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Yellowface in major motion pictures: been there, still doing that

Recently there’s been some controversial movies that have come under fire for yellowface or whitewashing. It’s not just unfair that Hollywood almost invariably casts white actors in yellowface as prominent, epic, Asian characters (rather than Asian actors), but Asian actors are often forced into roles that perpetuate ignorant stereotypes and tired, predictable tropes.

Two recent controversial choices have been Matt Damon’s role in “The Great Wall” (2016), and Scarlett Johanssen’s portrayal of Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell,” which was released at the end of March and has been called out for whitewashing. The thriller “Death Note,” set to come out this August, based off the Japanese anime of the same name, does the same. Almost all the cast is white, while the original anime and movie cast were of Japanese descent.

‘Yellowface’ is a term used when someone of non-Asian descent, usually white, portrays an East Asian character, with makeup supplements. This term has been expanded to include portraying any Asian character, not just East Asian. ‘Whitewashing’ is when white actors have been cast in historically Asian roles. The fact that these two concepts are alive and well-fed by the recent slew of movies is something that needs to be addressed. Why is this still acceptable? There’s still an underlying sentiment that Asian-Americans are not, well, American.

This general feeling of being continual foreigners, never belonging, in between worlds, is not easily remedied, nor am I suggesting that there is a simple solution to even consider this deep-rooted complex socialization ‘remedied.’ However, there are a few things that I think could prevent this repeated, continual problem that crops up in major motion films and shows.

There’s a discussion about who falls under the giant umbrella term ‘Asian’ as sometimes it feels like people’s identities are being conflated by the assumption that if you’re ‘Asian,’ then you’re either Chinese, Japanese or Korean. I don’t want to disregard anyone’s identity. However, for the purposes of this article, I am using the term as it is meant in terms of yellowface, and as broadly as I can.

In recent times, almost all of the main characters in “Cloud Atlas” (2012) were in yellowface, and Alyson Hannigan on “How I Met Your Mother” (2014), Emma Stone in “Aloha” (2015) and Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange” (2016) were whitewashed. Going back to 1915, Pucini’s opera Madame Butterfly was primarily performed in yellowface. Since then, other prominent actors have gone on to play in yellowface: Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando and Mickey Rooney to name a few. Believe me, the list goes on and on, with very little sign of stopping.

A step to changing this trend is if the actors themselves examine the system they participate in. While Kusanagi is supposed to be physically racially ambiguous, as she is a cyborg, how did Johanssen not realize that her playing a character who is in a Japanese anime, set in Japan, whose name is Mokoto Kusanagi would cause some controversy? What about Stone playing a Hawaiian and Chinese character in “Aloha” does she not get? It’s moments like these where I find actors could take action themselves. Stone did apologize, according to the Guardian, saying the criticism had shown her how prevalent whitewashing is in Hollywood, (because she hadn’t noticed it before.)

The casting directors also need to check themselves. The problem is that the roles that Asian actors are cast in are usually to fulfill stereotypes. Actress Constance Wu is vocal surrounding Hollywood’s narrow and dated casting techniques.

There are certain tropes in movies and shows of what ‘kinds’ of Asians there are. There’s the martial arts master, the docile sexualized woman, the goofy nerd, the helicopter Asian mom and the sidekick. Or Asian actors play dumbed-down, servile, low-class roles, like washerwomen (think Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is no longer ‘modern’).

There’s the wise, old Asian man trope combined with the martial arts master, who teaches the mysterious art to the Caucasian student, like Pai Mei, played by Chia Hui Liu, in Kill Bill: Volume II. The signature move of the martial arts master hermit is to whip his long, white beard in a completely ridiculous way.

Then there’s the tourist trope, like in the 1984 movie “Sixteen candles.” Gedde Watanabe plays the infamous Long Duk Dong, who was the butt of many jokes for the entire movie. Long Duk Dong’s love interest, Marlene, is played by Deborah Pollack.

Some of this is supposedly for comedic effect, and it may very well be. Take Mickey Rooney’s justification for his role as I.Y. Yunioshi. He thought it was comedic and it was all for the laughs. Maybe that’s why Steve Harvey made an ignorant and insensitive joke on national television about Asian men. For the laughs.

While some of it may be funny, these stereotypes are ultimately harmful, and continually reinforce the feeling that many Asian-American’s can, and that it is acceptable to, be laughed at. There are ways to place an Asian character’s development in a media setting without it being offensive and actually achieving comedy, and the industry has a ways to go.

Now, let’s just hope that the live-action Mulan doesn’t join the long list of movies that are whitewashed or have characters in yellow face.