Yesterday, I talked about the impulse to present minorities in the best light in popular culture and why I don’t follow that line of thought. To recap, I have no interest in caricatures, and while I understand the impulse, I don’t think it ultimately helps the minority in questions to be seen as individuals. Also, as a creator, I hate the idea of dictating to people what they can and can’t create. Art should be thrilling and outrageous, and it should poke and pry in all the dark corners of human nature. Put too many strictures on it, and it becomes anodyne and toothless. The things that we don’t want to talk about are often the best fodder for the greatest art.
I ended by stating that I was somewhat hypocritical because I do criticize other creators for their choices, and I wasn’t sure where to draw the line. In thinking more about it, I realized that my criticism is based on products that already exist. I’m specifically talking about Hollywood and how amazing they are about whitewashing PoC or even worse, yellowface (and other colors of faces). Even as I write this, there’s a controversy over the Black Panther pin and how Disney lightened his skin. In the first picture, he looked white. In the second picture, he was definitely black, but light-skinned. Hollywood is unbelievable in its stubborn insistence in pandering to what they believe to be the mainstream. I’ve noted it on other occasions on how insipid Hollywood is. Most of their movies are safe, boring, and focus grouped on that mythic creature–the average, middling (white, male, young) American. When they manage to create a hit, they suck everything out of it with the energy of an emotional vampire.
Anyway, the difference is that these products are already out there, and Hollywood is simply recreating them. They are not bringing anything new to the party as it were, and the results have been anemic. Ghost in the Shell was the pinnacle for me, and it made me realize how fucking hopeless Hollywood is. It has no spine, and it lives firmly in the past. In 2017, diversely cast movies performed well, better than most of the anemic fare that Hollywood churns out these days. What Hollywood doesn’t seem to realize is that even white middle America has moved past the 1950s, and even Joe from Nebraska or Chad from Beverly Hills can handle an actual person of color in an actual person of color role in a movie that isn’t dominated by white people.
I’m still being hypocritical because it’s not only remakes that draw my ire, but any time Hollywood wants to pass off a white person as an Asian. I think I’ll rephrase it as not hypocritical but context specific. Obviously, this doesn’t hold true for the written word, at least not in the same way. There have been poorly-written minority characters by white people (and other people in the majority), of course, but that’s another post for another day. If you are going to have an Asian character, then fucking cast an Asian person. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot have our stories and our culture, then erase us from the whole lot* as if we don’t matter. It’s one of the most infuriating things about the GitS example. Hollywood took what is uniquely a Japanese story, then took Japan out of it. The director protested it was an international story, which is bullshit. Even if it’s true, Japan is international. Why couldn’t the main character be Japanese?
It was at that moment that I gave up on Hollywood. Not that I had much faith in them in general nor that I watch many movies. I find most Hollywood movies to be so artificial, and I can never forget that I’m watching a movie. This, too, is another post for another day. In fact, I’m quite sure I’ve written posts about it before. But in their cravenness with GitS, I mentally walked away from the whole endeavor. They weren’t going to change any time soon, and they have an even bigger problem now.** I have to admit to a bit of schadenfreude that all these big name yellowfaced/whitewashed movies flopped a barrel of fish being poured out on the deck. Will they learn from it? Probably not. Hollywood is nothing if not intractable.
I don’t seek validation from popular culture, especially not Hollywood. I grew up as a slanted-eyed yellow child in the suburbs of lily-white Minnesota, and I rarely saw any face that looked like mine on TV except for the extras of M*A*S*H of which there seemed to be an endless supply. I didn’t read about kids like me, either, and I can’t tell you how strange it is to feel a hunger for which you have no name. I didn’t realize at the time how much I longed for popular culture that looked like me, even in the slightest. Things have gotten better since then in many ways, but there’s still a dearth of popular culture for those of us of the Asian American*** persuasion.
When it was first came to be known that Mulan was going to be remade into a live-action film, there was a rumor that the lead role was going to be given to a white actress, and the shit hit the fan. More than just the usual suspects were up in arms, and Disney was quick to reassure that this wasn’t the case. They were going to China, you see, and get an actual Chinese actress, praise be. Asian Americans let out our collective breath, and, yes, I can speak for her. Now, you’re probably saying, “Minna, how in the world would a movie about Mulan be made without casting a Chinese actress? That would be madness!” Yes, well, I wouldn’t have thought they would have the audacity to make Ghost in the Shell without casting an actual Japanese actress (RINKO KIKUCHI FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WAS BORN FOR THIS ROSE) as Major who lost her goddamn name.
There was a post I read after this whole brouhaha was settled in which an Asian American writer said that while this was all nice, the actress should be Chinese American because Mulan is such a uniquely American story (the Disney version). I understood some of her points, but I didn’t agree. This is the problem when you are starving for something resembling representation in the popular media. When you look around, and you don’t see anything like you, you cram any crumbs in your mouth as quickly as you can. You don’t care if it’s filet mignon or chopped hamburger, but later, you may wish you hadn’t eaten it. It’s the same. When you don’t have representation, you’re grateful at first for any crumbs tossed your way. It’s only later that you start wanting more. You want representation that reflects you as you really are. Even I, the one who scoffs popular media and what it can or can’t validate, can’t help but want that kind of representation. It’s human nature, but it’s a life lesson that we can’t find validation outside of ourselves.
Hollywood sucks. I’ll be blunt. I don’t expect them to see the light of their ways, especially as they’re dealing with the sexual assault issue that is pervasive in their industry. It doesn’t stop that little part of me from hoping and wanting, though. How I wish it weren’t so.
*Of course they can and have, but I’m speaking in the moral sense of the word.
**The cavalcade of sexual abuse that is streaming out of Hollywood right now is disgusting and depressing, but not a surprise at all.
***The American bit is most important. There is a huge difference between being Asian and being Asian American. If you are Asian and grow up in Asia, you are surrounded by people who look like you, who share roughly the same culture, and there is plenty of representation of you in media. If you’re Asian and growing up in America, especially not California or New York, well, it can be a very isolating experience.