The Whitewashing Of Asians In Hollywood | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

The Whitewashing Of Asians In Hollywood

There’s Mickey Rooney playing Audrey Hepburn’s Asian neighbor in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Or Emma Stone playing the quarter-Hawaiian, quarter-Chinese character Allison Ng in 2015’s Aloha. Even more recently, there’s Scarlett Johansson playing the lead role in the 2017 remake of Ghost In The Shell, originally a Japanese anime film released in 1995.

These are just three examples of “whitewashing,” the casting of white actors in non-white roles, thereby taking actors of color out of an already-narrow pool of opportunities. 

Michi Trota, managing editor of Uncanny Magazine, shared even more examples on WBEZ’s Morning Shift on Friday. 

Gods of Egypt, which tanked at the box office for so many reasons, was Egyptian gods all played by white people,” Trota said.

“The character of Mindy Park in the novel The Martian was originally a Korean woman. In the film, she was played by a white woman,” Trota said, adding: “Avatar: The Last Airbender is a really — all across the board. So many problems.”

There are examples of Hollywood whitewashing roles of many minority groups, but according to the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report released by UCLA’s Bunche Center for African American Studies, approximately 80 percent of scripted roles in Hollywood went to white actors and just around 4 percent of roles went to Asian-American actors. (Black actors land 9 percent of scripted roles and Latino actors land 5 percent.)

Morning Shift host Jenn White spoke with Trota and Nancy Wang Yuen, author of the book Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, about Hollywood’s whitewashing problem. Below are highlights from the conversation.

On the social impact of a lack of representation

Michi Trota: It’s never just a story. It never is. The stories reflect not only how we see the world but how the world sees us. Speaking as an Asian-American, as a person of color, when I see shows that either erase people like me or present people who look like me in very stereotypical ways — and those are the majority of the type of characters that we tend to see — that gives me very specific messages about how the world I live in views me, and what my potential is, and what the possibilities are for me. 

If I find a Filipino character, that’s a really big, important deal for me. So it really — it hurts and we can actually see a lot of those consequences in how social policies are shaped and how people react in terms of xenophobia, in terms of racism, and everything down to transphobia, ableism, all of that. If we don’t see characters who are actually treated as people, then that affects how other people see us.

Mickey Rooney starred as Mr. Yunioshi, Audrey Hepburn’s irascible Asian neighbor, in the 1961 film ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Contemporary reviews of the film typically condemn Rooney’s portrayal as a toxic caricature. (Screenshot from trailer/Paramount Pictures/Wikimedia Commons)

On the psychological impact of a lack of representation

Nancy Wang Yuen: In terms of white audiences who maybe don’t have any personal contact with people of color, research shows that they draw their ideas about people of color from media. And then in terms of people of color, research has shown that kids of color especially — and girls — the more television they watch, their self-esteem actually gets lower compared to white boys, which actually goes up. So there is direct psychological impact as well as societal impact.

On the recent popularity of films and TV starring Asian actors like Priyanka Chopra, Lucy Liu, Randall Park and Dev Patel

Trota: I’d like to think that it is indicative of a progressive change, but the thing is I remember when Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl was on television. I love Moana and Mulan, but everyone forgets that Lilo & Stitch also exist. So I don’t think these are straight line progressions so much as they are waves. I would love for this wave to be increasing and to keep getting us farther, but what happens with the wave is that it always pulls back.

I think more of the problem is that Hollywood is looking at these actors and these producers — Asian stories that are centered around the experiences of Asian people — as exceptions to audience appeal when actually they’re not. 

On whether white actors have the responsibility to decline non-white roles

Yuen: In my research, I feel like actors actually have very little power to make changes. And ultimately, they’re just embodying the roles, versus the writers who are writing the roles and the studios that are greenlighting. I think ultimately the actor shouldn’t be blamed — of course they’re the most visible — and that’s the problem. Audiences tend to see them versus all the people that are behind the scenes that are responsible for the actual greenlighting and writing and creative decisions that lead to these roles.

Emma Stone played a quarter-Hawaiian, quarter-Chinese character in Cameron Crowe's 2015 film 'Aloha.' (Movie poster via Sony Pictures)

Other examples of Hollywood whitewashing

Trota: The Ancient One in Dr. Strange. The character of the Ancient One in the comics was originally an Asian man and it ended up being played by Tilda Swinton, who is a white woman.

Kahn in Star Trek: Into Darkness, played by Benedict Cumberbatch — and I’d like to put on the record that I’m a Benedict Cumberbatch fan — that was a terrible decision.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire segment.

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