APA Media Coalition condemns Hollywood’s use of whitewashing and yellowface


LOS ANGELES — The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition issued a statement condemning recent decisions to select two white actresses to play the roles of Asian characters in forthcoming films.

“Scarlett Johansson will play a Japanese cyborg whose name has been changed from Major Motoko Kusanagi to simply ‘The Major’ in the new DreamWorks film adaptation of Japanese anime and manga series ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and Tilda Swinton is playing a character originally written as a Tibetan sorcerer, the Ancient One, in Marvel’s upcoming ‘Doctor Strange’ film,” a statement by the coalition said.

The coalition decried the whitewashing of roles, saying such casting decisions “contribute to the exclusion of Asian Americans as well as thoughtful Asian and Asian American narratives from mainstream media.”

The coalition said that the use of whitewashing and yellowface, in which a “non-Asian character or actor artificially changes their appearance in an attempt to portray East Asian features …” are discriminatory practices that Hollywood has long used. Past examples of yellowface — instances in which “actors’ appearances were altered in an attempt to make them ‘look Asian’” — in mainstream films include Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and David Carradine in “Kung Fu,” the statement said.

The “community’s anger around yellowface has been stoked by reports that ‘Ghost in the Shell’ producers tested visual effects to make white actors appear Asian,” the coalition said, noting that whereas “blackface is broadly recognized as a practice that proliferates and sustains racist images and attitudes, it is disheartening that yellowface is not understood to be as insidious or objectionable,” the statement said.

The coalition said that whitewashing is “the more widespread and damaging convention of rewriting and recasting Asian and Asian American characters as white stories — including real life stories adapted to film — erases Asian Americans from the diverse narratives they experience in our country. Recent examples include the casting of … “several roles in ‘The Last Airbender’ film adaptation, and Emma Stone as Asian American in ‘Aloha.’ In adapting the book, ‘The Martian,’ to film, the producers chose to race-bend two leading Asian American characters with black and white actors. Asian American voice actors are similarly excluded in many of the lead roles in Focus Features’ upcoming animated film ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ which is set in ancient Japan.”

APAMC Co-Chair Daniel Mayeda said, “Hollywood has sought to justify this casting convention as an attempt to win box office favor, but whitewashed stories have tended to be both financial and critical disasters. Instead of having white actors play Asian roles or make them look more Asian, it would make so much more sense for studios to actually cast Asian Americans. Audiences respond to authenticity and numerous studies have now shown that diversity sells.”

While the film’s “trailer depicts Asian settings and costumes, with nary a Celtic knot in sight,” Marvel has stated that Swinton is playing a Celtic sorcerer in “Doctor Strange,” the coalition noted.

“Marvel’s additional explanation that they did not want to depict a Tibetan sorcerer because the Chinese government might be angered is disingenuous; the filmmakers could easily have changed the setting to another region in Asia or to Marvel’s own fictionalized magical region of ‘K’un Lun’ (as featured in Iron Fist comics), and kept the Asian elements that they so clearly wish to maintain,” the statement said.

The coalition said the argument of the lack of “A-list” Asian American actors to star in films “rings hollow when filmmakers frequently cast little known white actors to star in big budget movies. … Furthermore, the ‘not bankable’ argument is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Asian American actors can’t become known or bankable unless they are cast in movies, and yet Hollywood refuses to cast them even for parts that, according to source material, were written for Asians or Asian Americans.” the statement said.

“The controversy over Hollywood racism that reached a high point at this year’s Oscar ceremony affects all people of color, including Asians Americans …”
APAMC said that it “urges Hollywood to follow in the footsteps of box office successes that have sought authenticity, inclusion and diversity such as Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’ (2016) and ‘Big Hero 6,’ Justin Lin’s ‘Fast and the Furious’ films ….”

One response to “APA Media Coalition condemns Hollywood’s use of whitewashing and yellowface”

  1. Esther Trosow Avatar
    Esther Trosow

    In David Carradine and KUNG FU’s defense, the character he played was HALF Chinese–his father was supposed to be a white American. That show featured many Asian actors. The early 1970s was a different time, when the networks ruled–they never would have greenlighted that project without Carradine in the starring role. Carradine had a previous series (SHANE) under his belt, and a famous name. That and he was perfect for the role.

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