Dear Hollywood, I Love Myself Even If You Don't

jennifer li


Dear Hollywood,

As an Asian-American, I think we're long overdue for a talk. I understand that it’s probably hard to break old habits, like whitewashing Asian-American roles and using Asian-American actors as token diversity side-characters, but that’s no reason to continue to conduct yourself badly. Look no further than the recent casting scandal: Paladino Casting recently released a call for Chinese/Korean mothers and children with “white, clear, pinky” complexions, without any “circles or dots”, and they were very clear about wanting “almond-shaped, but not too monolid” eyes. On its face, it’s a rather ridiculous laundry list: you just can’t custom-order Asian-Americans like we’re made-to-order burgers. You can’t custom-order human beings in general. Looking beyond that simple fact, this "casting call" is also an implicit and dehumanizing rejection of historically distinctive Asian features, like monolids or freckled skin. What right do they have to say which features are considered "acceptable" for Asian characters and which ones aren't?

It made me angry to see it at first. But I understand why they thought it was acceptable to do. Paladino Casting’s casting call was a by-product of a systemic, exclusionary, and fetishistic precedent of whitewashing, using yellowface, and type-casting Asian-Americans into orientalist caricatures that you, as an industry, have set. No one likes confronting problematic things that they’ve done in the past, but sometimes breaking old toxic habits means taking a hard look in the mirror.

I think that it’s only fair that you admit that your earliest introduction of Asian culture to Western audiences didn't do us justice. The earliest recorded usage of yellowface on American soil took place in 1767, with Arther Murphy’s play The Orphan of China (which was inspired by Voltaire’s L’Orpheline de Chine, which inspired by the Yuan Dynasty The Orphan of Zhao). Maybe you didn’t realize it then, but this probably informed your view and interpretation of Asians; after all, your first brush with portraying Asians was told through the filtered lens of two white men at a time where it was acceptable to kidnap and enslave with impunity. Not to mention, the whole thing about Chinese people being called the "biggest threat to white American values" and the whole of Western Christendom during the 19th century. We can’t forget the whole Yellow Peril thing.

anna may wong

General Photographer Agency/Getty

Anna May Wong

But let’s not pretend you weren’t interested in us, Hollywood. In the early 20th century, despite your hatred and fear of the Yellow Peril, you couldn’t stop telling stories involving the Orient. From Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Cecil DeMille’s The Cheat, Chester M. Franklin’s The Toll of the Sea, and Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth, we slowly found our way to your silver screen and stage. There were no Asian-American writers, no Asian-American directors, and yet, you wanted Asian-Americans in your films. But never for leading roles, heroes, or heroines. “Good” Asian roles were left to white actors in yellowface.

Most early yellowface tutorials to portray “Orientals” were primarily concerned with recreating the most distinctive Asian feature: the epicanthic fold aka the monolid. After having a piece of latex applied to Swedish actor Nils Asther’s eyelid, trimming his lashes, and directing him to have a stiff and eccentric walk, director Frank Capra was pleased with “authenticating” an Oriental look, after failing to find an Asian-American actor with his desired physical attributes and talent. He remarked that, “of certain he [Asther] does not look Caucasian”. Jenny Egan, who released a textbook in 1992 titled Imaging the Role: Makeup as Stage in Characterization, was known for taking special and specific care in giving more detailed makeup tutorials (one might even say, more natural), emphasizing that to "properly portray an Oriental," five distinct features needed to be present: straight black hair/sparse facial hair, epicanthic flap, a round and flat face, a button nose with a low bridge, and a short “rosebud” mouth. Luise Rainer, infamously casted as a whitewashed O-Lan in The Good Earth, won an Academy Award for her performance. Her face replicated the epicanthic fold, arched eyebrows, and darkened skin, but we shouldn’t beat around the bush. There is no amount of facial distortion or bad makeup that can “authentically” replicate Asian features. Those actors, even with their makeup, could have easily passed for European.

the good earth

Archive Photos / Getty

Your “good” Asians were also based on Orientalist stereotypes. Rainer’s O-Lan was an uncomplaining and obedient wife, who obediently tolerated her husband’s second wife, and died as a karmic punishment for her husband’s foolhardiness. Charlie Chan, the comically overly apologetic and heavily accented Chinese-Hawaiian detective hero, was a model minority. And while he was an intelligent hero character, he was never portrayed as physically threatening nor sexual in any facet.

Asian-Americans, otherwise known as "authentic" Asians who grew up and lived in America, were cast into “bad” Asian supportive roles or antagonists. Anna May Wong, considered the very first Chinese-American actress (and who, incidentally, had the five features Egan listed in her textbook), took submissive lotus blossom roles and aggressive dragon lady roles. Wong was absolutely gutted when she wasn’t even considered for the part of O-Lan in The Good Earth, and was instead offered the part of Lotus, the devious and seductive second wife. Nancy Kwan exploded to stardom when playing the damaged and sexually provocative Suzie Wong in The World of Suzie Wong. Although there are many subcategories of the sexualized tropes you’ve placed Asian-American women into, the essence of your Orientalist portrayal of us has been steadfast: we are an alluring cocktail of racial and sexual taboos. When it came to Asian-American men, you completely de-fanged them, emasculated them, and erased their sexuality. I suppose you couldn’t risk another Sessue Hayakawa threatening white male sexual supremacy; after all, he was one of your first sex symbols and the prototype of the foreign lover as an archetype. Part of this was probably because you didn’t believe that Asian-Americans could actually play complex and nuanced roles, which is just illogical; Hayakawa and Wong both proved them with their ventures outside of Hollywood, receiving international acclaim for their talent.

You've set a precent for the rest of the world in fetishizing us and our ethnic culture, whether it's through hypersexualizing our roles or, your favorite move, giving Asian roles to white actors and erasing us completely.

to all the boys i've loved before cast

Frazer Harrison / Getty

You’ve continued to do this in our present day, as well. You casted Emma Stone to play Allison Ng in Aloha. You casted Scarlet Johansson to play Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost In the Shell. You wanted Lara-Jean Covey from To All The Boys I Loved Before to be casted as a white girl, despite the fact that the character is Asian-American, and written by an Asian-American author who was invested in telling a young adult story about an Asian-American protagonist, not as a side-character to a white character’s romance. You wanted Rachel Chu from Crazy Rich Asians to be played by a white girl, despite the fact that the character is Asian-American, and written by an Asian-American author who wanted to confront the elements of Western and Eastern culture clashing and coalescing with a love story.

The truth is, Hollywood, you haven’t been interested in Asian-Americans beyond Orientalist portrayals. You have little interest in how your portrayals have affected how we tell our stories, but you’re fascinated with our culture, bodies, and aesthetic. Which is probably the thing that burns the most about Paladino Casting’s taxonomic list of physical traits. “White” and “pinky” skin—nothing that screams Yellow Peril. “Almond-shaped” eyes, but not too downturned, not monolidded, not too distinctively foreign—not too Asian. Paladino’s Casting wanted a woman and child who were Asian-looking enough, but not too Asian. Asian enough to be exotic and different, but never too exotic to alienate an audience watching with a white gaze. I might surprise you when I say this, but Asian-Americans come in all shapes, sizes, colors, complexions, and eye-shapes. We cannot be made to order, nor can we be boiled down; we aren’t food for consumption. We’re people.

crazy rich asians

Emma McIntyre / Getty

So when you tell our stories with authenticity and wholehearted respect, Asian-Americans feel seen as people, not just token accessories for white protagonists to tote around to virtue-signal with. Stories like To All The Boys I Loved Before, Always Be My Maybe, and Crazy Rich Asians make us feel like it’s natural for us to be seen in a complex, multidimensional lens, as more than just a fetishized race fantasy. Stories like The Farewell make us feel seen because of the confusing relationship that we feel for with our families and clashing cultures. Stories like Kim’s Convenience make us feel like our immigrant backgrounds and roots are what make us a unique part of society, rather than forever-outsiders.

So, coming from someone who still loves you and wants you to keep getting it right: do better, please. Because when you get it wrong, Hollywood, you get it wrong; but when you get it right? You get it so right. And that's why I haven't given up hope in you yet.

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