Yellow Face and Orientalism in the Media: Controlling What it Means to be Asian
[Inspired by my Amplify associate, Karachi, and her post on Blackface, Slurs and Appropriation]
Yellow Face isn’t just the mere inauthenticity and a failure of aesthetics of white people dressing up, wearing make up, trying to be Asian, and/or playing the roles of Asians. No, it’s definitely more insidious and problematic than that. It is systematic racism and discrimination, refusing to hire Asians or forcing them to play as villains, or when they receive a major role, it is typically a stereotypical one (i.e., martial arts, ‘wise man’, ‘dragon lady’, etc). It simulates a crude idea of what ‘Asians’ look like, all the while perpetuating terrible stereotypes, controlling what it means to be Asian whether it’s in person, on the stage, or on screen.
Orientalism: It’s a dichotomy created by the ‘West,’ it builds a view of the ‘East’ along with many elements of this culture that becomes obscured and exotic. Making a whole group of people seen as something monolithic, creating an erasure of actual identities.
I’m not even going to try to bother with getting too in-depth about the obvious cultural appropriation, ethnocentrism, and orientalism (not too much at least). I’m not going to go into Yellow Face on stage, in whitewashing (too much), in Europe, nor will I take the time to go through political caricatures of Asians throughout history. [Not that it’s less important or there’s a lack of evidence.] These following examples and history checks should do enough for now in getting my point across. (Please find a friend in Google if you really want to educate yourself though! Thank you!)
So, why did Yellowface occur? Was there a shortage of Asian people to play these Asian roles during the times this practice was most rampant (19th and 20th century)?
Meet Sessue Hayakawa (Born 1889-Death 1973), the first Asian American leading actor. He was one of the highest paid actors of his time. His talents were definitely recognized by Paramount Pictures and was even considered a sex icon. But despite all of this, he still met discrimination and racism everywhere he went. He was always forced to either play “the exotic villain” or “the exotic lover.” He waited for his turn to be casted as a hero of color, but it never came.
This is Anna May Wong (1905-1961). During the 1920s-1930s, Anna was given many different roles as a contracted Paramount Pictures actress, but they were always either as a “dragon lady” or a “butterfly lady.” Despite all of that, she was still a household name and was considered a fashion icon.
She was the top contender for the leading role of O-Lan, a Chinese heroine for the movie The Good Earth (1937) by MGM, but that role was later given to Luise Rainer (definitely not Asian). MGM went to her and tried to give her another role for a film called Lotus, but it meant that she had to be the villain again, so she turned it down and left for Europe for more opportunities and eventually went back to Paramount Pictures.
Say hello to Philip Ahn (1905-1973). For the film, Anything Goes, Ahn was initially rejected by the director, Lewis Milestone, because—I shit you not, he said this to Philip Ahn—he thought Philip’s “English was too good for the part.” During World War II, Philip Ahn was often forced to play roles of Japanese villains. He even received death threats because people thought he was actually Japanese.
Other Asian actors/actresses: Barbara Jean Wong, Fely Franquelli, Benson Fong, Chester Gan, Honorable Wu, Kam Tong, Keye Luke, Layne Tom Jr., Maurice Liu, Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, Lotus Long, Rudy Robles, Suzanna Kim, Teru Shimada, Willie Fung, Victor Sen Yung, Toshia Mori and Wing Foo.
Merle Oberon can also be added to the list, although she was part white/part Asian. She had to lie about her origins and applied whitening make up to pass as fully white. Other Asian actors and actresses: Jack Soo, Pat Morita, Mako, Bruce Lee, Lucy Liu, Margaret Cho, B.D. Wong, Amy Hill, Jennie Kwan, Masi Oka, James Lee, Ming Na, Daniel Dae Kim, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Charlyne Yi, Miyoshi Umeki, Shin Koyamada, John Cho, Brenda Song, and George Takei. Click on this link to see a hundred more.
After going through the list, ask yourself why the majority of the actors and actresses here are either in some martial arts movies or some other stereotypical crap?
TL;DR this section: There definitely wasn’t a shortage of Asian American actors and actresses. And there still isn’t.
Very Few Examples (of Very Many) of Yellowface in History:
Nil Ashter as General Yen from The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
What Nils Ashter really looked like:
Harold Huber as Ito Takimura in Little Tokyo, USA (1942)
Interestingly enough, everyone who was a “bad guy” in this was portrayed as Japanese. Even more interesting, this was around the same time Japanese Internment Camps were happening.
What Harold Huber really looked like:
Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan in in Dragon Seed (1944)
Katharine Hepburn just a few years after Dragon Seed:
Jennifer Jones as Dr. Han Suyin in Love is a Many Splendored-Thing (1955)
Another interesting concept found in this movie. “BEING WITH ASIAN WOMEN IS SO HOT AND EXOTIC. LET’S FETISHIZE THE SHIT OUT OF THEM.” Yup.
What Jennifer Jones actually looks like:
John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956)
John Wayne, y’all:
Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Mickey Rooney at that time:
Joel Grey as Chiun (Kung Fu Master, everyone—on the left) in Remo Williams (1985)
What Joel Grey really looked like:
Other cases I haven’t really taken the time to cover: Charlie Chan Series (Actors who played as Charlie Chan from 1931-1981: Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Peter Ustinov) Fu Manchu, Madame Butterfly, The Teahouse of the August Moon, Shanghai Express, The Manchurian Candidate, Sayonara, Mr. Moto Series, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Short Circuit (1986 & 1988), The Party, Gunga Din, Broken Blossoms, The Year of Living Dangerously, etc.
I mean, I guess you could say, “But those movies were decades ago!”
Alex Borstein as Ms. Swan.
Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu (2007)
(Other actors who played the role of Fu Manchu starting from the 1920s up ‘til now: H. Agar Lyons, Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, Harry Brannon, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers)
Christopher Walken as Feng (2007)
Rob Schneider as Asian Minister in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007)
M. Night’s The Last Airbender (2010)
Well, the show was based on Asian and Inuit culture. But just look at the casting. The three protagonists are all light skinned while Zuko (played by Dev Patel in the movie) is dark skinned, and by default in this movie, the bad guy. Someone please just remake this movie. Please.
British Actor, Jim Sturgess, (rocking bad eye prosthetics) playing as a Korean in Cloud Atlas (2012)
Like I said - I continue to refuse to support media businesses which overtly show you they’re totally about segregation era- hiring practices - because how much more obvious can it get than…
“We wanted an asian character, but we hired a white person, and even though we say it’s about acting chops MORE THAN APPEARANCE, we decided to dress them up to LOOK ASIAN, so in reality what we’re saying is we wanted someone who ‘looked asian’ but we were too damn racist to consider giving that money to an actual asian so instead we spent lots of money on make up and CGI to instead, so that tells you how much money we’re willing to drop to make sure we don’t accidentally give any Asian actors a paycheck.”
Why does it feel like network TV has unspoken rules for POC characters?
Here are some I kinda feel are out there for the past 4+ years:
- No more than half of the cast may contain POC
- These people may only exist as a support for the storylines of their white peers. Any spotlight on their characters must be a very special episode or hastily conclusion to a story arc that barely gets any attention
- The home life and family of POC are almost completely non-existent
- Family members may be cobbled together from mismatch ethnicities and nationalities without protest
- If POC characters are anything but submissive, stand up for their mistreatment or defy stereotypes, they will be demonized by fandom (fandom in general can be a bitch for POC actors) and their actors with receive hate mail.
- The writing staff must have less diversity than the actual cast. Many cultural mannerisms seem to present themselves either from thin air or prevailing stereotypes rather than actual research or even asking the actor involved
- The world that the POC live in must either be Kumbayahville where everyone pretends that there is no racial tension or that race-based incidents don’t happen or a metaphysical war-zone where racial jokes are lobbed at them nearly ever possibility with no reaction.
- Traits that other characters have automatically become negative when a POC has them. Confidence becomes bitchiness. Headstrong leadership is arrogance. Sexiness or sex-positivity opens the door for slut-shaming. Intelligence has to be know-it-all behavior. Any display of anger must be linked to militant demeanor or savagery even when completely justified.
- Under no circumstances must race ever be addressed with any kind of gravity, just passing jokes.
"television taught me to see “white” as simply the default for “human.”"
I swear, people on tumblr find the dumbest stuff to whine about
I see so many of you bitching about the cast of The Hunger Games, not because they don’t fit the characters, but because there are not enough POC in it for you.
Sigh. I can already tell how shitty this rant is going to be.Let me ask you something, when you were reading the novels, how many of you actually pictured characters OTHER than the district 11 tributes as POC? Because with the exception of Rue, Thresh, and Cinna in the first novel, & The other people in/from District 11, I imagined them all as white…possibly Asian.
Well, thanks for informing us from the start that you consider characters to be white until they’re mentioned as PoC. That will make things much easier! Fellow white person, you are benefiting from white privilege. This allows you to go blissfully unaware of the fact that characters who aren’t described explicitly as PoC might actually not be white. This allows you to ignore the many races of people in America, and sum up race demographics in Panem as there being Black people in District 11, and maybe, possibly Asian people somewhere else. That’s not only problematic, it’s just incorrect. A quick look into race demographicss in North America (and yes, Panem is ALL of North America!) will show that Panem should be approximately 50% people of color. This includes Black people, Latin@ people, Asian people, Native American people, Middle Eastern people, etc. You are blatantly ignoring the racial demographics of North America so you can keep your racist idea of Panem. That’s wrong.Because MOST of them were actually described that way. That doesn’t make me racist. I would have had no issues if there WERE more POC in the cast. I’m not one of those people who threw a fit when Rue was cast as an African American girl, because that was how I imagined her to begin with. But most of the characters came off as white to me. Also let’s think about the fact that Suzanne Collins actively participated in the casting of the movie. If she had meant one of the characters to be POC, don’t you think she would have stepped in and done something about it?
Uh, no, they weren’t described as white. Apart from Peeta, Katniss’ mom, and the rest of the Merchant class, and Glimmer NO ONE in the Hunger Games is described as white. Yes, that’s right, no one. So yes, you imagining everyone else as white (despite race demographics that show otherwise) is racist. There’s really no getting around that fact. When we benefit from white privilege, it’s easy for us to ignore things we might be doing that could be racist. I hope you will realize that just because you (or any other white person, including me) says that they’re not doing something racist - doesn’t make it so.
And no, no I don’t think she would have stepped in and done something about it. Authors often get pressured to accept things they might not agree with.What’s even more frustrating is people talking about how they think Katniss, Gale, or Peeta should have been POC. Guys. Katniss and Gale are both described as olive skinned, with blue/gray eyes and dark hair. OLIVE SKIN DOES NOT MEAN BLACK OR MULATTO. The people who are most often described as Olive skinned are Italians and Greeks. I should know, my family is Italian. It’s naturally LIGHT brown with a hint of yellow sometimes. But the problem with that is Italians typically have dark eyes. Not to mention the fact that Peeta has blonde hair and was supposed to have blue eyes. Aside from Josh’s brown eyes, all 3 characters are exactly as described in the book.
Sigh, you’re showing more and more of your racist self as this goes on. No one is saying that Peeta is a PoC. Katniss and Gale are not only olive skinned (and they have GREY eyes, not blue), but they also experience racism based on the color of their skin. There is a racial dynamic in the Hunger Games, and it’s not our fault you didn’t catch it.
Olive-skinned is actually used more often for people of color than it is for Italian people. I am also part-Italian, but I recognize that the term “olive-skinned” is often applied to people of color.
“It’s naturally LIGHT brown with a hint of yellow sometimes” > Now you’re just being outright racist. Olive-skinned is definitely not exclusively reserved for light-skinned people.
Also, mulatto is often considered an offensive term: http://parlourmagazine.com/2010/09/mulatto-racial-slur-or-socially-exceptable/The only person I have seen so far in casting that I don’t agree with is Sam Claflin, and that is because I don’t find him nearly attractive enough for Finnick.
Seriously people. Stop fucking whining. Don’t agree with the cast? Don’t watch the fucking movie then. I don’t see any people of color in TMI at all and yet, THAT fandom isn’t throwing a bitchfit about it.
No. No we won’t stop “whining.”
Look followers, someone was being casually racist about the Hunger Games and this lovely white person (katnissisnotoliveskinneddealwithit) corrected the fuck out of them. Now that’s what I’d call collecting.
They do an amazing job of that. I’m really really glad I chose to follow them. Excellent takedown of the bullshit the OP spewed.
I don’t get it. Y’all tell us that if we want representation so badly, then do it ourselves. But when we do, you whitewash, ignore the fact that they’re actually black because you can’t stand that they don’t look like you, and hate when we tell you to shut up, stop whitewashing, and let us have this one thing that’s not about you.
Every thing I write, every novel, every short story, every joke-filled crackfic that I write on a cabin dare has at least one strong, black, female protagonist. No, I am not always writing myself. No, I do not need to learn to write a different type. I’m actually tired of reading books where the lead doesn’t look like me, or my cousins. People tell me all the time, “If y’all want representation in media, then make it yourself.”
So I do. And I just love it when I write a black, female protagonist who isn’t pregnant, drug-addicted, or any other stereotype and people assume:
- I’m writing myself.
- She’s white.
- She’s unrealistic.
And they get mad when I respond with:
- Nope. Go on somewhere with that nonsense.
- Not everyone is white, and I told you otherwise several times over the course of the story and occasionally multiple times in the chapter. You either have no mastery of reading comprehension, or no clue that ebony is a color, referring to dark brown or black, in reference to the dark wood of the ebony tree (think piano keys). You also probably have no idea what onyx is either. I’d be surprised if you were aware of the existence of anything but pearls and snow. Piss off.
- You’re sheltered and perpetuating stereotypes. Fuck yourself.
And feel the need to say:
- You’re mean.
- YOU HATE WHITE PEOPLE.
- I AM NOT. It’s just how black people USUALLY ARE you bad mean awful person.
And get reoffended when I say:
- I don’t have to be nice to you. Fuck yourself.
- Have you met my fiance? And his brother, whom I offered to allow a large, homophobic racist to come to my house and fight me over? And his parents? Yes, I clearly hate white people. Please choke.
- NOnononoshuttheFUCKup. No one asked you to tell me how black people act. I am one. We have a wide range of personalities. Eat a dick.
Eventually the conversation devolves to:
- You’re still mean. This is why no one likes black people.
- I don’t care! Your protagonist is not white and you called me an idiot and told me to choke! You hate white people! Why do you hate white people? Why are you so mad that no one wants to see you in media? It’s just how things are! You guys have black people TV that doesn’t have us in it and I don’t think that’s fair! I’m underrepresented to as a white cis female!
- You do not. You’re a really bad credit to your race, and I don’t believe you. Why do you people want representation anyway? Why do you need it? It’s not like anyone wants to see you anyway.
And by that point the only thing I feel obligated to tell you is
- Yeah yeah, no one has to be nice to your uncreative ass. Get the fuck out of my space.
- Get the fuck out of my space. Seriously. Out.
- Why are you in my space? Shoo.
So I’m gonna need white people to make up their mind, because y’all are contradictory as fuck, and y’all are predictable, and I’m tired of dealing with y’all’s predictable, contradictory asses.
i really just wish white people in general would stop being so fucking ignorant and realize that when someone says “hey this is problematic” they’re not saying you can’t like it, it’s terrible, they’re saying, hey, this is a critique, a thing that maybe could have been done better.
and also, guys, when it comes to kids movies it’s really awesome to see diversity. kids look for themselves in shit. it hurts when they don’t see themselves in shit, and that’s not fair.
they’re not asking that you have a movie about scotland wherein everyone is black. they’re saying it wouldn’t be hard to include a decent poc character or two in a film. it would be historically accurate AND would be a good message for children, who need things like that.
it’s sort of gross how poc are expected to be happy with like, nothing or a minor background character or a stereotype.
if that shit happened to blonde haired, blue eyed people, well, you know America would be seriously butthurt over it.
just… just think. fucking think. it’s not that it isn’t okay to tell a story about a white family. it’s the expectation that only a white family’s story will have mass appeal.
just think on that.
because it’s depressing and heartbreaking and it makes me angry.
And as to the bold, here is a blog post about like shit that’s problematic.
How Lavender Brown Became White
Any Harry Potter fans out there?
Well, I am a HUGE fan. First off, let me say I am very happy about the diversity of the HP films, I really do appreciate it, but something has got me bothered.
In case you don’t know, Lavender was originally black. In both the Chamber of Secrets and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Here are the two original actresses:
Kathleen Cauley (Chamber of Secrets)
Jennifer Smith (Prisoner of Azkaban)
Proof can be found on IMBD.Com, Wikipedia.com and Harry Potter Wiki.
But some how… we went from these two actresses to this:
Now don’t get me wrong. She did a wonderful job as Lavender. But, in the interest of continuity, why did she become white. And it begs to ask: what hell would have been raised if they had cast a black actress as Lavender in the Half Blood Prince?
Testimony by ARNAB BANERJI (www.asaap.ca)
About the Project:
“Colour Me Queer” is an community-based photography project conceptualized by prominent Queer activist and Photographer Arnab Banerji with stories from queer-identified community models. Organized in partnership with ASAAP, this project recognizes the role of pride, shame, self-esteem and body politics in how we negotiate sex and interact with partners. Personal stories of pride, resilience and love from South Asian queer-identified models are depicted through narrative and photographed by Arnab.
"Where is your ‘White literature’ section?"
Author, professor, and provocateur Amitava Kumar goes to several bookstores in New York City and asks this very specific (and much needed) question. What happened after asking is worth reading. (via mehreenkasana)
“Me love you long time” came into prominence with Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” (from 1987) as a Vietnamese prostitute tries to pick up Matthew Modine’s character with broken English. The phrase was then popularly picked up by 2 Live Crew in the song “Me So Horny.”
“It’s so many different kinds of slurs in one,” comedian Margaret Cho said. “It’s instantly putting you in the position of being a foreigner, an outsider and a sexual stereotype. It’s an all-in-one combo.”
~naturallaw for yahoo questions
The popularization by Mariah Carey’s ‘Love You Long Time,’ Fergie’s ‘London Bridge,’ and Nicki Minaj’s ““Muahhhh me love you long time like I’m asian” demonstrates how this exotification of Asian/A.American women is constantly recycled in the media, perpetuated by celebrities to obtain the hyper-sexualized image needed to make it big, especially if you ain’t got the talent.
I would get started on Nicki’s whole hyper-sexualized, Japanese dolled up shit, but racialious says it best. Well researched: here http://www.racialicious.com/2010/11/01/the-orientalism-of-nicki-minaj/
You can degrade yourself, but no, my sisters and I will NOT love you long time.
I’m sure we’ve posted about this before, but it always bears repeating.
"I am a woman of colour with a deep – almost unhealthy – love of popular culture. It is a love that is sorely tested in the face of such prejudice when I am told, loudly and with few qualms, that the stories of people who look like me just aren’t viable in a specific universe. It is often explicitly stated by my co-fans that I am not – ever – what they picture when they read these books or hear about these movies. The language may be coded: “She’s not how I imagined” or, in the case of interracial couple Sam and Mercedes on TV’s Glee, slightly more explicit: “They don’t look right together, like, they don’t … fit.” But the message is clear. We get to be supporting characters – the redshirts – or the villains. But heroes? Um, no. That would make things too … ethnic."
Bim Adewunmi, in a moving editorial for The Guardian (UK)
So. Much. This.
“I don’t understand how any of the characters can be “Asian” or “African” or “Native American.” They come from a different world. there is no Asia, Africa, or America.”
There’s no Europe either, yo.
If you don’t think there should be a fat, ugly, or gay princess you don’t really understand what Disney is all about. It’s about inspiring all people to love themselves and reach for their dreams, not about traditional values and good looks.”
you clearly don’t understand what Disney is about.
it’s a children’s entertainment company that teaches good morals.
Y’all gay people, fat people, ugly people don’t have good morals! We need to protect the children from them because only straight mostly white skinny princesses can teach good morals! The rest of you need to be hidden from society because you teach kids to be bad!
Right, so that racist ass depictions that Disney has had TOTALLY means that they push good morals. Peter Pan and it’s racist ass monolithic depictions of Native Americans, The RACIST AS FUCK pickaninny Sunflower the Centaur from Fantasia, The Song of the South? All in good moralistic fun, huh???? Quit PLAYIN.
^ reblogging for commentary by sourcedumal and feministslut.