A running joke between my friends and me during my high school and college years was that I suffered from “yellow fever.” The phrase is racist, even in jest, as it associates dating Asians with a disease and I started to notice the word choice my friends would use when referencing my girlfriends. Using words like exotic, asking where her family was from or what I ate when I visited her family for dinner struck me as odd since all, with one exception, of my (ex) girlfriends are from the United States.
Accusations of bad driving and dog-eating, female portrayals as dragon ladies and tiger moms, blended with images of Chinese workers taking American jobs are well known to American media and have been discussed at length by others including a great piece in the Atlantic. These stereotypes might seem harmless but they produce the narrative that Asian cultures do not integrate with American culture and identifying Asians as “other.” The media continues to promote the "otherness" of Asian Americans, which regulates them to perpetual foreigners and facilitates the disturbing trend known in Hollywood as whitewashing.
“Whitewashing” is a term that applies to instances when established (either in books, graphic novels/comics, TV shows, games) non-white characters are adapted to the silver screen with white actors. The most egregious case occurs in the 2008 movie, 21 adapted from the book, Bringing down the House about a real-life team of mostly Asian American MIT students and their Asian American professor counting cards in Vegas. However, for the film, the two male leads, based on Asian Americans Jeff Ma and John Chang, are portrayed by white actors, Jim Strugges and Kevin Spacey, and as Nick Rogers at The Enterprise put it, “disappointingly lumps its only major Asian actors (Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira) into one-note designations as the team’s kleptomaniac and a slot-playing ‘loser.’” The decade closed out with the 2010 films Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender facing criticism for casting white actors such as Jake Gyllenhaal in “Eastern” roles.
We should remind ourselves that Hollywood has come a long way since the days of Mickey Rooney’s highly offensive and racist, Mr. Yunioshi, for the 1961 film, Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Still, as Heroes co-star Masi Oka told the Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, “You can’t get Asians cast in leads yet. Maybe as a second lead, but the lead is still going to be Caucasian or African American.”
Despite a long history of Asian influence in Hollywood behind the camera Asian actors are still typecast as exotic or foreign and the recent ascendancy of Chinese economic and industrial power has stoked fears that China will replace the United States as the world superpower.
Hollywood often claims the need for a bankable star reduces the number of Asian lead actors. As someone unfamiliar with motion picture production and marketing budgets, I lack the necessary facts to refute this point. All I can say is off the top of my head I can think of Masi Oka, James Kyson, and B.D. Wong (and others), all actors who have fan bases outside the Asian community.
With Hollywood’s increasing dependence on Asian and in particular Chinese ticket sales — 2nd largest film market behind the U.S. according to Forbes — a larger presence of Asian lead characters might end up helping Hollywood’s bottom line. Hopefully, this gives Hollywood economic incentive to truly embrace and promote the cultural diversity of the real America.