Why White-Washing Asian Men Persists

Hollywood has been making films depicting Asian men for over a century. However, these depictions usually come at the cost of whitewashing the character. Whitewashing is the practice of casting white actors in order to please audiences. In other more overt cases yellowface is committed. Yellowface is a process that exaggerates Asian features in an effort to make comedic relief or simply replace an Asian man with a white actor. Both of these are issues that plague Hollywood and it’s problematic history of unfair representation. In this blog post we will examine why Hollywood opts for casting white men instead of asian men for these roles.

 

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Stereotypes of Asian people have existed for centuries. In “Whitewashing Yellow Futures in Ex Machina , Cloud Atlas , and Advantageous : Gender, Labor, and Technology in Sci-fi Film”, the author LeiLani Nishime writes, “Asian American scholars have traced the rise of yellowface performance as a response to waves of Chinese immigration in the mid-1800s and the global recessions of the late 1800s. White labor groups scapegoated Chinese immigrants, simultaneously securing their whiteness, citizenship, and place on the labor hierarchy.” A couple of the first stereotypes associated with Asian men that still perpetuate today’s society include being sexually unattractive, racist exaggerated ideas of Asian male features, and being incompatible with whiteness. This is materialized in old and new Hollywood’s reluctance to cast Asian men in Asian roles. The following are some examples of this practice of whitewashing and yellowface.

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Although this example is one from outside of the US, it illustrates the deep history of yellowface. This film is directed by D. W. Griffith, the same director as The Birth of A Nation. The male character is titled “The Yellow Man” and is played by Richard Barthelmess who is a white American actor of the Hollywood Silent era. This is an example of yellowface because he uses makeup, clothing, and even facial gestures to imitate exaggerated asian stereotypes. Not only is this an example of yellowface, but the characters actual name in the film is “The Yellow Man”. This stereotype of yellow skin, squinty eyes, and exotic clothing is one theme that is continuously played on by Hollywood which will be illustrated by some of the following films.

 

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Charlie Chan is a character that was developed by an author named Earl Derr Biggers. At first the character was strictly in novels, but over time he was introduced to roles in movies. The above image shows the character Charlie Chan who is played by Warner Oland. Prior to Oland’s casting, Chan was a minor role played by Asian actors; however, it wasn’t until Oland’s casting that the Charlie Chan’s character got any real success. This example spotlights two things. The first is that the initial roles given to Asian actors to play Charlie Chan were extremely minor. This is one trend that continues in modern Hollywood. A UCLA study found that despite Asians making up a more than 5% of the American population, only 3.1% of the roles are casted by Asians. This underrepresentation is only furthered by Hollywood’s tendency to replace Asian roles through yellowface and whitewashing.

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Mr. Moto is a fictional character depicting a Japanese agent. In the film his character is characterized as small, delicate, and fragile. This characterization of Agent Moto is not uncommon and still proliferated in modern media. One issue surrounding Asian men from playing roles that are coded as masculine is the fact that Hollywood has emasculated the Asian man body for decades. This emasculation has led to Hollywood choosing to cast a more likable white male to play a masculine role, rather than casting the an Asian man who is largely seen in society as unattractive and traditionally “feminine”.

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One of the most infamous portrayals of yellowface is perpetrated in a film titled Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I. Y. Yunioshi is cast by a white man named Mickey Rooney. In the opening scene that shows I. Y. Yunioshi he is seen with very yellow skin, extremely squinty eyes, and displayed for comedic relief. The joke in that scene is that his eyes are so small that he trips and falls all over the place trying to fulfill basic tasks. In the early 1960’s during the film’s release Breakfast at Tiffany’s got decent reviews without much criticism. However, attitudes soon changed later in the 1960’s. The depiction of this Asian male character push racist views on the Asian body and furthered the emasculation of the Asian man. This repeated representation of the Asian man leads to directors and companies opting for white actors rather than Asians. In other words, the roles that Asian men can play are extremely limited.

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Fast forward to Early 2000’s and you have Tom Cruise turning into the Last Samurai. Despite Samurai being Japanese warriors, Hollywood reimagined a white actor to play the last “Samurai”. This whitewashing of Japanese samurai differs from the yellowface portrayals of the past; however, the causes of these casting choices are similar. Much like the Charlie Chan example, Hollywood perceives white actors as being more economically beneficial to cast compared to Asian actors. A main reason this may persist is the negative emasculating history of Asian men in cinema. Over time these stereotypes have made it so that Asian men are perceived as generally less capable at bringing in box office numbers.

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Another example of whitewashing is in Dragon Ball Evolution. In this film Goku, a beloved Japanese anime hero is played by a white actor; however, unlike older films that employed whitewashing casting choices, this film suffered due to the casting. According to IMBD the film has a 2.6/10 rating. At this time many young asian Americans such as Kevjumba took to the internet to call out this extremely visible of Hollywood whitewashing an Asian male lead role. In a video titled “Asians Aren’t Cool Enough” he talks about how important representation is for young Asian Americans, and points out many of the stereotypes such as Asians being coded as feminine or sexually inactive.

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The last example of whitewashing is just three years old. In a film titled “The Great Wall” the main male protagonist played by Matt Damon depicts a white hero instead of an Asian male despite the setting of the story. The title is an illusion to China’s Great Wall, and the casting choice for the film only furthers the notion that Asian men cannot perform masculine, hero-like roles in Hollywood cinema.

In conclusion, replacing roles meant for Asian men with white actors is not only historical, but also an ongoing issue within Hollywood when it comes to representation. To this day studios believe that audiences want white actors to play these role, but more importantly studios believe white actors sell tickets. This idea of white actors playing Asian characters with more success is as old as Charlie Chan, but enforced by stereotypes such as being sexually unattractive, fragile, emasculated, and traditionally feminine as detailed in this essay.
Sources:

Andrist, Lester. “ What Is Whitewashing and Why Does It Matter?” Thesociologicalcinema, 22 Feb. 2015, http://www.thesociologicalcinema.com/blog/what-is-whitewashing.

Editors, History.com. “Samurai and Bushido.” History.con, A&E Television Networks, 8 Mar. 2019, http://www.history.com/topics/japan/samurai-and-bushido.

Fang, Jenn. “Yellowface, Whitewashing, and the History of White People Playing Asian Characters.” Teen Vogue, 8 Aug. 2018, http://www.teenvogue.com/story/yellowface-whitewashing-history.

Hunt, Darnell, et al. Hollywood Diversityy Report . 2018, pp. 2–5, Hollywood Diversityy Report.

Nishime, LeiLani. “Whitewashing Yellow Futures in Ex Machina, Cloud Atlas, and Advantageous: Gender, Labor, and Technology in Sci-fi Film.” Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 20 no. 1, 2017, pp. 29-49. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jaas.2017.0003
Morgan, Thad. “Casting White People in Asian Roles Goes Back Centuries.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, http://www.history.com/news/yellowface-whitewashing-in-film-america.

 

 

 

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