which I didn’t), but since I had no black actresses to replace her (extremely low budget), I felt it was the right choice to bring a little more diversity to the show. At what point is this kind of choice wrong? I happen to know that the Wachowskis really like working with Hugo Weaving. Maybe they believed that this would be a small push towards a post racial world, and maybe they were wrong about that. It’s not every day you work with a director who has had gender reassignment surgery. Context is everything, and they might not be able to see the context beyond their own post racial world view.

  5. Ben says:

    @ Robert

    The implication of your first paragraph seems to be that minorities may be standing in the way of the post-racial utopia. To be fair I don’t know what you are defining when you say “post-racial”, but when it comes to media discrimination against Asian actors you must forgive some of us for noticing that post-racial looks eerily similar to pre-post-racial.

    To my mind those attempting to push towards a post-racial world would have to show an understanding of why we need a post-racial world. Yet, there seems to be little indication from the mainstream movers and shakers in movie and television circles of even the most basic acknowledgement that Asians face discrimination in casting in addition to the negative way that Asians are most often portrayed in the final product. How do we resolve a problem when it is denied that a problem exists?

  6. Andy says:

    I just don’t understand why:

    A) why couldn’t they have different actors portray the soul in the different lives? (ie. an Asian actor portray the soul in the future). Like for MIB3 they had the young Agent K played by Josh Brolin, they didn’t spray makeup on Tommy Lee Jones sprayed up to look younger, and Josh Brolin did a great job in portraying Agent K’s nuances. I don’t see why they couldn’t do the same with an Asian actor picking up Tom Hank’s or Tim Sturgess’s white character’s nuances.

    B) It’s true that the rest of cast is portraying different races and characters, Halle Berry portrays an African American, Indian woman, and white woman and Doona Bae portrays a European and Asian (robot?) woman. However, ALL the male leads are portrayed by white actors, either as white characters or in yellowface.

    “As with these other films, we see that white creators and performers are permitted to determine what it means to be Asian. It’s frustrating, because the trailer suggests a story that comfortably meshes with preconceptions and stereotypes of Asians: of a futuristic world of high technology and little soul, where the “all-look-same” vision of Asianness is directly translated into racks of identical, interchangeable Asian “fabricant” clones. It suggests a world where white actors (in yellowface) and Asian actresses enter into romantic trysts–while excluding the voices and faces of Asian American actors.” [taken from the blog article]

    C) And lastly, the yellowface makeup and slanting eyes is insulting. So the people behind this movie are saying “hey, we could cast Asian actors in this Asian role, but it’s much more fun to slap a black hair wig on Hugo Weaving and slant his eyes with some scotch tape, yippeee”.

    The end result doesn’t look natural nor does it look believable as an Asian male. Imagine if they cast Jackie Chan as a black man and slapped an afro on him and some dark rouge on his face. Or if they cast Harold Cho in it and had him tape his eyes wider to play a white character. But they didn’t do that and I think wouldn’t do that because it’s somehow “obviously ridiculous” to have an Asian guy play a white character, but it’s somehow not ridiculous the other way around.

  7. andy says:

    lol it’s called ACTING

    I don’t see anyone complaining when black people play white characters, in fact it’s celebrated. And so it should be, no-one complains when men play women or vice versa. IT’S CALLED ACTING.

    Robert Downey JR won awards for playing a black guy

  8. Ann Doria says:

    Here’s a great video about why it’s important for Asian Americans to become actors, writers, and producers. http://youtu.be/qOwBGPkY0ZU

  9. Gil Asakawa says:

    It’s spot on. Thanks Ann!

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