Editor’s Note: This post is long. But guess what? So’s the history of yellowface!
You’re probably familiar with the Vaudeville act of blackface. It’s a practice largely out of commission where White performers would slather on black or brown face paint and put on a show, acting as Black characters when there were no other Black persons [willing/allowed/?] to play the minstrels. Ted Danson pulled a dumb trick when he wore black face to honor Whoopi Goldberg in 1993. Robert Downey Jr.’s role in Tropic Thunder was satire against the practice of blackface. And here’s a really awkward video where a Japanese man dons black face to imitate Louis Armstrong.
Blackface came around during the mammy times. It is commonly known as a shameful blight across American entertainment history. It’s one of those many things that was accepted at the time without being questioned for its justification, but times have changed.
When blackface was practiced, it took power and autonomy from an entire group of people. It was like the 3/5ths clause of the entertainment industry that Black people be deemed unfit to be a part of overall American culture.
It’s all an abomination, right?
You know what’s even worse?
Having a majority don your minority’s “[insert skin color] face” and not having anyone even know about it.
Welcome to yellowface.
When early Chinese settlers’ California experiences are taught in history classes, it’s mostly treated like a passing phase in the lecture: “Chinese built railroads. They were portrayed as buck-toothed, squinty eyed, and pony-tailed. In fact, here’s a good segue for us to discuss the significance of political cartoons…” In the mid-1800s, there was a fair amount of Chinese immigrants in California. Most of these Chinese were male, because when you have the choice of shipping in women or men to build railroads and mine for gold, you go for the guys.
At this point in time, America obviously knew that there was more out there throughout the globe than just the Native Americans and Mexicans that once inhabited their land, even more than the Africans that were stolen or the Europeans that straight-up took over. Asians were becoming more of a presence to be recognized by the Americans, and they were just beginning the slow process of what seems to be inherent in being adopted into mainstream American society.
Jumping ahead, Hollywood started booming as moving pictures established themselves as an American pastime. Plots were much simpler then: bad guys versus good guys, ladies in distress, and any other archetype that could easily be portrayed in black-and-white terms.
It came time for someone to tell a story about “The Orient,” because the most natural form of escapism involves speculating what could happen in a foreign and exotic land. So, much to the White Americans’ delight, stories about China came to the silver screen. In the late 1900s and the midst of WWII Yellow Peril (Because Japanese are the same as Chinese, but not that it matters.), Asian characters were often portrayed as the bad guys.
I’m personally not strongly moved by the injustice of people of color being stereotyped into bad guy roles. The debate is exhausting, and I like to recognize the different climate of vintage films when people just didn’t seem to know any better. Myopic as America was when they villainized Indian savages, Black porch monkeys, and Yellow Japs, it was what it was: myopic.
When I think about yellowface and why I’m so incensed about the recent casting of Avatar, I think about the cinematic adaptation of one of my favorite books. It happens to be about China, and it happens to have been written by a White American woman: The Good Earth. By all accounts, it was a historic endeavor just to create the film. It earned two Oscars, it was nominated for three more, and it wasn’t your oversimplified, shallow Color vs. White plot. To me, The Good Earth represents all that was wrong with yellowface (and basically, all Asian American race relations) in the time of its creation. It had the potential to portray a minority group with multiple dimensions, but it chose to shut that group out instead.
I was stewing in rage when my high school Mandarin teacher, strapped to get a hold on our collective asshole of a class by appeasing us with any China-related video she could find, played The Good Earth. When she announced the title, I was excited because I love the book – But watching it manifested in 1937 standards was a different story.
Wang – Paul Muni
O-Lan – Luise Rainer
Uncle – Walter Connolly
Lotus – Tilly Losch
And it continues. Don’t try to tell me there were no Asians to play protagonist roles in 1937. Don’t tell me all the Chinese immigrants in the U.S. lacked the capacity or ability to act. There is no excuse for that outward racism that prohibited Asians from being a part of American culture. The case of yellowface is racism manifested in an absolutely offensive manner. It is bigotry.
What makes yellowface more frustrating than blackface is that you don’t hear about it. The fact that I have to justify my rage against Douglas Aibel’s Avatar casting is evidence of that. Ted Danson donning blackface got an immediate reaction at the Friars Club. Mickey Rooney’s yellowface made audiences roar at Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (It also furthered why I absolutely abhor that movie. Holly Golightly’s a fucking dumbass, and then they go and give Mickey Rooney a dime store “Chinaman’s” hat.) And save for Bruce Lee’s discomfort in Enter the Dragon and discourse from Asian American activists, pretty much nobody blinked an eye. Historians have even found yellowface to have lasted for longer than blackface. But you probably didn’t know that because you probably were never taught that yellowface existed.
The reasons for yellowface are not as obvious as or identical to the reasons for blackface. There are overlaps, for sure, but while blackface was misrepresentation because Whites felt a sense of ownership over Blacks, yellowface was misrepresentation because Asians were not respected enough to worry about. It’s complex.
Theories vary as to why Asian actors were not allowed to act in prescribed Asian roles:
- Because the industry for film making and acting was so exclusive, Hollywood wanted to protect White actors’ jobs. Minority representation was sacrificed because majority actors were in fear of their job stability.
- There were anti-miscegenation laws in place, meaning Whites couldn’t marry Chinese. Though that’s a legal dispute, it was interpreted on Hollywood lots as: No Asians shall kiss, hug, or touch any White cast or crew while on set. Asians were banned from public displays of “affection” on screen whenever Caucasians were involved. (I don’t think I need to explain how often Caucasians were involved.)
- Yellow Peril. All Asians were this generation’s terrorists. And Hollywood has a long history of not negotiating with terrorists.
To be fair, Chinese and other Asians were allowed to take on minor roles, usually non-speaking parts and extra-type positions. Because, you know, that’s throwing a really generous bone to an entire population of people.
Still, even in respectful stories of “The Orient” like The Good Earth and Avatar, there was basically no room made available to people of Asian origins. I don’t see how people can feel bad for Forrest Gump when all the non-“special” kids on his bus claim “Seat’s taken” when they can’t see the complete disrespect in yellowface.
The announcement of the live-action Avatar’s (nearly) all-White cast is a slap in the face. It’s an insult. When history repeats itself, ignorance follows. Though Avatar’s live-action cast isn’t painting on yellow pigment, the effect seems to be the same, no? Complete disregard for the origins of these fictional characters?
See Aang Ain’t White’s fantastic visual essay here. The Asianness is basically already storyboarded for the film, but apparently this was lost on Aibel who was merely assigned to find M. Night Shyamalan’s actors. Come on, even Jesse McCartney shows off how little he’s invested in Avatar and its background by describing the series as an Asian import. And yet he was all set to sign onto the role! Too bad he couldn’t make “boot camp,” huh?
Let’s say the casting decisions are excusable. Say there is sound justification for why Avatar, with all its ridiculously obvious Asian elements, does not need to uphold its story’s integrity and that it’s not The Yellowface Moment of 2009. If you can think of any reason with substantial clout and logic to it, share it now.
Editor’s Note: I may be out for a couple of days, but hopefully I’ll be able to pop in and refresh comments from time to time. It’s always a cheap trick for blog authors to ask for comments, but if there’s one entry where I’d like to hear your thoughts, it’s this one.