The Psychological Impact of Whitewashing Asian Characters
Is Hollywood racist for whitewashing Asian characters and appropriating pop culture properties from Asia? Well, the answer might be complicated. A look at Hollywood’s infatuation with Asian pop culture.
I dedicate this article to my lovely two daughters Kaitlyn and Robin. May they have endless opportunity to see themselves represented on the big cinema screen.
When I was in kindergarten I was the main star in our grade’s circus production. I got to be the ringmaster. In the first grade my wit and charm landed me the main role in the Three Little Pigs. I was the Big Bad Wolf, despite all the pigs being a grade above me and all towering above my below average height. I was the least intimidating Big Bad Wolf in the history of Big Bad Wolves. But I sure could make the audience laugh!
It felt like in grade school my personality and talent compensated for my ethnicity and height. My physical stature did not cry out “leading role material” but my quick wit and ability to illicit a laugh made me a natural performer. Not too shabby for a small adopted Korean boy.
HOLLYWOOD’S CONTINUING PROBLEM WITH ASIANS-AMERICANS IN POP CULTURE
I thought back to my early days as an amateur Asian performer when I started researching Hollywood’s embarrassing history with Asia, Asian characters, and Asian-American actors. The issue of Asian representation in American pop culture jumped on my radar last spring when Marvel’s Doctor Strange started its heavy promotional push.
The cultural conversation has only heated up with the arrival of Netflix’s Iron Fist, another Marvel Studios property. And at the end of this month, DreamWorks will release their live-action version of Ghost in the Shell. The original source material was a 1985 manga (Japanese comic) and later made into a Japanese animated film. Each one of these properties has seen its fair share of controversy surrounding its depiction (or lack therefore) of not only its Asian characters but Asian culture in general.
For those who haven’t been following the controversies closely, here is a quick breakdown. Doctor Strange made the curious decision to cast Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, a role that was originally an Asian male in the source material. The character of Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is depicted with facial hair and wardrobe that is fashionably Asian. Iron Fist centers around a male white protagonist who appropriates Asian culture and martial arts for his own gain. He then uses his unlocked superpowers to battle an evil Asian villain. And in Ghost in the Shell, Scarlett Johansson stars as The Major, a role that was originally Major Motoko Kusanagi. One cannot escape noticing Johansson’s black bob and eye brows looks suspiciously altered to evoke an Asian profile.
— ScreenCrush (@screencrushnews) April 15, 2016
It's like way to reduce race to mere phys appearance as opposed to say culture, social experience, identity, history https://t.co/JDbu9s0DPt
— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) April 15, 2016
…Or language, upbringing, story, food, community, customs, values… I mean just such doper expressions than, uh, how someone looks?!?
— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) April 15, 2016
This pattern of behavior begs the question; is Hollywood racist toward Asians?
ASIAN POP CULTURE … GOOD. ASIAN PEOPLE … MEH
America as a nation appears to have embraced Asian pop culture. Japanese pop culture, particularly manga and anime, seems to be riding an all-time wave of popularity. Just go into any Barnes and Noble bookstore and see that the manga section is bigger than the American comic section of DC and Marvel. Go on Netflix and you’ll see that anime is its own separate category and genre, highlighting the bounty of content available to American consumers. And it’s not just limited to entertainment. Yoga and mindfulness, two types of health practices that are currently all the lifestyle rage, have their origins in Asia and India.
Asian culture is enormously popular and acceptable but the real-life people from that region of the world are not desirable for Hollywood. What gives?
WHAT ARE THE OFFENSES?
Accusing anyone, let alone an entire industry, or blanketed racism is a serious charge. Let’s break down some specific terminology to analyze the accusations leveled against Hollywood:
- Whitewashing: a casting practice in the film industry of the United States in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles. This was previously defined as “yellowface.” White actor Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is considered one of the most egregious examples.
- Cultural Appropriation: the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture, often resulting in lost or distortion of the original cultural meaning or significance.
- Racial Erasure: when in the process of adaptation, filmmakers remove the original racial identities of the characters in favor of … something else.
- White Savior Complex: Matt Damon’s recent “The Great Wall” exemplifies the trope of a white male coming to the rescue of an ethnic minority group that cannot succeed without the Anglo-protagonist.
Hollywood seems to value the Asian region more than its people. Asia continues to be utilized in films as an exotic locale that helps the white protagonist (usually male) clear his mind and find his purpose for life. In Doctor Strange the title character is a critically injured neurosurgeon who travels to the Himalayas to learn mystic arts from a powerful sorcerer known as the Ancient One.
In Iron Fist, Danny Rand, a boy who was born in New York City, visits the East with his family, where he learns martial arts and discovers his superpowers. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne visits the far east to learn under Ra’s al Ghul and find his purpose for defending and redeeming his hometown of Gotham City. It should be noted that Ra’s al Ghul was portrayed in the film by Liam Neeson. The trope of “White man finds enlightenment in Asia” is common not just in comics but all forms of pop culture and is at the center of cultural appropriation.
ASIAN-AMERICAN ACTORS ARE NO LONGER REMAINING SILENT
What has been surprising and refreshing in recent times is how much Asian actors are using their platforms to decry Hollywood’s continued slights against Asian people. When Marvel first announced Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One, actress Maggie Q, most recently in Designated Survivor, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter and commented, “Nothing can be more frustrating than the fact that there aren’t enough roles that [Hollywood] allows us, and then to take a role that is written Asian and turn it into one that you can no longer be considered for is adding insult to complete injury.”
Unlike Doctor Strange, which got mostly positive reviews and was a box office hit, Marvel’s television series Iron Fist has not received the same generous reviews from critics or viewers. And folks connected with the project have only further enflamed those objecting to the show’s premise. Iron Fist actor Finn Jones has deleted his Twitter account following a conversation over the controversy surrounding the actor’s casting in the show.
Then the original creator of the comic, former Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas, recently spoke about the topic, bashing the debate over cultural appropriation, saying it’s “crap.” “Don’t these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever word?” Thomas commented, “I know Oriental isn’t the right word now, either.”
Thomas’ remarks drew a swift rebuke from Jessica Henwick who plays Colleen Wing in the series. Henwick took to Twitter to point out why his “Oriental” comment was problematic.
When DreamWorks announced that Scarlett Johansson was cast as The Major and her full name of Motoko Kusanagi was removed, a fresh wave of backlash ensued. Master of None co-creator Alan Yang commented, “For those in power, it’s on you to create stars who aren’t just straight white guys. They’re gonna be fine – there are so many roles for handsome white guys and God bless them, they’re great at what they do. That’s why it’s especially infuriating when there are specific Asian roles – those are so few and far between – and you choose not to [cast an Asian actor].” Speaking of Johansson’s casting, Yang stated, “this person [could have been] the only Asian female lead in a movie all year.”
— Arden Cho (@arden_cho) February 29, 2016
My senior year of high school, I auditioned for The Music Man. Despite killing the audition, I did not land the title role of Harold Hill but of his trusty sidekick Marcellus Washburn. I felt like I had stronger charisma for the main role than the person who got cast. I even was asked to help the main character with his dancing and rhythm (did I mention I won a Michael Jackson dance contest in the third grade?) There were times when I thought back to my elementary years and wondered if my ethnicity now hurt my acting prospects. I could be the Big Bad (little) Wolf in first grade but not a Music Man in the twelfth grade? Did physical appearance now matter more than everything else?
WHAT’S HOLLYWOOD’S DEFENSE?
Despite the controversies and objections, Hollywood continues to cast white actors in these original Asian roles and defend their casting. The industry’s standard defense is that there are simply no Asian-American actors with the pedigree or market value required to promote a major release. And while the internet offered up several names of actresses who could have credibly portrayed Ghost in the Shell’s Major Motoko Kusanagi, it cannot be denied that none of them come close to Johansson’s star wattage.
Look closer, however, and their argument holds less water. In fact, Hollywood has recently developed a strong reputation for casting relatively modest actors and actresses in big, blockbuster films. One look at the Marvel Studios model shows at the time of their initial casting, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, and even Scarlet Johansson were not guaranteed box office commodities. So apart from it being Marvel Studios (and most of them having the first name “Chris”), why were these actors considered safe risks while Asian actors aren’t given the same luxury. The only other variable is that they are white. Hollywood will risk box-office uncertainty on Caucasian actors but not Asian actors.
“I understand the argument that the business is risk-averse, but that’s just an excuse to be cowardly,” says Yang. “[Hollywood] cast Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. He wasn’t a movie star until they put him in those movies. For people who are making decisions, you have to take that risk.”
PSYCHOLOGY OF WHY ASIAN-AMERICAN REPRESENTATION MATTERS
Hollywood often serves as a reflection of contemporary culture. So when the film industry has no clue what to do with Asian people, that’s a major problem. Representation in entertainment has shown to impact self-esteem and overall self-worth in young children. In fact, one study that looked at television consumption found that only white boys increased in self-esteem from television viewing while white girls, black girls, and black boys had a decrease in self-esteem.
Growing up wishing you were white so you could be characters in stories #whitewashedOUT
— Anna Akana (@AnnaAkana) May 3, 2016
Michael Brody, chair of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, has said children are affected when they don’t see themselves represented.
The conclusions from the television viewing study found:
- If you’re a white male, things in life are positive for people who look like you. You tend to be in positions of influence, power, high education, have a beautiful wife and family, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there.
- Everyone else tends to be more simplistic and one-dimensional, with not as much positive messaging that is attributed to while males.
- The study specifically singled out superhero television shows that almost always feature a white male as the main character (hello Iron Fist).
Psychologists found that direct contact among members of unfriendly groups can break down stereotypes and reduce distrust. One research study found that when adolescents read stories about characters from a culture like their own cooperating with characters from an unfamiliar culture, they later display fewer stereotypes and more positive attitudes about the people belonging to the dissimilar group. Underrepresentation often reinforces real world stereotypes that minority groups are unequal to their Caucasian or male counterparts.
Another study called “Shades of Meaning: Skin Tone, Racial Attitudes, and Constructive Memory in African American Children” found that children hold stereotypes at an early age and one area that influences kids’ racial attitudes is the media.
Rebecca Bigler is the Director of the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab, at the University of Texas at Austin. In an interview with Racebending.com, Bigler said, “It’s a terrible shame for white kids, that they don’t get to see Asian characters be strong, powerful, and heroes. And what white kids are missing is learning to associate other groups with these wonderful traits, as well.”
As a father of two daughter, I became even more aware of Hollywood’s poor representation of Asian characters when I considered the message that American cinema was sending them. The one silver lining in our family is that America’s poor track record forced me to look oversees to find rich entertainment that would speak to my half-Korean daughters. And my pursuit brought led me to find Studio Ghibli and specifically the wondrous films of Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s films often center around a female protagonist. Often the story involves the young female protagonist finding themselves in a world of conflict and tension. The young girls often develop their own agency and collaborate with male protagonists but are not dependent on them.
Not only has Miyazaki become one of our favorite filmmakers, but my daughters have introduced anime and Japanese cinema to their mostly Caucasian friends. It’s a shame that my daughters must look to foreign animation to find a character that looks like them that’s worthy of emotional investment.
If ample representation in entertainment can boost self-esteem in white boys, perhaps increased representation of girls and children of color could also help increase the self-esteem of minority demographics, whether it be gender, sexual orientation, race, or religion.
TELEVISION IS WHERE PROGRESS IS HAPPENING
Television has recently been the stomping ground for more visible roles for Asian actors. I previously wrote in length about the personal impact that Steven Yeun’s Glenn Rhee had with me. In addition to that character, Eddie Huang, whose memoir is the source material for ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” has given actress Constance Wu a higher visibility that just landed her a role in the upcoming Crazy Rich Asian film.
Aziz Ansari co-wrote and stars in “Master of None,” a show centered around an Indian-American actor trying to make his mark. Master of None, like Fresh Off the Boat, exist largely because their show creators and writers are not Caucasian. Eddie Huang is Taiwanese. Aziz Ansari is of Indian descent and co-creator Alan Yang is Taiwanese. Mindy Kaling, creator and star of “The Mindy Project” joins others in stepping behind the camera to help develop and create stories for actors from the Far East.
— Amitha Knight (@amithaknight) May 3, 2016
“The mainstream Hollywood thinking still seems to be that movies and stories about straight white people are universal, and that anyone else is more niche,” Aziz Ansari has commented. “It’s just not true. I’ve been watching characters with middle-age white-guy problems since I was a small Indian boy.”
SEVEN TIPS HOLLYWOOD SHOULD START ADOPTING
I love movies. In terms of interest, film has been the highest form of art and entertainment for the duration of my life. But as a father of two daughters, I can’t help but feel both pity and anger towards Hollywood. So, as a lifelong supporter of American cinema, here is my advice for Hollywood.
#1 – Someone please take the first risk, lead the way, and cast an Asian-American protagonist in Hollywood film. Movie studios and casting directors take chances all the time with white actors. Afford the same luxury to Asian-American actors.
#2 – Stop making films where the core story is fundamentally whitewashing and centered around cultural appropriation. Regardless of how successful Doctor Strange was critically or commercially, the character and the backstory of its development is a textbook example of whitewashing. Modernize it, make it culturally sensitive, or don’t make it into a film at all. Same goes for Iron Fist.
#3 – Stop throwing Asians a bone and then be offended when they don’t shower you with praise. Asians are tired of ONLY being the funny sidekick comic relief, the martial arts guru, or the mystical villain.
#4 – White actors, you’ve been put on notice. Ignorance is not the same as innocence. Once upon a time, Mickey Rooney didn’t see anything wrong with his depiction of Mr. I.Y. Yunioshiin in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Scarlet Johansson’s black bob and darkened eyebrows sends an ambiguous message that could come back to embarrass her, maybe not in 2017, but probably at some point down the road. Our culture will only continue to progress and tolerance toward whitewashing will continue to erode.
#5 – Start telling non-Asian stories with Asian characters in the film. They don’t have to be the star of the film. But once upon a time Scarlett Johansson was a young actress appearing in numerous films in small, supporting roles. Her filmography provided her opportunity to hone her craft and raise her visibility as an actress. Asian actors need the same opportunity. Without those opportunities, Hollywood will continue to struggle with what to do with Asian actors. Just look at Speed Racer (starring Emile Hirsch), Dragonball Evolution (starring Justin Chatwin), the upcoming Death Note (starring Nat Wolff), and Ghost in the Shell. Hollywood has an identity problem with Asians.
#6 – Writers and directors, stop hiding behind your auteurist hubris or lack of “A-list actors” of color defense. You can either use your talent to write nuanced characters of color or admit to your personal predilections, cultural myopia, and limited interest in stories involving people of color.
#7 – Don’t stop at the first sign of progress. I cannot speak on behalf of Latinos, women, the LBGTQ community, African-Americans, or other groups that are marginalized or in the minority. But Hollywood, don’t allow progress in one demographic to give you license to slow progress in another areas.
THE TOPIC OF ASIAN REPRESENTATION IS NOT GOING AWAY
Looking ahead, there are several films in development that center around Asian characters. Along with the film adaptation of the bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians, Disney is making live-action versions of Mulan and Aladdin. Unlike the live-action remakes of Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast (I have coined them “Realmakes”), Mulan comes with the emotional weight of having been the first and possibly only time many Asian-American children saw someone who looked like them onscreen. These concerns have coalesced to pressure Disney to #MakeMulanRight. Disney has assured fans that Mulan and her love interest with both be Chinese.
Why does representation matter? Why does Hollywood need to get it right? Constance Wu summed up my feelings about Asian-American representation in cinema on Twitter when she wrote, “Why do you think it was so nice to see a nerdy white kid have a girl fall in love with him? Because you WERE that nerdy white kid who felt unloved. And seeing pictures of it in Hollywood’s stories made it feel possible.”
Those who say racism doesn't exist anymore are the biggest perpetuators of it #whitewashedOUT
— Margaret Cho (@margaretcho) May 3, 2016
Hollywood, you have the chance to course correct and change your embarrassing history of whitewashing Asian representation in cinema. Or you’ll continue to turn a blind eye, which will beg the question; “When does insensitivity and turning a blind eye get to be called racism?” Hollywood, you’re on the clock!
Follow Jonathan Hetterly (@jhetterly) on Twitter.
Read Jonathan’s article on the personal impact Glenn Rhee from the Walking Dead had on him HERE.
Listen to the Shrink Tank podcast episode with a roundtable discussion on Asian influence on American pop culture HERE.