The Spectrum: Whitewashing of Asians in media represents a bigger issue

Rachel Yang, Assistant A&E Editor

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

Earlier this month, controversy emerged when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson will play Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming film, “Ghost in the Shell,” which is based on a Japanese manga. To make matters worse, the studio considered using CGI, 3D-computer graphics, to make Johansson look more Asian.

This whitewashing of an Asian character is not an isolated incident. It has a long history dating back to the early 1900s when Warner Oland, a white actor, played Chinese detective Charlie Chan in at least 15 films. One of the most famous examples is 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” where Mickey Rooney played a Japanese character, complete with yellowface and buck teeth. Whitewashing also happened in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which is based on a story set in an Asian and Inuit-influenced universe, yet the protagonist Aang was played by a white actor.

According to a February report from the University of Southern California, out of the 11,306 characters with speaking parts in major productions from 2014 to 2015, only 5.1 percent were Asian. From these facts, it’s evident that the lack of Asian representation in the media is an issue today.

However, the conversations around this issue are less than productive.

For example, take the Oscars in February. Although there were many mentions of a lack of black voices in film, there was virtually no discussion of the dearth of Latino or Asian voices. In fact, there were even two jokes at Asian people’s expenses, including one where Chris Rock introduced the representatives overseeing the Academy Awards votes by having three Asian children walk out in suits, carrying briefcases. He then followed the bit up with, “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”

To be fair, I think many people were misdirected in pointing fingers solely at Rock for these jokes. To expect him to have all the answers and be the solution for anti-Asian sentiments is to ignore the bigger problem present in both the Academy and in Hollywood today.

The bigger issue is that it seems as if Asians are only represented in the media in two ways: either with white people playing us, or, when Asians are actually featured on the screen, in stereotypical parts such as the awkward math or science geek, the stingy restaurant owner or a dragon lady-esque martial arts master. It’s a widespread phenomenon, with shows and movies like “The Big Bang Theory,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Kill Bill” and more having utilized these tropes.

These two types of “representation” are blatant examples of the limited way studio executives and creators view Asians. By casting white people to play Asians, they are saying that they’re interested in our cultures and what we have to offer the world, but not our people. They would rather make a white actor look more Asian than hire an actual Asian actor because we are not interesting enough to play leading roles. They can only look at us through the lens that they themselves have helped to create: as background characters and nerdy sidekicks, not as fully-fleshed human beings with unique personalities and interests.

Although these are often fictional portrayals — or lack of portrayals — on the big screen, they can have real-world implications. I worry about Asian-American children who grow up watching themselves either not featured on TV or in movies or depicted in negative and stereotypical ways. If kids only see themselves shown as nerds, side characters and the butt of jokes, and not as athletes, musicians and CEOs, will they think that the latter are not options for them?

Minority representation matters. It affects the way people view minorities and the way minorities view themselves. As incidents like the Oscars show, it’s important to talk about the scarcity of Asian representation, as well as the lack of representation of blacks, Latinos and other minorities. It shouldn’t just be other Asians speaking out about these injustices, like Ang Lee protesting the Asian jokes at the Oscars, or Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat” and other Asian actors condemning the whitewashing in “Ghost in the Shell.”

I hope that people can expand their ideas about what Asians can be and what we can do. Think of us, not just as academics, but as artists, creators, leaders and athletes, and go beyond stereotypes and assumptions. Point out when films or TV shows portray us stereotypically. Be mad when we are inevitably replaced by Anna Kendrick and Bradley Cooper in a feature film about Malala Yousafzai or another influential Asian person. My voice and the voices of other Asians and Asian Americans deserve to be heard and from our own perspectives. We are human beings, not props, archetypes or background characters.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @_rachelyang