Asians haven’t had it easy in Hollywood. For most of American film’s existence, East Asian characters have been portrayed by Caucasians in yellowface and/or consistently the villain or man servant. Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong complained in a 1933 interview, “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass? We are not like that. … We have our own virtues. We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show these on the screen? Why should we always scheme, rob, kill?” While The King and I is a classic musical, Yul Brynner was a Rromani Russian who was not born, or descended from those born, in what was then called Siam. Characters from Pakistan or Afghanistan are almost always terrorists. In Tina Fey’s recent film, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the lead characters native to Afghanistan were played by Caucasians. India hasn’t had it better either. Remember The Last Airbender? Directed by Indian born M. Night Shyamalan, it should have been every bit as diverse as the animated series it was based on. Instead, something went horribly wrong. The Fire Tribe, known for being the antagonists of the series, were populated by Indians, Maori and other people of color. Other major characters, including the star, were Caucasian while East Asians were almost nonexistent.
Stop turning Asian roles white. It's bullshit and we all know it.
— John Cho (@JohnTheCho) March 25, 2015
As others rallied behind diversity, it’s easy to see why Asians felt ignored because they have been ignored. Despite #OscarsSoWhite, two Asians were among the winners this year: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Pakistan) and Asif Kapadia (Indian descent). However, there were no East Asian winners and the majority of East Asian representatives onstage were there a Chris Rock joke that offended many. The Martian was nominated for Best Picture and a box office success but when the film was cast, an Asian-Indian was turned into Chiwetel Ejiofor and a Korean-American became Mackenzie Davis. Of the main cast, the only Asian representation is Shu Chen, whose character was originally male, and lone Asian male of choice, Benedict Wong. When the film premiered, Guy Aoki, founding president ofThe Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), voiced the opinion, “Was Ridley Scott not comfortable having two sets of Asian-Americans talking to each other?”
Ejiofor and Wong will come up again later.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt tackled racial controversies on the Internet by putting an African-American cast member in yellowface. Is that supposed to be less offensive than blackface? Are Asians an easier target to use racial stereotypes on because most people are so ignorant about Asian stereotypes? Is it also because there are no Asians among the writing staff or main cast? Ki Hong Lee plays her ex boyfriend but he’s been in less than 1/3 of the episodes. “There isn’t an easy way of rebutting model minority stereotypes. Even when you actually puncture them, people dismiss the response because they see it as such a minor slight, something they would certainly laugh off. So why can’t you? The very act of getting upset about it ends up being a source of laughter for them,” complained writer Jeff Yang. It doesn’t help that just a handful of current shows have Asians as their lead.
Then, there’s Marvel. Their comics have plenty of Asian characters and use of their culture. So, how come the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t reflect that? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has two Asians as their leads but it’s not as beloved or respected as the Netflix Marvel series or their feature films. Ask the average moviegoer to name an Asian character from the MCU films and it’s doubtful they could come up with Dr. Helen Cho, Hogun, Trevor Slattery, or Writer. Perhaps they would name the terrorists who kidnapped Tony Stark or the actual Mandarin even though that was Guy Pearce. Now Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be recognized for having the greatest diversity of the MCU projects and Elektra on Netflix’ Daredevil is played by Elodie Yung. Marvel was under intense pressure to cast the title character of their new Netflix series, Iron Fist, as an Asian. Older fans complained that Danny Rand must always be blond hair with blue eyes. However, this is the same Marvel that in the past five years had Loki as a young teenager, Thor as a woman and Captain America as a biracial female as though anything goes. Why should readers expect anything less from their television and films?
Finn Jones was cast as Danny Rand. The showrunners are also Caucasian. Of course, an Asian Danny Rand would have faced criticism for continuing the stereotype of all Asians knowing martial arts, just as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was criticized for Ming-Na Wen showing off her real life talents with Wushu. Still, the fact that Iron Fist can be summarized as white boy learns Eastern culture for his own gain shows how easily it could turn into a White Savior story and/or demonize the Asians that make up his various nemeses. But everything is supposed to be okay because Jessica Henwick is playing Colleen Wing; a superhero so well developed that in 42 years Marvel has never even bothered to give her mother a name!
Marvel is also making Doctor Strange into a feature film. A man taught magic by Tibetan mystics. This HAS to feature Asians, right? Maybe even Doctor Strange himself? Well…no, the title character remains MCU’s default lead: Caucasian male. China keeps tight restrictions on Tibet, periodically closing it to foreigners without giving a reason and not allowing Tibetans to travel outside the country. Just having Tibet or Tibetans in a film is usually grounds for China to ban it. China also bans films for characters using witchcraft or supernatural means. However, they can be more lenient towards foreigners or monsters depicted with such abilities like in China’s biggest box office hit ever, Monster Hunt. Still, it means that if Disney kept any of the magic users as East Asian, China would ban it from its theatres and China is one of main sources for a film’s gross now. Star Wars: The Force Awakens made $125.4 million in US money in China and it was considered dismal especially compared with the $391 million made by Furious 7 in China.
C. Robert Cargill, one of Doctor Strange’s screenwriters, explained on the Youtube program, Double Toasted, about Doctor Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One.
“The thing with the Ancient One is that it is Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru. There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable…So what Scott [Derrickson] decided to do…He said, ‘There is no real way to win this so let’s use this opportunity to cast an amazing actress in a male role, and sure enough, there’s not a lot of talk about ‘Aw, they took away a job from a guy and gave it to a women.’ Everyone kind of pats us on the back for that but then scolds us for her not being Tibetan. That’s just the way it’s going to be. We knew that the social justice warriors would be angry either way.”
Well…yeah. Established above, the Ancient One or companions couldn’t be Tibetan. Since magic was involved, they couldn’t be Chinese. Any Korean or Japanese actors might be assumed to be a Chinese character that the film company is trying to slide past the rules so the film would still be banned. However, did they really have to cast the whitest white girl they could think of? Even without being able to use East Asians, there are plenty of other races besides Caucasian. Or did they max out their diversity quota by hiring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong? Yep, remember them? Ejiofor plays Baron Mordo, originally a Transylvanian nobleman, and Wong plays…Wong, Strange’s faithful manservant. Wong once again appears to be the sole male Asian in the main cast. In some issues, Wong is extremely important to Doctor Strange; almost an equal depending on the writer. However, he’s not even in the trailer. Sure, they could just want his character to be a surprise but Luke Skywalker wasn’t in the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and look how much screen-time he had.
Alibaba, a Chinese film company, has invested money in American productions like Mission Impossible: Rogue Nations, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Star Trek Beyond while other companies, like Disney, have shot whole subplots for films that would only be shown in the Chinese release. It appears that the American companies are perfectly happy with taking Chinese money without acknowledging their Asian audiences outside China.
Well, Disney does also care about Korea’s money. Big Hero 6 was an animated film based on a Marvel series. The superhero team was a diverse band of scientists that created their own powers. This was changed from the original comics where all members were Japanese and based in Tokyo because they were funded by the Japanese government. One of their villains was Everwraith; a corporal body created by the souls of every victim from the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Hiro, the main character, was kept Japanese and given a brother. Everything else was changed to a more Americanized usage of Japanese culture. This was done to make it more marketable overseas but mostly for China and Korea. Both countries were invaded by Japan during World War II and Korea was occupied for 35 years. In a 2014 BBC World Service Poll, 90% of Chinese citizens viewed Japanese influence negatively. Last year, China lifted a three year ban on Japanese films for Stand by Me Doraemon. Until the last 20-25 years, Korea banned all Japanese cultural imports. Non-award winning animated films from Japan weren’t allowed in Korea until 2006. The original Big Hero 6 comic featured the Rising Sun prominently. It’s featured on the official flag of Japan. However, for China and Korea, it’s an emotional trigger. Prior to release, enough complaints were raised from Koreans that Disney had to issue a statement that “There are no Rising Sun flags on display in the movie, nor was it the intention to suggest the Rising Sun flag.” In addition to toning down the Japanese symbolism, Disney changed all remaining Japanese names and words. Hiro became Hero and his brother, Tadashi, was changed to Teddy. There was even a sequence developed for the film that was scrapped since sumo wrestling is a Japanese specialty.
Ghost In The Shell, while just one film, is a pillar in Asian media. It's not simply a scifi thriller. Not to me, not to many others.
— Jon Tsuei (@jontsuei) April 15, 2016
The final straw for most Asians in the American entertainment industry came with the first official photo of Scarlett Johansson playing Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Even working on the assumption that Kusanagi is an entity that uses prosthetic bodies to achieve her ends or a cyber body controlled by the military in the television series last year, why put Johansson in a stereotypical Japanese cut and color? Why not blue or pink or other colors associated with Anime, like the violet color used by Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell: Arise? Then, unsubstantiated rumors came out that Paramount ordered visual effects tests on how it would look to make Johansson and others look more Japanese through computers. Yes, that would be digital yellowface. All claims have been denied but the fact that they made Johansson look Japanese in hair and clothing begs to differ. There are Asians in the cast but it looks like the lead characters, director and producers are almost all Caucasian. Tetsuya Fujimura and Mitsuhisa Ishikawa are Executive Producers while Avi and Ari Arad, brothers born in Israel, are Producers. You may recall Avi Arad as the man who said that Spider-Man in the films “absolutely” had to be Peter Parker after producing the last five Spider-Man films. He’s also not involved in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
— Ming-Na Wen (@MingNa) April 14, 2016
Constance Wu spoke out specifically on the CGI test rumor:
One of the excuses used for casting Johansson was that there wasn’t an A-List Asian actress available. Ghost in the Shell is a multi-million dollar franchise including manga, anime, films, television series and video games. The latest Dragon Ball 7 film, Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection made over $61 million US dollars even though it was only shown in seven countries in a limited number of theatres over a very short period of time. When any sort of anime makes that much money, why does a film even need recognizable celebrities? Unless they’re planning on changing the anime so it might not be recognizable? Or toning down the Japanese element For Korea, maybe China if it can be edited down to a PG-13?
Hollywood needs to do better. There are cultural considerations. China and Korea can find some Japanese culture triggering. Pakistan banned films from India from 1962-2006. Using those concerns as an excuse to white-wash a role or erase cultural elements from all versions of a film is just wrong. Even now, after this backlash, Asian roles are still being played by Caucasians. In the new Mighty Morphin Power Rangers film, Rita Repulsa, originally portrayed on-screen by Machiko Soga, is played by Elizabeth Banks. Will the new live action adaptation of Pokemon be any different?
Will Ash be played by an Asian actor?
Also, looking bad for the Marvel Cinematic Universe specifically?
Karen Fukuhara will play Katana and seems to have more screentime in the trailers than Hogun did in both Thor films. Suicide Squad doesn’t have to worry about playing by China’s rules because their R rating ensures, like Deadpool, that it would never be shown there anyway.
Plus, Marvel’s sister company Lucasfilm, who cast Jessica Henwick as a Resistance pilot, Ken Leung as a Resistance officer and various smaller roles with Asians in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has added another Asian to Episode 8.
Kelly Marie Tran was recently referred to by co-star John Boyega as Episode 8’s “new lead”.
Now, if only rampant racism and Star War’s disappointing box office in China wouldn’t stop Hollywood from following their lead.
Maybe Fox will hire an Asian actress for X-23…
What should you be on the lookout for?