Underneath my yellow skin

Tag Archives: yellowface

Groundhog Day: A Lesson Movie Makers Refuse to Learn

When I first heard that there was going to be yet another Asian/Pacific Islander movie starring some rando white dude, I was incredulous. Hasn’t Hollywood learned its lesson yet? Their last several high profile movies involving whitewashing were epic flops, and yet, here we are again. The movie, Ni’ihau, involves a real-life story of badass Japanese immigrant/Hawaiian Benehakaka ‘Ben’ Kanahele and his heroism during World War II. The first article I read only said that Zach McGowan was going to star in the movie, and I flinched because the story is set in Ni’ihau, a Hawaiian island, and the antagonist is Japanese. In other words, there’s nary a white person in sight, so I was imagining the director cramming in the ‘best white buddy’ character so the audience would have a lens through which to view the dramatic events. The social media response was swift, with AAPIs condemning the movie with ferocity. Even mainstream media picked up on it, though they were aggravating me because they put whitewashing in scare quotes, and many of the headlines were phrased in a way to take the onus off the director. “Ni’ihau accused of ‘whitewashing’,” was a common headline, and while I understand why ‘accused’ is in there (I can do scare quotes, too!), it simply IS whitewashing to cast a white guy to star in an AAPI movie.

Whitewashing, in case you don’t know, is taking a story of a minority culture and changing it so that it centers around white folks. The hypothesis behind that is that Americans can’t handle movies that aren’t predominantly white, and while that’s true for some people, I think Hollywood is behind the times in this matter.

I quickly found out that this case was even worse than I previously thought. Zach McGowan wasn’t going to play some rando white guy who aids Kanahele as the latter performs heroic acts; McGowan was cast as Benehakaka Kanahele. What. The. Fuck. This isn’t whitewashing, it’s yellowface, and it’s arguably worse. It’s as old as time–and one of the most notorious and shameful incidents of in modern-ish time is Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I can’t even watch two seconds of this without cringing and squinching up my face. You would think we’ve moved past this, but while the newer portrayals may not be as aggressively stereotypically offensive, they’re still as exasperating. What’s even more laughable in this case is that the producer is quoted as saying that since this is a movie based on real life events, “there is a weight to be shouldered, and the material requires the utmost care and authenticity.” Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me?!?

The base requirement for authenticity is to ACTUALLY CAST A FUCKING ASIAN/PACIFIC ISLANDER IN THE LEAD FUCKING ROLE. I cannot believe I have to say this in 2017, but that is the very least you can do for authenticity. If you don’t meet that very low requirement, I can’t take anything else you say about authenticity seriously. Speaking of which, Tamlyn Tomita, who is still amazing after all these years, has actually seen the script, and she said it was shit. No, seriously. In an email, her first words are, “I appreciate you setting this up, but this script is a piece of shit and I am not mincing words…” She then goes on to list several things wrong with the script, including the notion that this incident led to the Japanese internment camps.

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Hollywood is Donald Trump to Me Now

badass warrior woman
I will save you, Father!

Remember way back to last week when I gave Disney a modicum of praise for searching for a Chinese actress to play Mulan in the live-action version of the movie? I felt stupid for being so grateful, but that’s the low bar that I’ve set for Hollywood concerning Asian actors in movies. Well, I rescind even that modicum after the latest news concerning the movie has been leaked. A script has been written, and an Asian American insider has spilled the beans as to what it contains. I’m going to quote the money shot here because it’s just so fucking unbelievable. You can read the rest of the article here.

A white merchant’s business brings him to the heart of a legendary Asian conflict — he unwittingly helps save the day while winning the heart of the Asian female. Am I describing the plotline of the Netflix series Marco Polo? No. I’m describing the spec script that Disney bought for its live-action feature film, The Legend of Mulan, which is projected for release in 2018.


The man is a 30-something European trader who initially cares only for the pleasure of women and money. The only reason why he and his entourage decide to help the Chinese Imperial Army is because he sets eyes on Mulan. That’s right. Our white savior has come to the aid of Ancient China due to a classic case of Yellow Fever. In this script written by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, more than half of its pages are dedicated to this merchant who develops a mutual attraction with Mulan and fights to protect her in the ensuing battles. To top it all off, this man gets the honor of defeating the primary enemy of China, not Mulan. Way to steal a girl’s thunder.

I had to read this a few times before what I was reading really registered. I was certain that somebody was punking me because no way it could be this bad, right?


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Hollywood Doesn’t See Color, Especially Yellow

When I first heard that Disney was planning a live-action version of Mulan, my first reaction was, “They better cast an Asian person as Mulan.” I know it sounds ridiculous for me to say that because Mulan is fucking Chinese, but I wasn’t the only one as there was a petition to make sure Mulan was played by a Chinese actress, and it garnered nearly 105,000 signatures. It’s also not surprising I’d think that given the awful history of Hollywood in participating in yellowface, let’s say I wasn’t sanguine about this movie. At all. I mean, Katharine Hepburn as Jade in Dragon Seed. In fact, the whole main cast (except maybe one man) is not Asian, and it’s about the Second Sino-Japanese War! Andy Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is particularly dreadful. There are many examples of yellowface, and an Asian woman who runs the website home made mimi took it upon herself to recreate scenes from movies that have non-Asian actresses portraying Asian women. She includes a few recent examples, which I’ll get to in a minute. I loved the project, but it also filled me with sadness that it seems like we’re light years away from this actually happening, and it’s 2016!

Recently, there have been several anime that have been adapted into live-action movies. Most of them have non-Asian casts, including Airbender, Aeon Flux, and Akira, the last of which hasn’t been able to find itself out of production hell. Aeon Flux is one of the few anime that I really dug, and I was excited to learn that there was going to be a live-action version of it. Until it was revealed that Charlize Theron was going to be the titular character. Then, I lost complete interest and never saw the movie, not even on DVD. When I heard that the live-action version of Akira was going to be set in New York and feature white people, I was livid. Why the hell call it Akira if you’re going to cut the heart and soul out of it? It’s not Akira if it’s not set in Japan. This brings me to the movie that completely broke me–Ghost in the Shell. Deep sigh. GitS deals with the ramifications of a post-cybernetic world. It questions what it means to be human when you’re mostly robotic. And, it’s very Japanese at heart. So who gets cast as Major Motoko? Scarlett Johanssen. I can’t. Even, it’s what I can’t. To make matters worse, the director tried to defend it by saying he’s a huge anime fan and that it’s an international story. Steven Spielberg is producing the movie, and he said he’s a big GitS fan as well. He also said that a movie like this can’t be made if there isn’t a big name attached to the project, which made me scream in incoherent rage. He’s Steven fucking Spielberg. If his name isn’t big enough, who’s is? If it’s true that this is the reason Scarlett Johanssen was cast, then Hollywood is fucking broken.

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