In May 2016, controversy arose after two Caucasian actresses, Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson were cast to play Asian characters in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” and Dreamworks’ “Ghost in the Shell.”
This same backlash followed on the heels of Emma Stone’s casting in “Aloha,” where she played a part-Asian character.
The casting of Caucasian actors in Asian roles is a practice common in film, known as “whitewashing,” from Katharine Hepburn’s role as a Chinese woman in “Dragon Seed” in 1944 to Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of I.Y. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1961.
While it is more believable to accept whitewashing over 50 years ago, why is whitewashing still practiced in Hollywood?
Perhaps the biggest reason is the lack of high-profile Asian-American actors that possess the same “star power” as Emma Stone or Scarlett Johansson.
A PBS study found that around 73.1 percent of film actors were white in 2014, followed by 12.5 percent of blacks, and only 5.3 percent Asians. The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California found that only 1.4 percent of actors in studio films in 2014 were Asian.
For the few Asian actors that do get top billing, they play tired, old stereotypes that are still perpetuated in media. Classic Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, known for being the first internationally recognized Asian actress out of Hollywood, temporarily left the industry to act in European films after admitting her frustration with being typecast as a dragon lady in Hollywood.
They are also frequently portrayed as martial arts superstars — like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Jet Li — or prostitutes and mail order brides in films like “The World of Suzie Wong” or “Full Metal Jacket.”
How can we address this pervasive problem?
The New York Times recently reported that well-known Asian entertainers like Mindy Kaling and Ken Jeong have started 3AD, a production company meant to represent more Asian-American and other minority actors.
Social media is another avenue for spreading awareness about the need for more representation of Asians in American entertainment. Author Ellen Oh developed the hashtag #whitewashedOUT to bring attention to the detrimental practice of whitewashing in film.
John Cho, a prominent Korean-American actor known for his roles in the “Harold and Kumar” films, was refused for other top roles in film despite his notoriety. In response, he started reimagining his face in mainstream movie posters, accompanying the movement with a hashtag that got huge #starringjohncho.
Speaking out against tired stereotypes is another sure way to discourage these roles from being written in the first place. Instead, we should encourage filmmakers, producers, writers, and actors to advocate for more diversity and inclusion in media.
The film industry will only benefit from diversity; a study from the University of California, Los Angeles found that movies make the most money when exactly half the cast is non-white.
Asian-Americans have long been known as the “invisible” minority. Let’s change this notion once and for all.
Do you think Asian-Americans and other minorities need more representation in media? Tweet @issabasco