Hollywood Whitewashing & the Lack of Asian Roles

Last month had our first look at Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange... and something is missing.

When Dreamworks and Paramount debuted the first image of Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell last month, it viscerally reconfirmed the continued erasure of Asian roles within Hollywood films. And this familiar pang came within less than a week of Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One serving as the central linchpin of the new Doctor Strange trailer—a role that is traditionally associated with a Tibetan man in the comics, from stories that Ms. Swinton appears not to have read. Both castings only add more fuel to a controversial fire that has long burned.

Indeed, the internet is ablaze in a slew of tweets, and the photograph of Scarlett Johansson in her role as Major Kusanagi helps visualize the reduction of race to a hairstyle, rather than a culture. While writers, poets, performers, and filmmakers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine, Ava DuVernay, and even Beyoncé with her most recent release of “Lemonade” have helped propel conversations on race to the fore of our political and social discourse, Asian and Asian American artists are entering this conversation too as they still remain virtually invisible on our screens.

Ben Child credits this “dubious tradition” of white actors playing Asians as “[runing] all the way back to 1956 epic The Conqueror, in which John Wayne starred as a suspiciously Midwestern-accented Genghis Khan, and 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with a bucktoothed Mickey Rooney as the shamefully offensive Japanese caricature I.Y. Yunioshi.” And yet, how do we make sense of this whitewashing when actors and actresses through the past decades, including Kyōko Kishida, Rinko Kikuchi, Toshiro Mifune, Eiji Okada, and Takashi Shimura from Japan, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung from Hong Kong, Mindy Kaling, AzizAnsari, Lucy Liu, and Ken Jeong in America, Michelle Yeoh from Malaysia, Zhang Ziyi from Beijing, Ok-bin Kim from Korea, FreidaPinto, Shefali Shah, and Aamir Khan from Mumbai, Tang Wei from Wenzhou, Zhao Tao from Taiyuan, Gong Li from Shenyang, and Natthakarn Aphaiwong from Thailand, etc. have made us laugh, cry, gasp, and amaze at the power and punch of their performances? The truth is that this small handful is only a sample of the various Asian and Asian American thespians throughout cinema’s historywho have never been given full opportunities.

In his searing New York Times Op-Ed, Keith Chow notes, “The filmmakers fall back on the same tired arguments. Often, they insist that movies with minorities in lead roles are gambles.” The guise of this logic leads to the upsetting question that, “If Asian Americans — and other minority actors more broadly — are not even allowed to be in a movie, how can they build the necessary box office clout in the first place?” With Hollywood denying actors of color the opportunity to merely attempt building marketability and likeability among audiences, this narrative becomes a modern day retelling of Sisyphus – Sisyphus repeatedly pushes the boulder up the hill, but ultimately goes nowhere.

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Earlier in the year, the Academy Awards came under fire due to the trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Actors and directors such as Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee boycotted the ceremony (or at least refused to be seen there), underscoring that the chosen nominees’ lack of diversity in 2016 was deplorable, especially as no actors of color were nominated for the second consecutive year.

Actor, comedian, and activist Chris Rock served as host. Yet, even he delivered a weak (and weathered) joke about Asian children already being accountants, ending with the faulty ‘punchline,’ “If anyone’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.” Rather than deepen the conversation on diversity, Rock fell back on tired stereotypes, receiving tepid laughs.

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As Tony Tulathimutte wrote for Vice on March 1, “No one really believes those comedians harbor any real malice for Asians or Latinos, and surely the main reason they’re reaching for this material is to deliver a little shock with their punchlines, but their intent isn’t the point. The point is that there’s hardly any media representation for Asians, Latinos, and other non-black minorities except in the form of these insipid comic tropes; it’s hard to take jokes when we’re never taken seriously.” It comes as no surprise then that Hollywood continues to generate criticism for whitewashing not just its awards ceremonies, but its films and television shows as well.

Mainstream television, such as How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls, capitalizes on racial stereotypes for the sake of their stock laugh tracks. How I Met Your Mother received flack a couple years ago when white actors donned yellow face (and lest we think black or yellow face is a thing of the past, let’s not forget the uproar over Zoe Saldana in black face as the titular role in Nina this year).

In 2 Broke Girls, Han (played by Matthew Moy) has been the butt of jokes like, “You can’t tell an Asian he made a mistake, he’ll go in the back and throw himself on a sword.” When co-creator Michael Patrick King (also creator of HBO’s Sex and the City show) said he didn’t find Han’s portrayal offensive, a reporter challenged him by asking, “’Does being a part of one traditionally disenfranchised group give you carte blanche to make fun of other traditionally disenfranchised groups?’” As the social mores of elementary school remind us, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Wendy Chin-Tanner’s thoughtful, meticulously researched article in xoJane notes, “The cultural discourses that underlie, normalize, and enable so much casual racism against Asians include everything from The Exclusion Act to Japanese Internment to Yellow Face to the back-breaking soul-killing labor performed by countless Asian immigrants to the playground ching-chong taunts that most Asian Americans have encountered as children.” It is exactly this kind of “casual racism” that Chin-Tanner draws a connective line to with what we see and hear on television and in film.

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Danny Leiner’s comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), while crass, opens in an office of seemingly all white executives. Primed, as we have been by so many Hollywood bro-mances before, to expect that our heroes are one of these blond frat brothers, the camera steadily tracks to Harold (played by John Cho) mired by work on a Friday afternoon. Leiner leads us to a character who is often overlooked in comedies of the Will Ferrell or the Seth Rogen ilk, inverting our racial expectations of who our protagonist will be or look like.

And Leiner further inverts the stereotype of Harold as nothing more than a hard working Asian when Harold’s best friend Kumar (played by Kal Penn) instigates an adventure to the elusive White Castle. Harold, though initially resistant, succumbs to his desire for the cheap and delicious burgers, and all hell breaks loose as hilarity and havoc ensues. This is one of relatively few examples in mainstream cinema when racial stereotypes are explicitly addressed, while simultaneously subverted.

But how can we learn to talk about this erasure and absence with the limited representations of Asian actors on screen? In his review of The Walking Dead season 6, Se Young Kim suggests there is even an absence in discourse regarding Glenn’s race (as the only Asian character) on AMC’s much lauded show. While there is an emotional and narrative involvement with Glenn’s character, as evidenced by the abundance of internet buzz prior to episode “Head’s Up” premiere, “Little is said about one of the only male Asian-American characters on mainstream television, one who is sexualized through a prominent interracial relationship with a white woman.” And yet, audience’s fierce reaction to whether Glenn lives or dies seems to directly challenge assertions that minorities are economic “gambles” for studios. More than a temporal investment due to the countless hours spent watching Glenn’s character develop, there is also an emotional distress felt by all audiences for this character.

Recently during this spring, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop announced its 2016 Open City and Margins Fellows, including, but not limited to Jai Dulani, Thanu Yakupitiyage, Jen Hyde, and The New Yorker editorial staff member Wei Tchou; acclaimed novelist Alexandra Kleeman went on tour for her incredibly weird and wonderful debut You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine; VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts drew attention to racial erasure, including Lisa Lee’s “Racial Invisibility and Erasure in the Writing Workshop;” Olivia Park and Esther Fan at Rhode Island School of Design started the Sad Asian Girls Club, “a collective of Asian American girls aiming to break the culture of passiveness and silence through discussions of racism and feminism, providing more representation for Asian girls of all types and backgrounds around the world;” and writers like the aforementioned ones in this article are shining a much-needed light on issues of identity, representation, and social-political relationships in Hollywood.

The talent is unequivocally on our bookshelves, in our classrooms, on the web, and across our screens—so why does Hollywood literally erase that talent from our purview?

While Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are undeniably gifted actresses, the issue here is not one of talent, but one of representation. There are obviously equally qualified Asian actresses working in and outside of Hollywood. But to revise Asian stories and narratives so that only white actors portray these characters is to deny an entire culture and gamut of talent that currently exists. This paucity of Asian diversity in our current media will only perpetuate the stereotypes that John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, and Chris Rock furthered—whether in the roles they play or the jokes they tell.

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