Thursday Trends: Whitewashing Asian Characters in Film

Emma Stone, 'Aloha' (Jezebel)

Emma Stone, ‘Aloha’ (Jezebel)

Let me be clear: this is not a good trend. At all. It should never have even started. And yet, here we are.

It’s still a problem.

Historically, Hollywood has always had a problem of “whitewashing,” i.e. casting white actors in roles specifically created for non-whites. The thinking is that whites are more “bankable,” but there aren’t many roles and opportunities for non-white actors as it is. So a white actor ends up taking a role from a non-white one, and many non-white people are deprived of seeing depictions of themselves on-screen.

This tends to happen a lot with Asian actors. Most recently, director Cameron Crowe came under fire for casting Emma Stone in his latest movie “Aloha.” Stone was cast as a character named Allison Ng, whose ancestry is one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Hawaiian. (Having white and Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry is traditionally known as “hapa,” deriving from the Hawaiian Pidgin word for half. So Ng’s heritage would be termed “hapa” or “hapa haole,” to include the European ancestry.)

Look at the picture above and tell me with a straight face that Emma Stone resembles anyone remotely half-Asian.

Fortunately, Crowe caught some heat for this decision, and has publicly apologized for his choice. (But he covered his ass a little, saying that the character was meant to be frustrated that her features belied her mixed-race heritage.) But Crowe could’ve easily cast an Asian or mixed-race Asian for his film. He just chose not to.

This whitewashing of Asian characters tends to come up every few years. 2010’s “The Last Airbender” received a public outcry when it was revealed that the cast was mostly non-white actors, save for Dev Patel. (The debacle coined the term “race bending.”) This was odd considering that the TV series (on which the movie was based) was set in a world with obvious Asian elements, and it was animated using anime influence.

The 2008 movie “21” centered on the real-life story of the MIT Blackjack Team, a group of current and former students who beat the casinos at their own game by counting cards. Though many of the group were of Indian and Asian descent, the movie whitewashed the cast, using mostly Caucasian actors.

And then there are the times when white actors are actually put in yellowface. 2012’s “Cloud Atlas,” which had the ensemble actors playing various characters, actually had two examples of this, and took it past the point of no return: Jim Sturgess (who was also in “21”) and James D’Arcy both played Korean men at one point. Sturgess and D’Arcy are both white men, but they both spent extensive time in makeup to more realistically resemble Asian men.

This is far from a new problem. The 1956 film “Teahouse of the August Moon” featured legendary actor Marlon Brando as Japanese villager Sakini, donning full-on yellowface to physically embody the role. And everyone who’s seen 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” remembers Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly’s Japanese neighbor I.Y. Yunioshi, who, seen through modern eyes, was a jaw-droopingly offensive caricature. (“The New York Times” review of the film called Rooney “broadly exotic.”) Fortunately, the distance of time and perspective have allowed people to see that these portrayals were very offensive towards Asians, and it was wrong to a) write/portray the characters in such stereotypical ways, and b) cast actors not of the specific ethnicity to play these parts.

But maybe the message isn’t sinking in as much as it should be: Blonde, Caucasian actress Scarlett Johansson will star in DreamWorks’ adaptation of the anime title “Ghost in the Shell.”

Here’s the thing: There are so many asian and mixed-Asian actors out there. Kristin Kreuk, Chloe Bennet, Olivia Munn, John Cho, Steven Yeun, Daniel Henney, Harry Shum Jr., Sendhil Ramamurthy. And those are only the ones I didn’t need to Google off the top of my head. Point being, there’s massive opportunity here for diverse casting that reflects reality. So let’s get on it!

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