Hollywood has had a long and problematic history of casting white actors and actresses in the roles of Asian characters. 55 years ago, when Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s was adapted to film, Caucasian Mickey Rooney was cast as the Japanese photographer I. Y. Yunioshi. Today, nothing has changed. Last year, Emma Stone played part-Chinese, part-native Hawaiian Allison Ng in Aloha. Tilda Swinton played a Tibetan monk in Marvel’s latest film Doctor Strange, and recently, Scarlett Johansson was cast as the cyborg Mokoto Kusanagi in the Japanese Ghost in the Shell series, amid reports that CGI effects would be used to make her appear more “Asian.”
The persistent phenomenon of casting white actors in roles traditionally meant for minorities has given rise to the term “whitewashing.” Hollywood seems to think that diversity doesn’t translate into box office money, insisting that its casting decisions have to do with actors’ box office track records rather than their race. This argument has been debunked multiple times. For instance, critics have frequently emphasized that the Fast and Furious series, though its cast is comprised predominantly of minorities, still managed to gross billions of dollars worldwide. In reality, Hollywood can’t afford to alienate minorities: for instance, China was the world’s fastest growing movie market in 2014. Yet somehow, 75.2% of speaking roles go to Caucasians. Despite constituting 5% of the American population, only 1% of Hollywood’s leading actors are Asian.
When Max Landis tried to explain his casting choice of Scarlett Johansson, he said, “there are no A-list female Asian celebrities right now on an international level.” Similarly, Andy Sorkin’s leaked email revealed that he had complained about how difficult an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book Flash Boys would be, because “there aren’t any Asian movie stars” to play Wall Street executive Bradley Katsuyama. But The New York Times brings up a good question: “if Asian-Americans — and other minority actors more broadly — are not even allowed to be in a movie, how can they build the necessary box office clout in the first place?”
Some have taken to social media to protest the recent castings. After a Marvel writer defended Tilda Swinton by saying that casting a Tibetan could have upset the Chinese government, George Takei from Star Trek posted on Facebook, saying, “So let me get this straight. You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales…in Asia? This backpedalling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots.” Margaret Cho and Ellen Oh were behind the Twitter hashtag #WhiteWashedOut, calling the movie industry out and allowing people to share their own experiences with discrimination. The #StarringJohnCho hashtag also went viral around that time, when one Twitter user began photoshopping actor John Cho into movie posters to promote awareness about Asian underrepresentation in Hollywood.
Prominent Asian actors have also contributed their personal stories to the conversation on continuing discrimination. Gemma Chan, from the show Humans, revealed, “There have been many times when I have been told my audition has been cancelled because they’re only going to see white people.” Similarly, Constance Wu from the sitcom Fresh Off The Boat shared her experience of competing for the “ethnic friend” role, saying, “It was always the person of colour supporting the white person’s story. When you have a white girl as the lead, you can’t have an all-white cast in this day and age, so her best friend must be ethnic… they’re just trying to make it ethnic to please the politically correct, not thinking for a second that one’s ethnicity actually determines many beautiful facets of character. I often got the parts where I was going up against a black or Hispanic person, or, you know, a redhead.”
However, as Wu recounts, Asian actors face stereotyping when they do end up being cast. If not playing “the ethnic friend,” they end up in a variety of other stereotypical roles. Sometimes, they end up playing nerds, like the “Asian nerds” clique in Mean Girls; or they play submissive women, like Hana Mae Lee’s Lilly in Pitch Perfect; or the martial arts master, like Lucy Liu’s Alex Nuncy in Charlie’s Angels or Peter Shinkoda’s Nobu in Marvel’s Daredevil.
This lack of diversity in Asian-American roles is what leads to ignorant questions such as this one aimed at a Fresh Off The Boat panel: “I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?” Incidentally, the show is only the second American show to ever feature an Asian family. This question clearly shows the need for diversity in stories, not only in casting. To have Asian culture, comprised of many ethnicities and languages and movements, boiled down to “chopsticks,” is a bit of a slap in the face. Diversity is more than something to be pursued superficially – Caucasians aren’t the only people whose stories need telling. Minorities matter, their stories matter, and they are valuable, if at the very least to show that cultures are more than the utensils they use.
Unsurprisingly, Hollywood’s failure to properly represent Asian-American culture has created obstacles for the careers of Asian-American actors and actresses. Lucy Liu describes her experience of failing to come off as ‘just the right amount’ of Asian, saying, “It [becomes], ‘Well, she’s too Asian,’ or, ‘She’s too American.’ I kind of got pushed out of both categories. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.” Yet, when cast as Joan Watson in the Sherlock Holmes adaptation Elementary, Liu faced popular outrage not only for replacing Dr. Watson with a female character, but for co-opting a role meant for a white person—essentially, what people see as reverse whitewashing or “colour-blind casting.”
Those opinions are part of Hollywood’s tendency to marginalize minorities. During the 2015 Academy Awards, #OscarsSoWhite trended on twitter when no African American actor was nominated for an Oscar. However, an opportunity to raise awareness for a real issue took an ironic twist when Chris Rock, in his opening speech, brought out three Asian children dressed in suits and holding briefcases, and referred to them as PwC accountants. Arthur Chu analyzed these “jokes” as being “meta jokes—they’re jokes about how politically and socially fraught it is to talk about race,” that is, “jokes about racist jokes.” He then suggests that joking about Asian-American racism is “safe,” due to the model minority myth, which is the perception that some minorities achieve higher socioeconomic success than the average population, and thus do not require efforts or assistance in reducing discrimination.
But in fact, the Asian experience in North America has been laden with very real discrimination, and Hollywood has been complicit in perpetuating it. Describing her upbringing as an Asian-American, Ming-Na Wen from Marvel’s show Agents of Shield said, “There were a lot of times where you feel isolated or out of place… And I think that’s why I got into acting, because I wanted to be anybody else but Asian.” So many Asian people grow up without seeing themselves, their experiences, or their interests reflected in society, and that’s not okay. Representation matters.