Yellowface is not Acceptable (With the Exception of Spongebob)

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“Keanu Reeves is Asian?” I muttered, confused.  It was a Sunday afternoon and I, veering from the beaten weekend path of getting drunk and nursing hangovers, had gone to see a play with a couple of friends.  It’s better to feel cultured than nauseous and dehydrated, I figured.  The play was titled “Yellowface,” and its subject was…well…yellowface.  If you’re not familiar with what that is, here’s a quick definition:

Yellowface: Yellowface is the practice in American cinema, American theatre, and American television where East Asian characters are portrayed by predominantly white actors, often while artificially changing their looks with makeup in order to approximate East Asia facial characteristics.

Sis was sitting next to me, and I poked her arm.  “Seriously, Keanu Reeves is Asian?”  She shrugged.  (He’s part Chinese.)

I was referring to a line in the play in which the main character uses Reeves as an example of a successful actor of Asian decent.  Written by David Henry Hwang (who wrote a famous play called M. Butterfly which I have heard of, though I know nothing about), “Yellowface” is about an Asian playwright named, boringly enough, David Henry Hwang (what a lack of creativity, eh?).  At the start of the play, Hwang protests the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a white actor, as the lead in a production of “Miss Saigon.”  This actually happened in real life: Pryce wore yellow makeup and tape around his eyes to look Vietnamese, a decision that infuriated the Asian community.  The Hwang character decides to produce his own play in response, casting a real Asian actor in the lead role but, to comic and dramatic effect, mistakenly casts a white guy by accident.  On a related note, believe it or not, I myself have never been mistaken for being Korean.

This got me thinking: If I was watching a movie and there was a white actor wearing blackface, I would obviously be taken aback and would probably turn it off.  Why, then, don’t I have the same guttural reaction if it’s a white actor wearing yellowface?  While I recognize that what I’m seeing is bad, I’m not that offended by it.  For instance, I love the movie “Living It Up,” starring Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.  I’ve seen it several times, and I always laugh when Jerry puts in fake buck-teeth and pretends to be an Asian doctor.  “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is another movie I think is fantastic, and although I shake my head during the scenes with Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man, it’s more with a smirk than in angry befuddlement.  The list goes on and on.

Exploring the Internet, I found this excellent site, which presents a history of yellowface in pictures.  It’s worth looking at, not only because it’s informative, but also because there are hilarious photos of John Wayne playing Genghis Khan and Christopher Walken dressed up like a geisha.

“Sis,” I said during intermission of the play, “you’re Asian.  How offensive do you find yellowface?”

We got into a decent discussion revolving around the TV show Kung Fu.  The play mentioned how Bruce Lee was initially supposed to star in Kung Fu but was replaced by David Carradine because the producers didn’t feel viewers would watch a show with an Asian lead.  “I loved Kung Fu,” Sis said.  “David Carradine was great.”

“He was Caine,” I said, agreeing.  “He was brilliant.”

“It wouldn’t have been as good if it was Bruce Lee.  Say, Bro, were you a kid when that show was on TV?”

“I’m only 33.  I’m not that old.  I watched reruns.”

“So you’re what…a year or two younger than Kung Fu?”

“Shut up.”

The conclusion of our discussion was that we can tolerate yellowface just fine as long as the movie or television show is good.  It’s not a very strong stance to have, really.  Gutless.  It’s also very similar to how I feel about racist jokes; I know I shouldn’t laugh, but if the joke is playful enough and not especially hateful, I’ll probably find it funny.  And it helps if the person making the joke is of the race the joke is about.  For instance, I’ll laugh when Chris Rock does a routine about black people.  If a white comedian like, say, Larry the Cable Guy, were to do a routine about black people, I wouldn’t be so comfortable.

If this is my position on yellowface, it’s horribly wrong, isn’t it?  There shouldn’t be scale of racism, where certain things are acceptable and others aren’t.  Where would the line be?  I brought this up with my girlfriend, who is Korean.  She objected right away, because she didn’t like being thought of as “yellow.”

“Yes,” she said, sarcastically, “I am yellow.  I am like The Simpsons.”

I laughed.  We got to talking and I realized, to my surprise, that she thought The Simpsons are, in fact, supposed to be an Asian family.  The idea amazed me.

“The Simpsons are Caucasian, baby,” I said.

“Then why is their skin yellow?”

“I don’t know…it’s a creative decision…like a caricature…it’s hard to explain.  Anyways, they’re not Asian.”

“Yes, The Simpsons are Asian,” she said, “and so is Spongebob.”  It was at that point I realized she was just messing with me.  But in doing so, she had made a valid point.  In my head, there was a simple truth: The Simpsons are white.  It was ridiculous to think, even for a second, that they could be anything else.

As silly as that sounds, perhaps it made me understand, if only superficially, how an Asian would feel when David Carradine is cast as a character named Kwai Chang Caine or when “The Last Airbender” stars a bunch of white kids.  There is a truth to things, a reality to be conscious of.

People don’t always have to be white.   Take Keanu Reeves for instance.

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21 thoughts on “Yellowface is not Acceptable (With the Exception of Spongebob)

    • Yeah, I know! I watched Short Circuit again a few years ago and was blown away by how bad that Fisher Stevens character is. So, so offensive. I mean, it’s still an awesome movie…the racism is a minor blemish. “Your mother was a snow blower!” Classic!

      • That is something that should never be revisited, you know? The movies of our childhood shall only remain as memories. I refuse to watch it ever again. That, and “Howard the Duck.” They are too precious in my memory to do such injustice :) hahaha

      • No, you need to have confidence in our wonderful ’80s classics. I’ve also watched Howard the Duck somewhat recently and it’s awesome. I had such a massive crush on Lea Thompson when I was a kid, specifically due to Howard the Duck. I thought she was sooo hot, which is funny, cause she’s all ’80s with crimped hair and stuff. And the principal from Ferris Bueller is fantastic as the villain. Great movie. Btw, did you know Tim Robbins is in that? Isn’t that funny?

      • Tim Robbins was in Howard the Duck? This movie just got better! All I remember is the principal from Ferris and how creepy he was. I cannot believe that you watched that one recently. Not many Howard fans out there… love it!

      • Have you ever seen the movie Amadeus? It’s quite good and serious and artsy and stuff. I only mention it because I finally saw it maybe two years ago – one of the major characters is the emperor who pays Amadeus to write him music. Anyways, the emperor is played by the principal from Ferris Bueller/possessed scientist from Howard the Duck, and it was extremely difficult for me to take him seriously. The funny thing is that Amadeus actually came out before those movies, so, in essence, he used Amadeus as a spring board into Howard.

  1. I’m not sure what my thoughts are about this issue/ I’ve watched an old movie with my family ( HBO ) , An Officer and a Gentleman ( starring Richard Greer and Holly Hunt) and I was told a few parts were shot in the Philippines ( it was supposedly entirely Philippine) and I suppose they found it cheaper to shoot the rest of the movie in Mexico. The natives drinking San Miguel beer were mexicans, lol. Did it offend me> Nope.

    Miss Saigon… the first time it opened in London had cast that were almost 90 % Filipinos, including Miss saigon, Leah Salonga. Jonathan Pryce was British and the rest were Americans. The producers looked for a long time until someone told them ” go to Manila.” The search stopped there. All those who auditioned were taken in. The entertainment industry in Manila is first class, y’ know? . Leah Salonga won the Sir laurence Olivier award for best actress in Lomdon, and the Tony award for best actress in the US. If you’ve watched walt Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan, Leah was the singer in both. It also helped that Filipino s, if they so want, can speak with American accent easily. Actually, it;s pretty generic. that’s why most call centers have been outsourced to manila. if you call Mastercard or American Express in the US, 9 out 10, you will be speaking to a Filipino, and not even know it.

    • Good stuff, Renx.

      Officer and a Gentleman took place in the Philippines? That’s a great movie. Perfect 80s corn. And I like that the drill sergeant rags on the Richard Gere character by calling him ‘mayonnaise.’ He says it in an angry voice, like this, “may-O-nnaise!!!” I might download that and watch it again…not so much because I’m looking for something to remind me of the Philippines.

      Yeah, actually the whole first 20 mins of the Hwang play is about Miss Saigon. I didn’t go into this in the blog, but there’s definitely the idea there that Asian actresses can succeed and casting agents don’t have a problem putting them in a play/movie, but it’s near impossible for an Asian male to get a lead role. Interesting stuff about Leah Salonga. I’ve never heard of her but am happy that now I have.

      Wow, that must be nice, Ren! All you have to do is call the collect number for Mastercard and you can talk to your family members back home free of charge!

  2. That Mickey Rooney character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a highly offensive character! There was just no reason for him to be Asian at all, and why cast a white guy then?

    That said, I’m not actually that offended by it myself… it just seems incredibly tacky.

    The funny thing is I was image-Googling that guy just this morning, a couple of hours before I saw your post.

    • Yeah, I read that on the DVD, the producer, director, and Mickey Rooney all apologize for it. They say that they wish they could go back and change it, and that they didn’t anticipate that it would offend anybody. How the heck do you NOT think that’s going to offend anybody? It’s seriously hard to imagine what they were thinking. Good fun comic relief? Sign of the times, I guess.

  3. If you ever see “Little Buddha,” Keanu plays Siddhartha, and with a mild emphasis of his Asian features it’s suddenly kind of shocking. From then on it feels impossible not to have seen it before.

    • Good point! I actually have seen “Little Buddha,” but seem to have blocked it out of my memory. I’d like to say that I saw it because I’m a Bertolucci fan (which I am); in reality, I saw it in high school because I had a major thing for Bridget Fonda. In fact, that’s probably why I don’t remember much. Focused on the Fonda.

    • I have not heard that. I’ve heard he’s secretly married to David Geffen, which could be worse. Why is he a vampire, just out of curiosity? (Not sure why he’s supposed to be married to David Geffen)

      • Hahaha this is the YouTube clip that explains it all

        Basically, he hasn’t aged at all in 15 years, plus there has been a guy from the 1800s who disappeared and was never found…who looks exactly like him. Da da daaa.

        Is it terrible that I have no idea who David Geffen is?

      • I’m astounded! And to think I related to him as Ted when I was in my younger years. I had no idea that he wasn’t a teenager…he was over a thousand years old at the time.

        Hilarious clip, Set in Motion! And no, totally understandable that you don’t know who David Geffen is. I don’t really know who he is either. I believe he has a record label. That and the Keanu Reeves rumor is the extent of my David Geffen knowledge.

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