Yellowface is a bad look, Hollywood
When someone like Scarlett Johansson is cast as the lead in an adaptation of a Japanese comic franchise, it’s important to understand that the ensuing anger isn’t just about that movie. And it’s not just about Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan character in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Or Emma Stone claiming to be part Chinese and Hawaiian in Aloha. “My dad was half-Chinese and half-Hawaiian, and my mother is Swedish.” It’s how all of these casting decisions combined, dating back to the earliest days of Hollywood, have made asians invisible at best, and at worst, the butt of a cruel joke. That’s why fans notice when the characters from the Last Airbender cartoon become much lighter-skinned for the live-action movie. And when John Rico goes from being Filipino in the novel Starship Troopers, to being played by someone named Casper Van Dien. “I want to try it again, but this time we need you to do an accent.” The fact is, things aren’t getting better fast enough for Asians in Hollywood. In 1944, Aline MacMahon was nominated for an Oscar for her yellowface role in Dragon Seed. Later on, Linda Hunt would win an Oscar for playing a Chinese man in The Year of Living Dangerously. “Billy Kwan” That was 1982. Almost 40 years later. Basically everything else in the country had changed except white people being cast as Asians. For a solid two decades, the Chinese detective character Charlie Chan was played by white men in makeup. But that was the 30s and 40s right? Well here’s Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving reincarnated as Koreans for parts of Cloud Atlas. “Who are you?” Everyone remembers Mickey Rooney’s infamous 1961 performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as just fully unacceptable and racist right? “Miss Golightly.” Well 24 years later, Joel Grey delivered this Korean caricature in Remo Williams. “I think I can do something with him.” And another 2 decades later, here’s Rob Schneider in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry “Now the rings are a symbol of eternity” Schneider is a quarter Filipino, so….progress? Or how about Peter Sellers’ 1968 role as a clueless Indian man at a dinner party? “You really crushed my old Indian hand.” A full 20 years later, Fisher Stevens was in brownface for Short Circuit 2. “It’s not possible. We are the type of people who…” And another 24 years after that, Ashton Kutcher is doing this in a Popchips commercial. I’m Raj. I’m a Bollywood producer. I’m looking for the most delicious thing on the planet.” Arguably worse than white people playing Asian characters is white people playing real life Asian humans, which is what happened to Cora Lijeck in Argo and to Jeffrey Ma, who appeared in the movie 21 as this character even though in real life he was this guy. “Ben Campbell was the most gifted student at MIT.” It’s not surprising that directors want to hire big names to attract producers and funding But when they want to do stories about Asians and won’t cast Asian actors, they should know the blowback against that has been building for the better part of a century “Sakini by name. Interpreter by profession.” One of the early examples of a white cast playing Asian characters was The Good Earth in 1937, based on the hugely popular novel by Pearl S. Buck. There was an Asian actress who wanted the lead part. Her name was Anna May Wong, and she was basically the only Chinese-American movie star at the time. One of the reasons that MGM reportedly snubbed her was that in the 30s and 40s Hollywood was censored by a moral code, and it prohibited things like nudity and profanity, but also interracial romance. So once they cast a white man to play Wang Lung, they couldn’t cast Wong to play his wife. The role went to a German-born actress named Louise Rainer, and she went on to win an Oscar for it.