It’s true that the whitewashing of Asian-American characters in Hollywood exists. It’s also true that as Asian-Americans, we’re subject to tokenism and our cultures often become less things to appreciate for what they are, and more a cool change of scenery or the butt of a joke.
It’s also very easy to get swept up in a wave of outrage over the supposed war that Hollywood has on Asian-American actors and lose one’s sense of reason.
Like I was just recently told in one of my classes: Problems of systemic racism are real, but overt racism is usually only a portion of what contributes to it. Unintended effects usually eventually outshine the intended ones.
So where did the overt racism, the intended effects, appear in Hollywood’s? It’s been historically very easy to cast Asians as villains, lending to a popular perception of Asians as sneaky, effeminate and creepy. Look no further than the representations of Fu Manchu in the 20s or, for a more recent example, Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow in The Hangover.
Those deliberate decisions have bled over into our current perception of Asian Americans in Hollywood, and even though it happened so long ago, the effects linger. And some of those who have the best memories about film, the real cinephiles among us who remember the racist depictions of Asians, are making today’s motion pictures.
But let’s turn to the unintended effects, not necessarily due to overt racism, that are negatively impacting Asian-American representation in Hollywood today.
We need to recognize that, first of all, there are not many employed Asian-American actors. They’re a rare breed, as the University of Southern California pointed out in their study of films in 2014; only 5.1 percent of speaking or named characters in film, television and digital series were Asian.
The lack of Asian-American actors presents Hollywood casting directors with a very simple dilemma rooted in mathematics — when the number of actors is not great, then the chances that they’ll find an actor who suits all their requirements will likewise not be great.
Why many Asian-Americans do not enter the film industry is another question, which is also one that I believe is inextricably linked to our current one. Our shortage of Asian-American actors in some ways can be cyclical — we don’t see people who look like us on the silver screen, so we don’t think that it’s the right place for us.
But also look at simpler reasons that Hollywood puts out for not hiring Asian-Americans. The studio that produced Doctor Strange, which came under fire when they cast a white Tilda Swinton in the role of a formerly Tibetan monk, said in a statement, “…several characters in ‘Doctor Strange’ are significant departures from the source material, not limited by race, gender or ethnicity.”
Critics brushed the studio’s protests aside as mere excuses for not trying hard enough to hire Asian-American actors, but there’s some substance to what Marvel Studios was trying to say. Creative decisions by the directors, however petty they might seem to us, might be rooted in a much more complex, personal, or perhaps budgetary problem that the directors might have had, that resulted in a white actor acting as an Asian character.
Now, there are instances where the studio is transparently non-caring about race and prioritizes star power and earning potential more than staying true to the original characters (Ghost in the Shell, I’m looking at you). That ultimately leads to the perception that Hollywood is racist, even if it was stemming from a nonchalance about veracity and not an overt dislike of Asian-American actors, although I’m not discounting the latter.
But if we take some of these case studies and look at them closely, we can see where outrage over a prolonged period of whitewashing leads to unreasonableness. I’m thinking specifically about Netflix’s Iron Fist, which features a white actor, Finn Jones, in the role of Danny Rand, and which received a huge wave of criticism for whitewashing.
Yes, the original Iron Fist reeks of orientalism and holds up Danny Rand as an archetypical white savior who travels to the East, receives fantastical powers from the Asians and returns to fight crime.
But the original Danny Rand was white. He wasn’t Asian.
And that presents us with a broader — but still linked! — question about a movie director’s purpose. Do directors and producers stay true to the original or do they correct the wrongs of the past? In this case, do they stick with a white actor, or do they pick another Asian-American actor to ameliorate the effects of cultural tokenism?
I’d err on the former side. I think it was a mistake for Netflix to pick up this antiquated series in the first place. But it was not a mistake to stay true to the original series and cast Finn Jones as the hero. Whitewashed, the Iron Fist was not. Ghost in the Shell should have taken a hint and stayed closer to the script.
We can get easily caught up in the flow of fury over whitewashing in Hollywood. It’s a problem. But as a generation of outspoken Asian-Americans, we need to choose our battles wisely and save our outrage for the instances that really deserve them.