You Want Our Ideas But Not Us: Hollywood’s Whitewashing of Asians Roundtable

You Want Our Ideas But Not Us: Hollywood’s Whitewashing of Asians Roundtable

Recently, many movie and TV show fans have raised concerns about upcoming releases that involve Asian settings or themes, but center white actors or sideline Asian voices. Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, Netflix's Iron Fist, Death Note, and The Great Wall perpetuate decades of Hollywood's marginalization of Asian actors. WWAC writers have analyzed at length

Recently, many movie and TV show fans have raised concerns about upcoming releases that involve Asian settings or themes, but center white actors or sideline Asian voices. Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, Netflix’s Iron Fist, Death Note, and The Great Wall perpetuate decades of Hollywood’s marginalization of Asian actors. WWAC writers have analyzed at length many related issues with racial and ethnic representation in media: check out Clara Mae’s posts on Harry Potter and Daredevil, and Desiree Rodriguez’s posts on Iron Fist. In this roundtable, several of us who are WWAC writers of Asian heritage share our reactions to Hollywood’s whitewashing of Asians.

Let’s share examples of recent and ongoing whitewashing. Often, it’s a character who was Asian and is then portrayed by an actor who is not Asian. It’s also settings or stories that are robbed of their context. It can also be writers, showrunners, and directors who are not Asian and thus telling a story from their own lenses. What’s an example of whitewashing that you’ve seen, and how did it make you feel?

Kelly Kanayama: Besides the Ghost in the Shell nonsense, the most recent example I can think of is Stick in Daredevil (the TV show). There are scenes where he’s depicted in ceremonial/samurai-esque kimono wielding a katana, and since he’s blind they’re really driving home the Zatoichi comparisons — except since he’s a white man who teaches another white man how to beat Asians in their own fighting practices, it feels like he’s out-Zatoichi-ing the original Zatoichi because of the superiority granted to him by his Caucasianness.

As for how it made me feel: insulted, and shitty. And angry. Shangry.

Jo Fu: I know Michelle Yeoh backed it, and she is my hero. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny being original-English made me sick to my stomach. Like, the original movie had done so much to bring wuxia to the West, and the sequel had to be a movie that white people could understand and Eastern people wouldn’t, not in its original language.

Clara Mae: Oh man. There’s a lot. Like Kelly mentioned, there’s Ghost in the Shell, but also Death Note cast non-Asians in its main roles. Speed Racer and Edge of Tomorrow, both based on manga, were also reimagined with mostly white actors. Also Dragon Ball Evolution and The Last Airbender, if we’re acknowledging those even exist. All of those films have some Asians, but somehow none of them got to play the main protagonists. It’s frustrating. You try to call out the lack of opportunities for Asian Americans to LEAD films — because starring as a film protagonist is how actors book bigger jobs and become household names — and someone always cuts you off with “But aren’t you being racist for ignoring those two Asians in the background who get five minutes of screen time?”

And then there’s a lot of animated films set in ancient China or Japan that do a poor job of casting Asian voice actors in the lead roles. I mean, you can’t even see the actors in this case, and yet somehow even in that arena they’re underrepresented. Kubo and the Two Strings’ protagonist is voiced by Rickon from Game of Thrones. Little Door Gods is a Chinese film about Chinese gods set in China, but it’s being voiced in the U.S. with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. Even Kung Fu Panda cast mostly white actors, and had Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu voice two of the side characters.

As for an Asian story being removed from its context, Godzilla always comes to mind. Godzilla was created after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, when giant radioactive monsters walking the earth was a very distinct fear for the Japanese. The whole story is very explicitly a commentary on nuclear weapons. Yet the U.S. has adapted the Godzilla story twice and focused on white Americans as the protagonists, and how the monster affects them and their homes. Yeah, they were fun, mindless monster movies. But I also think they really missed the point.

Draven Katayama: One thing that’s come up regarding Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall is that audiences in Japan or China are more tolerant of the casting of a white lead. Most moviegoers in Asian countries don’t feel the pain of lack of representation in media: they’re constantly surrounded by faces in movies, TV, and advertising that look like them. Asians in Asian countries don’t experience “perpetual foreigner syndrome” like Asians in majority white countries do. 

Seeing white leads in Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall makes me feel sad not only for Asian actors who are robbed of opportunities, but for non-Asian audiences who will be subjected to more of the same. How amazing would it have been if Awkwafina had taken the lead role in Neighbors 2, and Chloe Grace Moretz had been the supporting character? What if in Ant-Man, Anna Akana had been Hope van Dyne, and Evangeline Lilly took the minuscule role at the end of the movie? We’ll never know.

Whitewashing in Hollywood cannot be separated from the larger contexts of representation and hiring. What are examples of movies, shows, YouTube channels, theater, and more media that are getting it right, wrong, or somewhat wrong with hiring and presenting Asians?

Kelly: I love Fresh Off The Boat, mostly because of the adults. The kids and I would be about the same age (I was about Eddie’s age at the time the show takes place), but hot damn, the parents are hilarious, and when the grandmothers appear they are the epitome of Old Asian Women Who Have Aged Into The Right To Not Care Anymore. What I really love is how it captures the roots of some of our cultural uniqueness rather than just looking at the surface.

For instance, the pushy Asian mom stereotype, as portrayed in Jessica Huang: holy crap is that true, no matter how many generations out of the old country your family may be. However, the show also directly rebukes the stereotype that Asians are incapable of loving their partners or their kids, acknowledging that we’re often taught to express love differently from what we see in mainstream (white-dominated) depictions of love — but that just because we do things differently from the white mainstream doesn’t mean our ways are any less valid. (E.g. my maternal grandmother, 2nd-generation Japanese from Hawaii, never actually said the words “I love you” to me, but she didn’t have to; she cooked especially for me and my family every day, which we all understood as an ongoing demonstration of love.)

Jo: Can we talk about Kelvin Yu and Alan Yang on Master of None? As a Taiwanese-American, I have never felt more at home than when Kelvin Yu said, “I love aquariums.” To me, the role of the Taiwanese man on Master of None said that my people could be American, and totally normal beyond our “Asian-ness.” Sometimes, people will tell me that they “love Pad Thai.” Alan Yang and Kelvin Yu gave a voice to me, and I really revel in TV getting it right.

Clara: Everything Before Us and Advantageous are two films on Netflix right now that were directed, written by, and star Asian Americans. The Phantom of the Opera play announced that an Asian American woman, Ali Ewoldt, is going to play Christine for the first time ever. Phillipa Soo is going to be the lead actor in the play adaptation of the film Amélie. Quantico has a South Asian protagonist, and she interacts with two other Asian women on the show. And major props to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for featuring two Asian women superheroes — yes, I said superheroes, fight me — which is two more than every other comic book film and TV show can boast. Asian Americans are slowly gaining ground, and I love that.

Could it be better? Definitely. A question I always ask is, “Could there be Asians in this?” The answer is usually a very reasonable yes. Any show set in a major city like San Francisco or New York should have more than one Asian in their cast, but they often don’t. Every time I watch The Walking Dead, I always wonder if somehow every Asian but Glenn is extinct.

As author Celeste Ng and many other Asian voices have noted, Asians often feel the frustration of having to choose between no representation and bad representation. Actor Justin Chon wrote about walking out on a racist audition. Is there a character, show, or movie where you feel frustrated about its representation of Asians, despite it being popular to viewers who are not Asian?

Kelly: DAREDEVIL FOREVER. Okay, those elements were already there, thanks to Frank Miller’s manga appropriation turning Matt Murdock into what Cheryl Lynn Eaton calls “Dark Weeaboo,” but the TV production team could have subverted or mitigated that. Plus, as much as I love Elektra in the show, and am kind of glad that she’s actually Asian, setting her up against Karen Page creates a racialized virgin/whore (or virgin/sex assassin) dichotomy, and we all know which one the part-Asian woman is.

Clara: Seconding Daredevil. The endless, faceless Asian ninja horde is so frustrating, as is Matt’s insistence that he’s never killed anyone after, you know, he actually did kill Nobu in the first season. I remember watching both Daredevil and Jessica Jones and thinking, my god, there’s not a single Asian in these shows who’s not a ninja, gangster, or victim of human trafficking.

2 Broke Girls is still airing and is unfortunately always on when I’m at the gym. The main Asian male character is such an awful stereotype and it’s so degrading to see. And I stopped watching it, but I always hated how The Big Bang Theory treated Raj.

Pitch Perfect and the way it portrayed the Korean roommate as a total bitch and Lilly as an Asian woman who can’t even speak above a whisper will forever haunt me. I remember watching the film and after the Korean roommate spurned Beca because she only wants to hang out with other Koreans, a woman called out “what a racist bitch” to laughter and applause. It was then I looked around and saw the theater was predominantly white women, and all of a sudden my sister and I felt uncomfortable. It wasn’t at all our fault that the portrayal was awful, and none of the women were looking at us, and yet we sat stiffly in our chairs for the rest of the film, and couldn’t quite get into the comedy after that.

Let’s talk about own voices vs. not our voices. Many popular movies, shows, books, and comics incorporate Asian elements, themes, or “aesthetics,” but are made by creators who are not Asian, are consumed primarily by audiences who are not Asian, or both. What’s an example of a product that is not from our voice, and what would you say to a friend who is not Asian who is interested in that product?

Kelly: I would let them know how I felt about that erasure, with varying degrees of candor depending on how close we are. Basically, as long as they fully acknowledge how and why it’s problematic, then even if they choose to consume it we might be okay. Note the might. There’s a difference between Giant Racist Mediocrity Party and the amazingly drawn fight scenes by Frank Miller where a white guy beats up a whole bunch of ninjas because of his superior Caucasian skills.

Clara: I would never stop anyone from consuming what they want to consume, but if they were a close friend or family member and asked for my opinion about it, I would definitely talk to them about the potential pitfalls of a story like that. A friend asked how I felt about the Rebirth Batgirl leaving Burnside and going on a backpacking trip in Asia. I told her I felt uncomfortable about it, since it’s being written and drawn by non-Asians and will surely feature Barbara being a white savior at least once. I’ve politely told friends who’ve asked that I’m not planning on watching Doctor Strange, and I’ve explained to them why. Non-Asian friends have asked if they should read Immortal Iron Fist, and I’ve said sure, but also pointed out it didn’t have any Asians working on it, and it definitely shows. All you can do is really talk about it, and hope they’ll understand.

Draven Katayama
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