Dear Hollywood: Asians exist too

As a kid, I had one role model in the media: Mulan, for obvious reasons. I looked like her, had sassy relatives (I see so many commonalities between my great-aunt and Grandma Fa I could write an entire article about them alone), and most of all, we were both Chinese. I didn’t realize at the time that the only reason why she was my role model was because I had very few other options. Now that I’m older—with an identity deeply rooted in being Asian American—the ugly truth of yellowface, white-washing, and misrepresentation are issues that I am both saddened and frustrated by. So here we go: a very brief history of of all three, with reasons as to why they are all complete and utter garbage.

In case you readers don’t know, “yellowface” is when Asian characters are portrayed predominantly by white actors who often change their looks with makeup to approximate East Asian facial characteristics. The earliest example of yellowface took place in 1915 before the Civil Rights movement. Mary Pickford was cast as Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly, and most of the film’s leading cast wore makeup to portray Asian characters. Now yes, the period before the Civil Rights movement was a bad time for essentially all minorities. This was not isolated to Asian roles, but I wanted to emphasize that yellowface is not a new phenomenon.

Probably the most famous case of yellowface occurs in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Mickey Rooney plays Mr. Yunioshi. In his role, he wore fake buck-teeth and makeup so heavy his features were basically unrecognizable. He’s portrayed as a buck-toothed nerd, nearly blind and fumbling around in his apartment speaking in barely intelligible, heavily-accented broken English. But if this role had been played by an Asian actor, it would have been ridiculous. They would have had to mock features of themselves that they have no control over and epitomize stereotypes that they do not agree nor identify with. Having a white actor play the role adds insult to injury. It mocks, stereotypes, and caricatures an entire population of people.

You would think that in the 21st century, this problem would be a thing of the past. No. In the 2012 film Cloud Atlas, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy, and Keith David all apply slant-eyed, yellow-toned makeup to portray Asian characters in their Neo-Seoul story. The Last Airbender was a travesty I don’t have the energy to go into. In Pacific Rim (2013), Clifton Collin Jr. played Tendo Choi. Tendo is a Japanese name, Choi is Korean. Generalizing Asian populations, a topic on which I could write another entire article alone. In Aloha (2015), Emma Stone plays Chinese-Hawaiian Alison Ng. The examples I listed are only a few of the many cases where white actors play Asian characters in Hollywood films from the our century.

It’s 2016. You would think that this problem would have gone away as our society has become more aware. It hasn’t. Scarlett Johansson was cast in Ghost in the Shell to play Major Kusanagi, a Japanese cyborg policewoman. Tilda Swinton has been cast in Doctor Strange to play the “Ancient One,” who is a Tibetan mystic in the comics. They decided to shave her head and put her in flowing Asian garments to epitomize the character. Disney’s live action remake of Mulan didn’t even send out a global casting call for Chinese actresses until a petition pleading for a Chinese actress garnered over 100,000 signatures online. I thought it would be common sense to cast a Chinese actress for a movie containing only Chinese characters. Evidently it isn’t.

Hollywood, did you really think we wouldn’t notice? Did you really think that putting on some makeup to make eyes smaller, skin darker, and some contacts to make eyes brown would escape our scrutiny? What we have are features and shades we are born with, not #40 foundation and an Acuve subscription.

Why is it so difficult for Hollywood to cast Asian actors and actresses in Asian roles? Better yet, why don’t Asians get more roles? In 2013, Asian Americans constituted 6.0 percent of the U.S. population, yet only made up 4.4 percent of speaking characters in Hollywood films. These are not lead roles, these are not supporting roles, these are characters that speak, even if it’s just an extra whose only role in the film is to say “hi.” I challenge you to think of a Hollywood movie with a complex, well-developed Asian lead character. I’m willing to bet money you can’t think of one off the top of your head.

On the rare occasion that Asians are represented in the media, we’re are often so heavily stereotyped that we would prefer to not be there at all. Indian men work in IT, accent imperative. Far-East Asian men are either the quiet and weak nerd in the corner or the emotionless, strict, Kung-Fu master. Asian women in general are portrayed as either a submissive, useless virgin only there for the male character’s sexual gratification, or a dragon lady who is catty and overbearing.

We are more than that. Yes, we are the mathematicians, engineers, researchers, professors, teachers, and every other nerdy occupation associated with us. But we are also comedians, actors, actresses, dancers, authors, and every other career in the world, because we are not restricted to one field. We have opinions and roles that matter, even though they’re treated like dust in today’s society. The most recent example of stereotyping was when The O’Reilly Factor’s Jesse Watters asking individuals in Chinatown, “Am I supposed to bow to say hello?” and “Is it the year of the Dragon?” He decided to use the most shallow, most stereotypical aspects of our culture to identify us with, and chose to interview helpless individuals who did not speak English to embody us as a whole. It is one thing to ask with the true intention of learning, it is another to do it for entertainment.

Another issue that Asians face in media is white-washing. In 2008, the movie 21 cast the white actors Jim Sturgess, Jacob Pitts, and Kevin Spacey in the lead roles. The film was based on a true story based on a group of mostly Asian-American students. In the 2015 movie Aloha, not only did Emma Stone, a blonde-haired, blue eyed girl, play a girl that was a quarter Chinese and a quarter Native Hawaiian, but the entire cast was white. The movie was set in Hawaii, where the population is over 70 percent non-white. In the upcoming film The Great Wall, Matt Damon and his group of travelers are swept in a battle with lizard monsters on the Great Wall of China. This is a film that takes place in China, with a Chinese director, with famous Chinese actors and actresses. And yet, with Hollywood writers, all of that still takes second place to the “white savior” trope played by Matt Damon, who is placed front and center.

Hollywood, by ignoring our ethnicities and cultures by casting white actors and actresses, you are taking our stories, our experiences, our culture and customs, and erasing them to fit into your monetary agenda.

Movies with yellowface and white-washing portray women like my mother, who was forced to leave her daughter behind in China to join her husband in America, as a generic woman undergoing homesickness and job-searching woes. It would not acknowledge that she struggled because of the language barrier and that her race was an inherent roadblock because of a history of Asian-American discrimination lingering from the Page Act of 1875 and earlier legislation. White-washing would not acknowledge that she was educated with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering and computer science, yet she could only secure jobs as a dishwasher and a nanny. She scrubbed dishes until her fingers bled and cared for other people’s children when her own child was crying out for her across the globe. She wrote tear-spattered letters home with cracked fingers, saying how much she missed her family, carrying lies about how wonderful the U.S. was.

The American Dream is beautiful indeed.

The struggles and racial prejudice that Asian women like my mother suffered through and most importantly, overcame, cannot be accurately portrayed by a white woman in makeup whose race steeps her in privilege. She never had to undergo, nor will she ever undergo, the same trials that many Asian women have faced. It is offensive; it is disrespectful; it gives Asian women nothing compared to the acknowledgement they deserve.

Whitewashing and misrepresentation does not only apply to Asians. Victims are widespread throughout Hispanics and Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, Arab and Turkish, Persian and North African, and the LGBTQIA community, just to name a few. We are minorities; we exist; we are growing. We are individuals with identities, backgrounds, and stories that should be shared, and shared correctly.

Hollywood says there isn’t a market for movies with minority leads. There is. It is us. It is the kids who want a strong character that they can identify with and look up to. It is the wrinkled faces in the audience who could go to see a movie that finally represents them accurately. It is the young people like me who want to see a movie that reflects the culture that we take pride in. In this global age, where Hollywood movies are played even in the most remote of places, it is more than half of the world’s population.

We’ve taken steps forward now that stars like Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, John Cho, George Takei, Arden Cho, Eugene Lee Yang, and Constance Wu have greater prominence in the media and advocate for Asians to assert their presence in movies, TV shows, and the internet. But we still have such a long way to go.

Hollywood, you have work to do.

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