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When I was in high school, I loved being part of the drama department. I have auditioned and played many roles in musicals and plays since freshman year. Every time each cast list went up, I would get excited to see if I got a lead role. It was not until my senior year that I was finally cast in the lead role. As an Asian American, I have always had great pride whenever Asians took on lead roles because I saw myself in them. It proved to me that I could play a lead role. Even though I am no longer acting, I still admire Asian actors and their performances.
When the film Crazy Rich Asians recently came out, its immediate success shed light on the decades long practice of denying roles to of Asian actors in the film industry. For many, 2018 is the time finally for inclusivity and diversity. However, change comes slowly and the debate over inclusion and diversity the film industry rages on. At the same time, the film industry manages to find scapegoats to blame for its reluctance to change. They are convinced that having minorities as leads is risky, for it will affect their box-office profits.
Hollywood should cast Asian actors in more roles and make a clear commitment to ensuring cultural diversity in the film industry. The issue is so controversial because the film industry downplays the importance of having Asians playing Asian roles in film and sees no problem with the industry’s reliance on Asian stereotypes. Representation in the Hollywood film industry is heavily concealed with its discrimination of Asians, the practice in “yellow face” and current efforts to bring more diversity into the casting process because no one ever talks about.
Film productions that involve Asian Americans are often overlooked. However, the Asian Americans who were cast in small, supporting roles played a pivotal part in the history of American films. The silent era was the highlight of famous actors like Charlie Chaplin. Representation for Asian Americans during the Silent-era was Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa (Fuller). But during this time period, the majority of roles were not given to minorities, which resulted in white actors in blackface or yellowface. This minstrelsy period that had white actors portraying Asian Americans or African Americans exaggerated stereotypes and degraded minorities and their diverse talents (Fuller).
During the 1930s and later decades, many Asian Americans frequently lost roles meant for Asians. For example, Anna May Wong lost a Chinese American role to Louise Reiner, a white actress, in The Good Earth. The 1960s was the decade when Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released, a time when it was humorous for Mickey Rooney to play an annoying and rude Japanese neighbor (Fuller). Producers did not favor the idea of an Asian lead or Asians in supporting roles. If Asian Americans were given a role, they would portray an exaggerated version of themselves or a scripted, stereotyped caricature of being Asian.
Even decades later after yellow face was perceived as morally wrong, producers replaced this casting practice with whitewashing, which still replaced Asian actors with “appealing” and “successful” white actors. Producers pleaded to critics that they did not intentionally mean to cast a white actor in an Asian role; rather they used the justification of the “racially” charged industry, box-office appeal, and audience preferences. By the 1970s, Asian Americans were slowly being given credit for their skill. In 1973, Bruce Lee was offered a lead role in a Warner Brothers production (Fuller). With the attention of Enter the Dragon, he set the platform for future martial arts stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
It was not until the 1990s that a Hollywood film had an all Asian-American cast, which became a huge success. The Joy Luck Club presented Asian Americans outside of stereotypical views and its depiction was highly praised. Although it took over two decades to have an all Asian cast non-martial arts film set in modern times, the effort was praised and celebrated. Nowadays, more lead roles are being played by Asian actors, whose talents are critically acclaimed and rewarded. TV series that have Asians leads are The Mindy Project, Master of None, and Fresh off the Boat (Davé). With the rise of casting Asian Americans in Hollywood, there is now better Asian American representation in the film industry. Hollywood needs to see the success of having inclusivity and equal representation of Asian Americans.
The performances with “yellow face” should no longer be praised (Fuller). Hollywood praises itself for Asian representation in highly acclaimed films like The Good Earth, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The King and I, yet those films did not have Asian in lead roles. Rather roles were played by white actors in yellow faces. This practice is offensive. In 1920s, Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American film star (Fuller). She made lots of films, but most of her roles portrayed an exaggerated stereotype of Asian. Because she was consistently typecast, she grew tired of her characters and said she wanted a lead role. So when Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, a book about life in the Chinese countryside, was being cast, Anna May Wong was determined to have the lead role. Unfortunately, the roles were given to white actors, and Wong was offered the role of the stereotypical Chinese peasant, which she later irritably refused (Fuller). The role was given to actress Luise Rainer because of the Hays Code, which prohibited miscegenation. The Hays Code banned everything that included interracial dating, even if it meant that a white actor was playing as the Asian lead and had an Asian girl playing as his costar (Fuller). Asians can only be with Asians and Whites can only be with Whites. The 1937 film was later nominated for five Academy Awards with Luise Rainer winning the Best Actress award.Despite some criticism, yellow face roles continued to be highly praised. For example, Katharine Hepburn, a multiple Oscar winning actress, performed in the Dragon Seed as the Chinese heroine. Moreover, an iconic film that is still famous today stars Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This is a classic romantic movie, but it is well known for its comical bits of Holly Golightly’s Japanese neighbor played by Mickey Rooney. Rooney’s caricature with buckteeth and a phony Japanese accent. was considered racially charged humor (Fuller). Yellow face was the alternative to not casting Asians in any roles. Replacing Asian roles with Caucasian actors was thought to be more familiar and more “relatable.” Prestigious awards or critiques were given to the actors playing different ethnicities. Character portrayals were seen as challenges that were not seen as racist and offensive. During that time, those actors were insensitive and unconscious of how offensive yellow face was to large segments of the population, not only to Asian-Americans.
Despite realizing yellow face is morally wrong now, there are still white actors being cast in roles meant to be Asian. Whitewashing became the more modern alternative to yellow face (Park).The casting practice of having Caucasians as leads is still alive and well. Even in 2017, Scarlett Johansson was cast in the leading role in Ghost in the Shell. This is the most controversial recent case of whitewashing because Ghost in the Shell was a manga with its Japanese character. The reason for the production casting Johansson was because the character was “identity-less” or they never imagined for an Asian to be cast in that role (Martinelli). The film ended up being a box-office flop mainly due to the casting controversy.Another film that was also criticized for its whitewashing was Aloha, which featured Academy award winning actress Emma Stone. Stone portrays Allison Ng, a woman of Asian and Hawaiian heritage (Martinelli). The last name “Ng” indicates Asian heritage, but the production decided to cast a person with zero Asian or Hawaiian lineage. Not only did casting Stone create controversy, but so did her co-stars, for they were also white
Whitewashing is still as insensitive and offensive as yellowface. The act of whitewashing implies that Asians cannot be in noticeable roles. People assumed it was okay for white actors to become a part of a minority. The low representation of Asian Americans in films is due primarily to their being replaced by white actors.
Stereotypes of Asian life and culture have dominated the Hollywood film industry for too long. Prime examples of such stereotypes are martial arts films and many of the 1960’s films (Fuller). “Do you know anything about martial arts? You know, because you are Asian?” While the casting of Asian Americans in martial arts Hollywood films is critically praised, this hardly represents much of an advancement in diversity and inclusiveness to Hollywood just created a new stereotype that is, Asians should be in martial art films (Fuller).
The cultural representation of Asian Americans was that the majority of them were heavily “oriental.” Oriental is not necessarily a bad word; it just represents different perspectives to people (Fuller; Park). But when oriental has a negative connotation, it justifies the stereotype that Asian Americans will forever be “exotic” and never be considered American. Referring actors as exotic is like automatically sexualizing them because of their ethnicity. Asian men doing martial arts implies that they are Oriental. Actors like Bruce Li, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan are the most prominent and famous martial arts actors.Being “oriental” typecast them into only leading in martial art roles. While it did open a wall of opportunities, it also created another wall of stereotypes that all Asians are skilled in martial arts (Fuller). Asian males could only be considered leads in martial arts films.
The performances of Asians are hardly recognized in articles or prestigious award ceremonies.Asian actors should be cast in roles based on ability, not race.Asians have always been cast in side character roles or cast as the best friend or the stereotypical dragon lady villainess.Actors who did yellowface did receive nominations, but the only one to receive a best actress award was Luise Rainer in The Good Earth. Linda Hunt in 1983 received an Oscar for best supporting actress for portraying Billy Kwan. But there were still many nominations given to white actors playing Asian roles. In the iconic musical of The King and I, Yul Brynner played the King of Siam, and he won the award in the Best Actor category (Fuller). It was not until 2018 that finally Sandra Oh who starred in the Killing Eve TV series, was nominated for an Emmy award in the Best Actress category. Ultimately, making her the first Asian American to be nominated in the category.
Despite Sandra Oh not winning the Emmy Award, she opened opportunities for Asian Americans in the industry. Asians already have a small representation, so there are barely any Asian to receive industry nominations and awards.
Filmmakers insist that movies with minorities in lead roles are risky. In the 1930s, the Hays code prevented interracial marriages even in films, but decades later there is still a small number of minorities cast as leads, especially Asians (Fuller). The film industry invests in productions that are on demand. Because America is predominantly white, the majority of the money domestically comes from white people. Therefore, casting white people will be more relatable to the majority of the population. If you look at the population of the United States, at least three quarters is white, and 30% is mixed ethnicities. The Asian minority is 6% (U.S. Department of Commerce). The target of films is to make a profit, so why cast the second least populating minority in the United States?
Hollywood believes that well-known white actors attract more audience and maximize the profits (Davé). “Producer Dana Brunetti on whitewashing the real-life protagonists of 21 said there are no ‘bankable’ Asian American actors that were available” (Martinelli). Studios will not risk casting Asian actors because they are not blockbuster movie stars. Asian American actors do not have the qualified resume to be cast in a blockbuster.
Hollywood cast movies based on the overall look of its cast. Having white actors as leads are great, but having minorities play supporting characters means enough diversity in the minds of many Hollywood productions (Martinelli). The face of the production is the main focus. So, having a white actor in the poster is a lot more appealing (Davé). This maximizes the chances that the film will do well not only domestically but also internationally. The plethora of minorities in supporting roles overshadows the white lead, so it is diverse enough. Having an international cast is sufficient (Martinelli).
Should race matter when it comes to casting? The counterargument is to those who say that Asian Americans do not have a history or are not popular or that a white actor is better off in the first place. Hollywood talks the same. It proclaims its support for diversity, but in the end, they only care about the bottom line – how much money will the film bring in in profit? It only makes sense that they have a responsibility to maximize their profits. So it must cast well-known “white” stars in lead roles. There are dozens of films that have white actors that fail that can also mean there can be films that have Asian Americans that fail. If white actors can be forgiven for having a box office failure, why cannot an Asian have one? For the films that cast white actors in lead roles that should have been given to Asians, those films’ profits plummeted due to its controversy. Even if we have a white lead with minorities in supporting roles, that does not mean we claim diversity. This is basically insinuating that minorities can only be in supporting roles. It still shows that minorities are consistently underrepresented in Hollywood.
There is some institutionalized racism that automatically calls for a person to only cast white people because they attract more people and succeed in the box office. There is proof for Asian Americans succeeding, productions just do not follow through in giving them opportunities. For example, Flower Drum Song became the first film to cast people with only Asian descent (Fuller). It did well in the box office, but it was not until decades later with The Joy Luck Club that another attempt was made for an all Asian cast. How can Asian Americans “qualify” for a film, if there are not any opportunities for them? Asian actors become nonbankable stars because studios would not risk casting them. Netflix recently released To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before having an Asian American as the romantic lead role. She was of Korean descent and the film itself is very popular with teens. Another film, Crazy Rich Asians exceeded box office expectations. It became the first film by a major Hollywood studio to have an Asian American cast in a modern setting since the The Joy Luck Club (Ho). Crazy Rich Asians is now one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies in a decade. This clearly shows casting Asian Americans in lead roles has the ability for a film to be successful.
Minorities make up 40% of the US population, but they are the most underrepresented in the film industry. It is time for change and it is all about diversity and inclusivity. Hollywood needs to commit to casting Asian Americans and more minority groups in more prominent roles. The film industry must move forward so people can look past the history of yellow face, whitewashing, and exaggerated stereotypes, and finally achieve a fitting representation of all minorities. There is an increase of tv series featuring Asian Americans like The Mindy Project, Crazy Rich Asians, and Master of None. Currently there is an all Asian cast for Mulan that is being released by Disney, and a sequel of Crazy Rich Asians is being produced (Davé; Ho). So, the industry is just getting started.
- Davé, Shilpa. “Racial Accents, Hollywood Casting, and Asian American Studies.” Cinema Journal, vol. 56, no. 3, 2017, pp. 142–147. EBSCOhost. 29 November 2018.
- Fuller, Karla Rae. Hollywood Goes Oriental: CaucAsian Performance in American Film. Wayne State University Press, 2010. EBSCOhost. 29 November 2018.
- Ho, Karen K. “Seeing Is Believing.” Time, vol. 192, no. 8, Aug. 2018, pp. 40–46. EBSCOhost. 29 November 2018.
- Martinelli, Marissa. “The Seven Strategies for Defending Your Problematic TV Show or Movie.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 24 Mar. 2017, slate.com/culture/2017/03/filmmakers- and-actors-keep-defending-casting-controversies-but-here-s-why-their-arguments- fail.html.
- Park, Ji Hoon. “Representation of Asians in Hollywood Films: Sociocultural and Industrial Perspectives.” Conference Papers — International Communication Association, May 2005, pp. 1–22. EBSCOhost. 29 November 2018.
- U.S. Department of Commerce. “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: UNITED STATES.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045217.
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