Monday, March 26, 2012

I Hate Whitewashing

Rooney, you're an idiot.
And no, I'm not talking Tom Sawyer here...

It's unfortunate, but there's a specific term for the whitewashing of Asian roles in film. It's called "Yellowface." Since the dawn of cinema, yellowfacing is a practice that essentially has white people portraying Asian characters on the big screen. This is done through make up, prosthetics, and of course, acting very Asian. Well, whatever Asian stereotypes the director wants to emphasize.

The earliest form of yellowfacing I can personally remember is Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Yunioshi in the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany's. But the one that perplexed me the most was the TV show Kung Fu. David Carradine was supposed to be a Shaolin munk. Okay, so they said that Caine's character is the son of an American father and a Chinese mother, because it's okay to portray to the American public a character that is the result of a white man to impregnated an Asian woman. (Don't get me started on this double standard). But still. Geez.

What really pissed me off was Starship Troopers. When I read the book, it was clear that the main character was Filipino (like me). Not only was this one of the first great science fiction books that drew me to the genre, but the main character was finally someone I could culturally relate to. For many people, this is difficult to fully understand. But for someone like me who saw nothing but white people as heroes on TV, movies, and books, it was a big deal.

And when the 1997 movie came out, I was ticked off. They had cast a white dude in the role of Juan "Johnny" Rico.

More recently, you have to turn to M. Night Shymalanananadingdong's piece of shit The Last Airbender. This was such an ASIAN cartoon show, with strong ties to Asian and Inuit folklore. The story was so very much Asian. And M. Night Shymmeltoe goes and just whitewashes the fuck out of it. Seriously? A little white kid as Aang? Katara and Sokku are NOT white. What's going on here?

How about Dragonball Z. Not only was it a crappy movie, you have some white guy playing the part of Goku. What-the-what???

Oh, how about Seann William Scott (who will always be Steve Stiffler from American Pie to me) as the Tibetan character Kar in Bulletproof Monk? That's cray-cray.

Finally, you have Akira.  Akira is SO Japanese. It is the epitome of Japanese anime. Iconic. And Hollywood gets its crappy hands on the rights and wants to cast Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy), Justin Timberlake, or Joaquin Phoenix as Keneda? Are you kidding me?? This is a joke, right???

Why all of this whitewashing and yellofacing of Asian roles? The television exec. of the TV show Kung Fu, which was the brainchild of Bruce Lee, said that "If we put a yellow man up on the tube, the audience will turn the switch off in less than five minutes." Was he right?

And for those of you that believe we've come so far in 2012, you don't have to look too hard to see more whitewashing. Other than the abomination known as Akira, you've also got Mickey Rourke playing Genghis Khan coming up in 2013.

Just for the record, I don't have a problem with taking a movie that originated in Asia (i.e. The Ring), and Hollywood doing an American version of it. That's fine. But to take stories that are so inherently Asian and whitewashing it is my gripe.

You are NOT Filipino!
Do I have an issue with Samuel L. Jackson playing Nick Fury in all the Marvel movies (The Avengers)? Or how about casting a black actor to play one of the Nordic gods in Thor. Yeah, I kinda do. But not in the same way. There isn't a long and consistent tradition and history of casting black actors for "white" roles. But growing up, I knew Nick Fury was a white guy. And I know that Nordic gods are white too. So yeah, I don't like PC casting either.

But I would love for Hollywood to break out of all the Asian stereotypes it is promoting. The only Asian male leads in film are martial arts movies. Other than that, we're either geeky sidekicks or...hmmm. And Asian women are portrayed as sex objects. But only objects for white men.

I acknowledge that we have come far, but we have so much more to do.


35 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Akira is Japanese and should be played by Japanese actors. I'm with you on this one.
And casting Will Smith as the lead in Wild, Wild West? Never could figure out that one.

Tiyana, aka 'Yoyo' said...

True dat.

You know how I feel about the movie Troy... :P And though I love the Nickelodeon show "Avatar: The Last Airbender" to pieces, the so-called movie version is also guilty of whitewashing. As is Prince of Persia...

the weirdgirl said...

This is different because it's actually the opposite of whitewashing but that is kind of how I feel when I see some Latina roles portrayed. They are always SO LATINA! Sometimes celebration of culture just turns into stereotype.

But as frustrating as it is, I suppose it's better than seeing white people trying to ACT Hispanic.

Jay Noel said...

Alex: That's the issue, is that Akira is so incredibly Japanese. And Wild, Wild West had so much potential, as I love the steampunk genre. I think they cast Will Smith because of his star power. But for those of us who grew up with the show, it was weird.

TiyanaL Prince of Persia...where none of the principal characters were actually Middle Eastern. I know that the creator of the game (who is Middle Eastern) was upset.

WG: It's over the top Latina acting. I think people are just so comfortable with stereotypes. It's what we've come to expect.

Emily R. King said...

We do have a long way to yet to go! I hope Hollywood picks up on it soon.

The Desert Rocks said...

I just saw "Majority of One", a movie from the 60's and I was shocked at the horrific casting. Great movie though.

Matthew MacNish said...

This is fucked. There is no two ways about it. I mean I will say this: I would put up with a couple white actors in Akira. I can see the general, and some of the council members being considered white, based on the way they're drawn. But Kaneda? Tetsuo? No fucking way. It's Neo-TOKYO, Hollywood dumbasses.

Aren't they also rumored to be moving it to NYC? As sad as this makes me to say: if they do all that, I'm not watching it. And that's going to be hard, because Akira is my all time favorite animated film. Even above Princess Mononoke, and that's saying something.

David P. King said...

Nail on the head, Jay. Airbender, especially, was a disappointment for the ages. At least there's the new Legend of Korra series to help us fall in love with that world all over again. :)

M Pax said...

I would love to see more diversity too, Jay. I'm glad you decided to write more about this. I don't know why they think we can't handle ethnic people. It's very strange.

Cherie Reich said...

I'm right there with you on this. If a character is a particular ethnicity, I just don't see why they can't cast the part the way it should be. It just doesn't make sense to me, even though Hollywood and even publishers with book covers do it all the time.

Rusty Webb said...

I think it was one of the Bruce Lee biopics where I learned about his involvement with Kung Fu and being forced out of the role of Caine for Carradine. So stupid. That reminds me a bit of a Darnell Autry, an amazing, super human all american tailback for Northwestern back in the 90's. He went to Hollywood instead of pursing the NFL because he wanted to be an actor (well, kinda). He tried out for a role Any Given Sunday and was told that he wasn't 'believable' as a football player.

The point, Hollywood is retarded in some areas. When real money is on the line, they pay lip service to equality, but really, they are afraid to do anything that hasn't already been done. Until non white actors prove they can be a lead by carrying a movie in roles that don't require them to act 'ethnic' then they won't get those roles.

How anyone can prove they can be a lead, without ever getting to play a lead, is beyond me.

Kelley said...

I totally agree. Get with it Hollywood.

Jay Noel said...

Emily: I hope with people boycotting Airbender, it sends a strong message to Hollywood.

Eve: I only saw about half of that movie. I couldn't look at the actor playing the Japanese guy. Just looked ridiculous.

Matthew: Yeah, New York! I love NY, I'm from there. But still...keep it New Tokyo.

David: I got to watch the first episode of Legend of Korra. It was AWESOME!!!!!

Jay Noel said...

Mary: I think Hollywood is just so skittish. But take a movie like Slumdog Millionaire...the audience is more intelligent than they give us credit for.

Cherie: YES! I read all about the big hoopla with book covers. It boggles the mind.

Rusty: I think Hollywood thinks "believable" means whatever stereotype they've gotten in their heads.

Kelley: I believe it will change, but it will take some time and more hits to their wallets to get their attention.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Holy moley. I never gave this much thought, but you're absolutely right. Hollywood has a long history of doing this sort of thing, too. In the old westerns, the Indians were always played by white dudes. Earlier than THAT, black roles were played by whites in blackface. We've come a long way, but evidently we have a lot farther to go. I don't think the viewing public would have a problem with Asian roles being played by Asian actors. At least, I hope not. How ludicrous.

i'm erin. said...

Hollywood is always flubbing around with us brown peeps. I get that. it bugs. And I love you by the way!

Jay Noel said...

Susan: Right...it was so obvious that the Inidians were just white guys in brown face paint. It looked so ridiculous. That's why I was impressed with the Lone Ranger when they had an actual Native American play Tanto (Jay Silverheels).

Erin: I know, they should know better by now. We reply strongly with our wallets. Love you too!

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

It really needs to end. I too have been disgusted by whitewashing. Katniss basically got whitewashed in the Hunger Games adaptation. But there are lots of people out there who are racist in this country. I don't get it. Look at the outrage over Trayvon Martin. And they still don't arrest this guy.

Basically, the studios are catering to the racist people in America. I think that's why all of this whitewashing occurs. It takes a particularly strong director to say no to the impulse to white-wash something.

Jay Noel said...

Michael: When I first read The Hunger Games, I did picture her a little more ethnic. Maybe Creole. She did say her father was dark haired, dark skinned with grey eyes and mother was pale and blond hair, blue eyes.

Hollywood is a business, and if the people speak with their dollars (i.e. Airbender), we can make a pretty strong statement.

Cynthia said...

I hear what you're saying, Jay. Here's another example: The true story that the movie 21 was based on centered around Asian characters but unfortunately, the people in charge decided to make it a predominantly white cast.

Mr. Shife said...

Amen, Jay. Excellent post and also enlightening as I did not know a lot of the stuff you wrote about. Hopefully the winds of change will be blowing soon because it is ridiculous some of the decisions that the movie people make.

Lydia Kang said...

Preach it, Jay.

RPatz as Akira? You've got to be f***ing kidding me.

Ciara said...

I'd never heard that term. Although, I've heard a handful of people mention that Katniss from The Hunger Games was too fair-skinned, I didn't see that. I thought she was perfect. But, some of these others are just crazy.

Phats said...

I have never heard that term either like the commenter before me learn something new! I had heard about the airbender thing because I read an article about people upset with the race of some of the characters in the Hunger Games which I couldn't believe.

The only thing I remember about Starship Troopers was I didn't understand it and Doogie Howser was in it

Mark Noce said...

Gosh, this kind of stuff makes me cringe. Great point about _Starship Troopers_! I read and loved the book, but most people would never guess the main character is Filipino based on the film;)

Kimberlee Turley said...

Great post. I have a strong belief in watching foreign films in their original language and would like the casting to remain consistent.

The Golden Eagle said...

It's casting white actors for Asian roles when there are already Asian actors that I really don't get--and it would of course be wonderful if there were more Asian people in movies because of their acting skills, not just appearance.

Jay Noel said...

Cynthia: There was one Asian character, but they made him a secondary one.

Shife: I think they live in a bubble sometimes.

Lydia: I know. You might as well put Will Ferrell in there too.

Ciara: From how she was described in the book, I did picture her a little more ethnic looking. Her father was dark complected, but her mom pale and blond.

Jay Noel said...

Phats: I pictured Katniss semi-ethnic, as she even says she got her looks from her dad and Prim looks like her mom. But overall, I was happy with the casting.

Mark: Like I said, when the movie came out, I was so ticked off.

Kimberly: Dubbed movies are more distracting than reading subtitles, I think.

Eagle: I don't get it either. And it would be nice is actors didn't have to portray stereotypes too (especially Hispanic characters)

Ashley Nixon said...

This is something that really gets on my nerves as well. Recently, I read a post about the Hunger Games and, of course, the little girl Rue was black and she died. It is common that in movies, all ethnic people will die first. Which is stupid. Another thing I noticed is often, writers will only write white characters, and then in order to seem more diverse, the movie will assign roles to people of color...but the roles are minor. It's like "Okay, you're doing a good job of making this seem like an afterthought..."

Jay Noel said...

Rue dying didn't bother me, as that's how it happened in the book. But some peoples' responses shocked me. Like one person Tweeted, "Rue was black, so her death didn't bother me as much."

WHAT???

In the book 21, the main character is Asian. But for the movie, they made him white. They included an Asian, but made him a minor character.

Milo James Fowler said...

Spot on, Jay -- "whitewashing" and PC casting are totally different issues, but they both have this in common: altering the creator's original vision for the sake of perceived financial outcomes.

Dafeenah said...

Well said and this is yet another reason I don't watch tv/movies that often. When I read I can make the character BE the character. Most often hollywood changes it so much I end up hating it so I rarely watch things for this reason.

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