By Zackary Nichols
Courier Staff Reporter
I am Asian, Chinese to be specific. There are literally billions of people like me, millions in the United States alone. We exist, so why does Hollywood and most other media pretend like we don’t? And how come when Hollywood does admit that the ethnicity that constitutes nearly thirty percent of the world’s population exists, we are limited to a few type cast roles?
Even on the occasion that Hollywood decides to make a movie about an Asian or Asian culture, they normally give the role to a Caucasian person.
Take, for example, the entire whitewashed cast of The Last Airbender or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. This is hardly an issue relevant to only Asian people and culture, consider the casting of The Gods of Egypt, starring Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the Egyptian God Ra, or Johnny Depp as a Native American in The Lone Ranger.
There have been apologies, and there has been some improvement; we never see grossly offensive characters such as Mickey Rooney’s disgusting yellowface interpretation of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s anymore, but we still have a long way to go.
The purpose of this essay is optimistic, if not merely symbolic, but just as activist Audre Lorde wrote in her book The Cancer Journals, “what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
As a young actor and activist of color, I have witnessed, first hand, the damage that a lack of representation can cause. With that in mind, I am asking the American Entertainment Industry to end the whitewashing of non-white people and cultures in the media and to give Asians, as well as all other people of color, the same opportunities as Caucasians to be cast in films, television, and stage productions in non-typecasted and non-stereotyped roles.
Asian culture is extremely diverse and beautiful. We are more than martial artists, taxi drivers, nerds, waiters, and hypersexualized schoolgirls.
The constant typecasting of Asians in the media has created harmful stereotypes. Two related examples are the Geisha Girl, also known as the China Doll, and the Dragon Lady. The Geisha Girl’s only role in life is to serve her husband. She is completely obedient, docile, weak, submissive, and overly sexualized. This contrasts with the Dragon Lady, she acts like a Geisha at first, but she’s deceitful, seductive, untrustworthy, and gold-digging. She’s only using her sexuality to gain someone’s trust for her own benefit. These portrayals of Asian women create many unfortunate consequences.
First of all, by claiming that all Asian women are submissive, especially towards their husbands, you are furthering the belief that all women should be submissive towards men. This belief already hurts women, in that they are taught from birth to act more submissive. As an example of the results of these teachings, Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen wrote about the differences in the way men and women speak in her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Women often speak less directly when making requests, while men will, oftentimes, be more upfront in their requests. Tannen states that “The reason offered for this is power: The woman doesn’t feel she has a right to ask directly.” The Geisha Girl stereotype only hurts the already-damaged image of a woman’s strength and independence.
The Dragon Lady stereotype only serves to add on to the harmfulness of the Geisha Girl. Not only does the Dragon Lady create the belief that women must be overly sexual to attract men, extenuating the stereotypes of men being sexual pigs and of a woman’s sole desirable traits being her body, it creates the stereotype that all women who aren’t submissive are lying, deceitful, gold diggers.
Finally, the oversexualization of Asian women, and women in general, by the media is inherently damaging. The media is responsible for the rise of Asian fetishism, or “yellow fever.” Asian women, as well as every other woman, are seen as sex objects because Hollywood will not write strong female roles that aren’t overtly sexualized.
To the uninformed person, a person who doesn’t live in a large Asian population, the Asian woman is what they are in the media: hypersexualized, often prostitutes such as the “Me so horny” Vietnamese woman in Full Metal Jacket,obedient and submissive and living only to serve their men, such as Suzie Wong in The World of Suzie Wong, or dangerous and untrustworthy, like O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill Vol. 1. This harmful image of Asian Women not only harms Asians, but all women.
The representation of Asian men in Hollywood is arguably even worse. Just as Asian women are oversexualized in the media, Asian men are undersexualized and emasculated. On the rare occasion that an Asian man actually gets a speaking role, the character is horribly geeky and socially inept. Take Long Duk Dong, for example, the socially awkward foreign exchange geek of Sixteen Candles.
Other than socially-crippled geeks, Asian men cast in Hollywood or television can expect to be typecast in very few different roles: martial arts masters, service industry employees (think waiters, taxi drivers, laundromat owners), and gang members.
Bruce Lee’s movies are responsible for the martial artist typecasting. At first these movies were groundbreaking, if not revolutionary, in changing the way Americans saw Asians. Instead of the Mickey Rooney type caricatures, Americans saw a strong male lead who didn’t need the assistance of the “White Man” to solve his problems. Unfortunately, with the breaking of one stereotype came another. After Bruce Lee’s films premiered, Hollywood believed that all Asians were Kung-Fu masters. Bruce Lee cracked open the door to allow some Asian men to come into Hollywood, but at the same time he closed another.
One of these closed doors were romance movies. There have been very few Asian male romantic leads in American cinema. The majority of those few are implied, but never shown. For example, in Disney’s Mulan, set in medieval China, the relationship between Mulan and the General is never show in great detail and is the only Disney princess movie that didn’t show a kiss. The creators of Romeo Must Die, a modern take on Romeo and Juliet starring Singaporean Jet Li and late African-American R&B star Aaliyah, cut out the kissing scene between the two.
What adds insult to injury is that, besides these stereotypes, Asian men and women barely even get roles in Hollywood, which brings me back to white washing. Today, just as it did fifty years ago, Hollywood is casting white actors as characters of color. Examples include Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a Persian man, Aloha’s all white cast playing Native Hawaiians, and white actor Jim Caviezel playing Jesus Christ, who was Middle Eastern, in Passion of the Christ.
A lack of representation for people of color is harmful. According to study by Communication Research, this lack of representation has been found to cause low self-esteem in children of color, as well as girls in general. Casting white actors in non-white roles also discredits actors of color. It’s saying that “out of you and all other actors of color, this white person was better than you at portraying your own nonwhite culture.”
To summarize, Hollywood will rarely cast Asians and other people of color in strong roles and roles for people of color often go to white actors. If an Asian does get cast they will be oversexualized or emasculated, depending on if they are a woman or a man respectively, and will be plagued with stereotypes. I’m calling on the American Entertainment industry to end white washing and give Asian actors and other actors of color the same opportunities to play characters of color as white actors have to play white characters.
The general public can help. If you see a movie that is suffering from whitewashing, portrays characters showcasing these gross stereotypes, or, God forbid, blackface and yellowface, boycott that movie. Don’t encourage Hollywood to continue with these discriminatory casting habits and gross typecasting by giving them your money. Speak out against these habits with letters, phone calls, emails, on social media and in protests. Speaking out in every way possible against this discrimination helps.
To quote activist Audre Lorde, “It’s not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.” We do not have to be silent. Like I said before, there are literally billions of us on Earth, we can make a difference.