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Rhy Helro Miss GoRightwry!
January 10, 2003 9:24 PM   Subscribe

"Rhy Helro Miss GoRightwry!" A gallery of Yellowface and Blackfaces in Hollywood at the Makeup Gallery. (via Sharpeworld) Despite efforts of the MANAA to reduce Asian stereotypes in media, there is a long history of white actors portraying asian roles (warning: really bitter commentary). When will there be enough outcry (or demand) for movies with asian roles that don't know kung-fu or are exotic hookers? Or are we satisfied with Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, and Mr. Wong?
posted by Stan Chin (23 comments total)

 
For the record, I found and still think Mr. Wong is hilarious. I'm no representative of my culture, but maybe its an indication that some of us really don't care or get offended that much. Also, if you have a chance, The Illuminated Lantern is a wonderful site if you're interested in Asian cinema issues.
posted by Stan Chin at 9:28 PM on January 10, 2003


Surprised to see no mention of Kwai Chang Cane. When you can snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper, then you are free to leave. Or when you can walk along the rice paper without leaving a trace. Or when you can pick up this boiling cauldron with your forearms. Really, there are several ways to leave, is, I guess, what I'm trying to say.
posted by jonson at 10:40 PM on January 10, 2003


Oh, and btw, while Mr. Wong may be hilarious, aren't you upset by the Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany's? I mean, I'm offended by that, and I'm in the Klan*, for christ's sake.



*Note to humor impaired: I am not actually in the Klan.
posted by jonson at 10:42 PM on January 10, 2003


Mickey Rooney's character was an atrocious marring of a film that I otherwise love. Breakfast at Tiffany's was the first film I ever watched that portrayed such a sterotype, and I couldn't even bear to look at the screen every time he appeared.

I liked "the really bitter rant commentary" link (which I didn't think was *that* bitter), and I read a couple of more essays on the site... all made very good points.
posted by lychee at 11:28 PM on January 10, 2003


"When will there be enough outcry (or demand) for movies with asian roles that don't know kung-fu or are exotic hookers?"

That sentence hurt my head, but I get your meaning. Did you used to write owner manuals for appliances? 8^)

I would like to answer your question with a question: How many non-chopsocky movies are released in Asia every year? What percentage of them make serious cash? Just asking.

You bring up two points - first, that for many years non-Asians portrayed Asians in showbiz. How often has that happened in the last 20 years? (OK, that South Park episode, and the aforementioned Kane [wasn't he half white, though?] but other than that...)Things are getting better. Don't let the past drag you down.

Second point, Asian roles in contemporary entertainment are mostly stereotypes. It's called show business. As soon as someone stumbles on the right talent and formula, and one successful movie is made, all the other studios will be falling over themselves to get on board the money train. Can anybody suggest a recent hit (non-action, non exotic hooker) movie that could have had Asian actors in key roles and done anywhere near the business that they actually did?
posted by BGM at 11:37 PM on January 10, 2003


There was one movie missing. Marlon Brando actually played a vaguely homosexual Japanese interpreter in a movie called Teahouse of the August Moon, which is unwatchable.
posted by hama7 at 11:59 PM on January 10, 2003


It's called show business.

That's what struck me too. Show business performances - on stage, or on the screen - at their very root are composed of actors pretending to be characters for goodness sake. Saying it is wrong for a "pretend" Asian (i.e., a western actor) to portray a pretend Asian character, instead of having a "real" Asian portraying a pretend Asian character is a kinda convoluted case to make.

Additionally, most cultures have entertainment industries that primarily serve their own dominant culture (that's why it's called show business ... shows and movies are produced to sell tickets to the people most likely to buy them - not to enforce some standard of political correctness). It's not like Chinese and Japanese productions have not had Asians playing western characters ...
posted by MidasMulligan at 10:43 AM on January 11, 2003


If you think that's bad, you should've seen this production of Hamlet I saw with the Danish prince played by...an African American!

(On preview, and dropping the sarcasm: what Midas said.)
posted by straight at 11:05 AM on January 11, 2003


Yeah, but Midas, not to devolve this into a political back & forth, but the reason white people are given asian roles isn't because a) they're better actors than the available asians, or b) there are no available asian actors to play the roles. Let's not sugarcote it, these roles (albeit nearly non-existent these days, as BGM noted) are racist, in the same vein as having Shakespearean female characters played by young boys because women weren't allowed on stage was sexist. Only, this isn't something that happened in the 16th century, it's as recent as the 70's, and it's as shocking as blackface. Blackface does bother you, right?

Also, BGM, yes, Kane was half white. Or rather, he was made to be half white by the writers so that they could have a white actor play him. Don't put the cart in front of the horse, it's not like they HAD to choose Carradine once they found out that Kane was half white :-)
posted by jonson at 11:09 AM on January 11, 2003


*disclaimer* I know very little about this topic

My understanding, from my asian actor friends is that the frustration comes from non-asians playing asian roles when several asian actors audition for the same part. As far as the business side, I can understand that picking a better known actor might surpass race, but how angry would people be if Keanu Reeves showed up in a black or even hispanic role? (And you can't tell me his casting in the Buddha movie was for his TALENT).
posted by synapse at 11:13 AM on January 11, 2003


ow. shouldn't have taken so long to preview. What jonson said.
posted by synapse at 11:14 AM on January 11, 2003


Karmic Retribution: Producer dies untimely death just before completion of the film. Alcoholic director Walter Hill gets blotto before an important story conference, embarrasses himself in front of the producer and crew, then promptly returns home and puts a bullet in his head.

The article has something important to say. It's too bad that the author is so remarkably callous and abrasive that he's practically unreadable. Didn't anyone edit the article and tell him to cool off a bit?
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:24 AM on January 11, 2003


I supremely enjoyed the author's bitchiness. I wish there were more commentary on the Makeup page, though. Thanks for a great link. I have to say, in the interest of disclosure, I've always loved the Peter Sellers film The Party, in which he plays an Indian-American struggling actor, mistakenly invited to a plasty-fantasty Hollywood party.
posted by condour75 at 2:40 PM on January 11, 2003


Yeah, but Midas, not to devolve this into a political back & forth, but the reason white people are given asian roles isn't because a) they're better actors than the available asians, or b) there are no available asian actors to play the roles. Let's not sugarcote it, these roles (albeit nearly non-existent these days, as BGM noted) are racist, in the same vein as having Shakespearean female characters played by young boys because women weren't allowed on stage was sexist. Only, this isn't something that happened in the 16th century, it's as recent as the 70's, and it's as shocking as blackface. Blackface does bother you, right?

Er, so is the point that there was racism in actor choices for films 30 years ago? Don't think anyone will argue that. In fact, I don't think anyone would argue the thought that the films and plays of any culture, in any decade in history didn't largely reflect the cultural norms for the time and place in which they were made. Does blackface bother me (you are implying ... what)? Of course. But would blackface have bothered you if you were a white American in the 1930's? Very likely not.

There are undoubtedly aspects of our current culture - that you, me, and everyone else are completely blind to right now - that 30 or 40 years from now will be looked back on as being wrong, just as we now look 30 or 40 years in the past and label cultural norms "sexist" and "racist". Every generation thinks it's more enlightened than all that have passed before it ... can shake their heads and say "tsk, tsk" and point their fingers backwards to stupid and ignorant things that past generations thought were ok (those damn immoral idiots). But those that spend a lot of time doing so are often the last people capable of recognizing what aspects of their own behavior will be similarly critisized by future generations.

Very few exercises are a fruitless as applying the standards and sensibilities of a current culture to the actions of past cultures merely in order to call them "wrong".
posted by MidasMulligan at 3:07 PM on January 11, 2003


I don’t see anything wrong in and of itself in an actress playing a character whose ethnic origin is other than her own (anymore than I objected to Rock Hudson playing all those straight roles): but the whole issue is entangled (possibly inseparably) with the issues of how non-whites have been portrayed in films and, for decades, the practical exclusion of non-white actors and actresses from the Hollywood system.
-- The Makeup Gallery

BGM, Hollywood feeds and creates stereotypes and perceptions as much as it lives on them. If Hollywood made even a token effort to market Asian actors as hot, instead of constantly portraying them as merely quirky, evil, or good at martial arts, our wonderfully gullible American teen culture would eat it up. I know this frustrates some of my Asian friends to no end (mostly the men, since many Asian women have the dubious honor of being considered exotic and fetishized in American culture).

Imitation, in this instance, is not the sincerest form of flattery. As synapse and jonson said, don't kid yourself that this phenomenon is any more acceptable than blackface. White actors and actresses played (play?) Asian roles so their characters could partake in harmful stereotypes. What is ok about that, BGM, Midas, or straight?
posted by grrarrgh00 at 3:07 PM on January 11, 2003


And to address Midas' argument that he posted just before mine above, Stan Chin's question here was When will there be enough outcry (or demand) for movies with asian roles that don't know kung-fu or are exotic hookers? It's a very fair question, and I think that's shameful. What you dismiss as pointlessly applying current cultural sensibilities to the actions of the past is what I perceive as using the recognized mistakes of the past to reveal and critique the inadequacies of the present.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 3:20 PM on January 11, 2003


There's a problem in the industry as two forces run up against each other: one, affirmative action that hopes to promote ethnic actors playing ethnic parts, and two, the trend toward color-blind casting. It's why the Equity decision on Miss Saigon was reversed: they realized that the positions were in conflict. It's certainly the case that Asians have not been the only "victims" of miscasting; off the top of my head, I can think of Karen Duffy (!) playing the exotic Hispanic Maria Rios in 29th Street {not to mention Australian Anthony LaPaglia playing a Brooklynite}, Swede Lena Olin playing a Cuban in Havana, Cuban-Am Andy Garcia playing an Italian in The Untouchables and The Godfather Part III, Scot Sean Connery playing a Lithuanian in The Hunt for Red October {with a Scots accent!}, the almost completely Russian-free Gorky Park, and Greek-Am NIa Vardalos being told by casting agents that she'd better take Hispanic roles or quit Hollywood (before her film was a hit). And on the other track, we have Ving Rhames playing Kojak {which I'm sure will be cool, and isn't strictly color-blind, but you see my point}. Probably the peak of the color-blind movement was Yaphet Kotto playing an Italian-Am police captain on Homicide: LOTS, though they fudged on his race more as the series progressed.

I don't think you can put lines that are too hard and fast on casting; can Gwyneth Paltrow (or Texan Renee Zellweger!) convincingly play a Brit? Well, if Brits, Aussies, and others routinely play Americans -- why not? For the sake of a good performance one should be willing to cut some slack. Knowing the history of blackface, we can still accept the dead-on sharpness of Darrell Hammond's impression of Jesse Jackson (done in what might be called "George Hamilton face"). Also, we have to give some allowance for intent and time period. Surely Rooney's portrayal was a grievous exaggeration even for the 1950s, but it wasn't racist in the sense that it was intended to hurt the feelings of Asians or portray them negatively; it was simply a caricature, audience-sympathetic in its own right, that crossed lines that would not, fortunately, be acceptable today. In the same way, we defend today Mark Twain's portrayal of escaped slave Jim, complete with what to Twain was just one of multiple American accents depicted phonetically. Sometimes the gloss of race can override other considerations. Today, in the movies, black comedians do movies with pidgin English titles -- but writing a book where you accurately depict "Black English" is nearly verboten.

The progressive contemporary interpretation of art tends to downplay whether something is literally what it purports in favor of examining its function and context. Birth of a Nation is a great film regardless of its politics, and can be examined in that light as well as a mirror held up to the America of its time. Washington, Jefferson, and others were American heroes -- as well as slave-owners. So I don't think that a simple gloss is necessarily appropriate. The lack of Asian, or Hispanic, or Greek-American roles in popular culture is part of a function of a majority-minority society, and certainly not something that's a willfull creation of the majority. Of course it's frustrating to be on the outside of this milieu, but I believe it's counterproductive to treat it as a personal failing.
posted by dhartung at 3:55 PM on January 11, 2003


And here's an article about Redface to round things out.

Admittedly, things are getting better-- you hardly ever see any movies with big, silent, in-tune-with-nature-type guys named Billy Bear anymore-- but I don't think that takes away from the worthiness of the post. Actually, I thought it was more of an identification of a waning (though not yet nonexistent-- Lethal Weapon 4 anyone?) trend of less-than-accurate portrayal than it was a highlight of people's personal failings.
posted by tyro urge at 4:36 PM on January 11, 2003


If Hollywood made even a token effort to market Asian actors as hot, instead of constantly portraying them as merely quirky, evil, or good at martial arts, our wonderfully gullible American teen culture would eat it up.

Lucy Liu, Joan Chen and Jason Scott Lee aren't "marketed as hot"? I beg to differ. And others, like Jackie Chan, John Lone and good old Bruce Lee are seen as hot by many people, whether they were/are marketed that way or not (some people actually think for themselves when deciding who's attractive, go figure). I think this is an argument that may well have been valid quite a few years ago, but I just don't think it's that valid anymore. As BGM said "Things are getting better. Don't let the past drag you down."
posted by biscotti at 5:05 PM on January 11, 2003


dhartung: you forgot Sean Connery as a (Zeistio-)Egyptian in Highlander who proclaims in a nice Scottish accent that he's no Spanish, he's Egyptian.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:06 PM on January 11, 2003


Eddie Murphy turns the tables in white like eddie - You know, a lot of people talk about racial prejudice. And some people have gone so far as to say that there are actually two Americas: one black and one white. But talk is cheap. So I decided to look into the problem myself, firsthand. To go underground and actually experience America.. as a white man.
posted by madamjujujive at 5:31 PM on January 11, 2003


Biscotti, again, I mentioned Asian actors, noting that Asian women are often portrayed as exotic and fetish-worthy, if not outright sexy. Also note my exclusion of Asian actors who portray roles as martial artists, as if that's one of three things Asian men are permitted to do. I think with that criteria, Jason Scott Lee is excepted as well. And yes, many people may view the actors you mentioned as hot, but the films of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee are still fundamentally martial arts films.

Although depictions of different ethnicities in today's films may stop short of offensive, stereotype is still all-too-common. Hollywood has a frustratingly narrow conception of acceptable roles for minority actors and actresses, and I think that's a reality very worthy of changing. It's useful and valid to pat ourselves on the back because we've progressed from the days of Fu Manchu, but just as valid to point out that we've got a long way to go. Until I see an Asian man lead a mass-market romantic comedy, I'll continue grinding this axe whenever I get the opportunity.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 5:50 PM on January 11, 2003


Until I see an Asian man lead a mass-market romantic comedy, I'll continue grinding this axe whenever I get the opportunity.

This highlights the essential silliness of this whole complaint. Every character in a mainstream Hollywood movie is a stupid caricature. We wait in vain for mainstream movies with true-to-life depictions of scientists, politicians, police officers, physicians, athletes, teachers, computer hackers, secretaries, musicians, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers. If mainstream Hollywood could get any of these right, I might start worrying that they can't write well about Asian computer hackers or a romance between two African Americans.
posted by straight at 11:15 PM on January 13, 2003


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