The Annihilation of Asian Representation
What does Natalie Portman have in common with Mickey Rooney, Tilda Swinton, and Scarlett Johansson?
These actors, all of whom are white, have acted in film as characters who are of Asian descent, or who are of Asian descent in the original iteration of the character.
Rooney’s degrading portrayal of I.Y. Yunioshi, Audrey Hepburn’s landlord in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is the classic example of “yellowface,” the portrayal of distinctly Asian characters by white actors, and the use of racist stereotypes in film. In 2016’s Doctor Strange, Swinton plays The Ancient One, who was originally Tibetan in the comics. For the film, the character was “reimagined” as Celtic. Johansson plays Major Motoko Kusanagi in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, a live action remake of a Japanese anime film. Her casting was a blatant sign of whitewashing an Asian character with a white actress.
In this year’s Annihilation, released last February, Portman portrays the protagonist who is described as a character having part-Asian descent in the original novels written by Jeff VanderMeer. The whitewashing in Annihilation has reignited an on-going conversation not only about the whitewashing of Asian-Americans in the American entertainment industry, but the continual racial and cultural ignorance that permeates the United States.
As an Asian-American, I am used to not seeing myself and characters who look like me on screen. I am usually surprised when I see an Asian-American character on screen that is a speaking, or is a developed character that matters. But, I am tired of the film industry constantly misinterpreting and ignoring my culture, and of the blatant absence of Asian-American representation in Hollywood.
According to a 2016 study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, of all speaking or named characters evaluated across film, television, and streaming services, only 5.1 percent of them were Asian, and at least half of the projects had no Asian characters at all.
There is a clear lack of roles for Asian-Americans in Hollywood. If there are roles, particularly high-profile ones, they often go to white actors, like Portman. This leads many Asian-American actors to either abandon their attempts to break into the acting business, or to settle for stereotypical and one-note parts that service lead characters, who are often white. They play IT guys, geeks, prostitutes, if they’re present at all. This is not a problem unique to Hollywood. Stereotypes in American culture consistently reinforce a shallow and hackneyed image of Asian-Americans in society.
American society continues to be racially and culturally ignorant of Asian-Americans and their culture, appropriating their culture without true understanding, and reducing them to stereotypes. Despite the prevalence of the internet and the information about other cultures it provides, despite a shrinking world that is more connected than it ever has been before, despite the fact that Asians have been living in America since at least the 17th century, there remains an underlying sense of otherness — that Asian-Americans are foreigners and aliens that should “Go back to China!”
Not only does this sentiment ignore the many Asian-Americans who were born in the United States and consume the same culture, eat the same food, attend the same schools, and so on, but it also overgeneralizes the diversity among Asian-Americans themselves. Many are just as “American” as any paragon of American cultural identity.
Stereotypes in film reflect the stereotypes of society. Asian-American culture and identity is often brutally simplified to IT guys, geeks, prostitutes, Kung Fu and ninja masters, comic relief, or weak, fragile characters, which in turn, are depicted on screen. This is not reality. Entertainment is an integral part of popular culture and, in many ways, directly influences social discourse in everyday society.
In 2016, the Academy Awards received intense backlash for the lack of diversity among the nominees, called #OscarsSoWhite, which plagued the build-up to the award ceremony. African-American actor and comedian Chris Rock was chosen as the host in reaction to the controversy, and he spoke extensively about it in his opening monologue. Later in the broadcast, Rock introduced three Asian-American kids dressed in oversized business suits as “Academy accountants” in a skit. This was planned and written by the ceremony writers and executed by Rock. The irony, hypocrisy, and tone-deafness of the skit exemplifies how people in Hollywood, even those that advocate for representation and equality, continue to play into stereotypes and be ignorant of Asian-American identity and culture.
Hollywood’s enduring depiction of these restrictive stereotypes about an entire ethnicity is both hurtful and detrimental. Asian-Americans, like other minorities, are tired of seeing themselves flatly portrayed on screen, or not portrayed at all. We are tired of being boiled down to thinly-drawn roles that are often created solely to fit tokenism, a superficial practice of including minority characters simply to check off the diversity box. We want to see ourselves properly represented in popular culture. We want to have our stories told.
Many have celebrated the diversity and progressiveness of Annihilation, a science-fiction studio film with a predominately female cast, including African-American Tessa Thompson and Latina Gina Rodriguez. But, does this diversity and progressiveness stop before Asian-Americans are represented? Casting Thompson and Rodriguez is wonderful, but does casting them seemingly mean that other minorities can’t also be represented — that the minority of the lead character that is explicitly described in the novels can’t be correctly portrayed?
How is this acceptable, in 2018, when Hollywood is (rightfully) beaming in the goodwill of Black Panther’s success, which celebrates not only diversity and inclusion, but an appreciation and understanding of a non-white and non-American culture? African-Americans have been able to finally see themselves beyond the basic stereotypes of black characters, or in the backdrop of slavery and poverty. They have experienced an empowering, representative film that they can relate to. This is something I want to see on a movie theater screen, something I, as an Asian-American, want to experience.
Your move, Hollywood.