Just Add White : Whitewashing of Asians in Film

Whitewash: to gloss over or cover up

As a huge fan of films I have taken a notice to the lack of Asians in popular films. This lack of Asian actors and actresses has contributed to the whitewashing of Asian characters in films, whitewashing has been described as the portrayal of a colored character in film or television by a white actor. Whitewashing allows a continuation of the way Asians are cast in films and gives its audience false representation of the Asian community and identity. Even after many controversies surrounding whitewashing, creators continue to cast white actors and actresses to play Asians in films. I will be discussing the different forms of whitewashing within the popular films; Aloha, Ghost in the Shell, and Kubo and the Two Strings. I will also be discussing these films with support of media sources to display the impacts that these whitewashing experiences have effected the Asian community and identity. The rise of Asians and Asian American voices has sparked a conversation about Asian whitewashing in film, I will be discussing the effects and the ramifications that whitewashing has on the Asian community and identity.

­ALOHA – Whitewashing of a Race

Aloha was produced and directed by the well-known Cameron Crowe. This film features an all-star cast led by Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, and many others. Aloha hit major controversy after being called out for whitewashing the only “Asian” character in the film. Emma Stone’s character, Allison Ng states in the film she is both a quarter Chinese and Hawaiian. The creators whitewashed a character by casting a white actress to portray someone of Asian, Pacific Islander descent. This is important because she is misrepresenting identities who are already under represented across popular culture. What was surprising for me to realize was that Allison Ng was an original character who could have been cast to play the part described or her character’s profile could have changed to fit Emma Stone. This was an indication that whitewashing originates through the creators of the film. Another aspect of the film that I found as a way of whitewashing was that this whole cast was white even though the film was set in Hawaii where the majority of the population is Asian, this was another way of whitewashing through the misrepresentation of a whole community and population. This also highlights the problem with the film industry that white actors and actresses can just “act” like another race and identity like it’s something that they can just become.

“A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs – the US Space program in Honolulu, Hawaii – and reconnects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him. ” – Sony Pictures Entertainment

With a storyline that has little to do with Hawaii, Hawaiian, and Asian culture, Aloha is another example of films that continue to appropriate Hawaiian and Asian culture by using the setting to make money.

GHOST IN THE SHELL – Whitewashing and Stereotypes

Ghost in the Shell is another film that has received major backlash for whitewashing. This article, ‘Ghost in the Shell’: 4 Japanese Actresses Dissect the Movie and Its Whitewashing Twist presents real comments from Asian actresses and their view on the whitewashing from this film. Ghost in the Shell is originally a manga made and popularized in Japan, where all the characters were portrayed as Japanese. Many audiences have accused the creators of the new adaption of whitewashing the main character Major Motoko Kusanagi a militant cyborg in future dystopian Japan, who is played by Scarlet Johannsen. The creators of the film tried to explain that it was not whitewashing by explaining that the character was a robot and did not have an “identity”. However, I see this as another from of whitewashing because the creators took a character who is originally Asian.

Image source: https://writelephant.com/2016/09/16/ex-machina/                                                                 Screen cap from Ex Machina of Sonoya Mizuno’s cyborg character

Image Source: http://blog.scarecrow.com/body-politics-in-ghost-in-the-shell-2017/                         Screen cap from Ghost in the Shell of Scarlett Johanssen’s character Major

These sci-fi genre films are known to use Asians to portray robotic beings, who are created by white men, and often times are transformed to appear and look white on the outside, for example the film Ex Machina also does this (Nishime, 29-31). This repeated portrayal is damaging to the representation and identify of Asians, especially Asian women.  It creates an identity of Asian women as slaves and beings that exist to be changed into who ever the “white man” wants them to be. Using white actresses to replace characters who are originally Asian is also another form of whitewashing. The original characters were Asian and by whitewashing these characters it gives this representation that Asians can be passed over and dominated.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS – Whitewashing in Animated Films 

Characters from Kubo and the Two Strings with their voice actors

Kubo and the Two Strings is an animated film set in period Japan about a boy and his adventure to escape his grandfather and aunties, he is accompanied by a monkey and beetle who represent the souls of his parents. All the characters in this film are Japanese and are voiced by famous white actors, including Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, and Ralph Fiennes. This film went under fire for the whitewashing of all of the film’s main characters and lack of Japanese voice actors. The only notable Japanese voice actors from the film were George Takei and Cary Tagawa who voiced characters with limited lines, both actors are very popular for the presence in popular culture. However, their casting seemed to represent them as the “token Asians “.Through my research and analysis of this film I realized that there was a different form of whitewashing within animated films, this is a debatable issue but it is one that definitely needs to be discussed.

At first I thought that it does not matter who voices the characters, only the voices of the actors and actresses is what matters for an animated film. However, this article, by Complex, The ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ Controversy Proves Whitewashing Is More Complicated Than You Think,  shined a light on the way this is a form of whitewashing. Complex interviewed the CEO of Laika, Travis Knight who said, “For those that are humans, it was important for us to have authenticity in terms of the characters. Most of the characters that are human characters are [voiced by actors] of Asian descent.”, Knight himself explained why it is important to cast Asians to voice the characters but his words do not reflect back on the film since all of the main and important characters were not voiced by actors of Asian descent. I found Kubo and the Two Strings to be a great movie that appropriately displayed Japanese cultures and values, however after researching more about whitewashing in animated films it makes the film seem less authentic.

WHY WHITEWASHING?

This article by NY Times, Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?, revealed reasons behind why whitewashing of minorities is still prevalent in today’s film industry. One of the main reasons why Asians are not cast in big-picture films are because it is too “risky” and it is a matter of making more money for the film.   Ridley Scott, a popular film director was quoted in the article saying, “I can’t mount a film of this budget” and announce that “my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.” Apparently, film makers assume that by casting a non-white lead it may put off a larger audience, however the article also points our that this is in fact the opposite. Based off of a 2012 study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at University of California, Los Angeles it was revealed that films with diverse leads resulted in higher box office numbers and returns for studios and producers.

Another reason stated in the article was that there are too little Asian celebrities out there available to cast. The screenwriter for Ghost in the Shell, Max Landis was quoted saying, “There is no A- list female Asian celebrities right now…not understanding how the industry works.” Another screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was also quoted who said, “There aren’t any Asian movie stars.” This seemed questionable to me, mainly because there are many known Asian actors and actresses who have starred in big picture films and even  played main character roles.

LEARNING MOMENTS

Before my research I made assumptions thinking that the problem was with the audience and consumers of films. In my mind I thought about the attraction of Asian cultures here in America and it made me say, “Everyone’s got yellow fever until they have to watch an Asian for longer than an hour.”  However, going back to Week 2 I learned how to avoid judgment and generalizations around an issue. Through this learning experience I was able to realize my judgments before I started researching and realizing the real issue behind whitewashing. By using the techniques of analyzing sources I was able to find the information to change my assumptions and also provide evidence to support my thoughts and feelings towards this issue.

During my research I found that whitewashing is just part of a bigger problem. Films in general are fully cast with white actors and actresses, if an Asian is written into a film they usually are written specifically to play an “Asian” role. The lack of creators to find and cast Asians, influences whitewashing that results in less representation and the wrong representation of Asians. Whitewashing is not only an issue for Asians but for many other minority identities. Films are major parts in popular culture and have the major possibility to influence society. The Asian community has been vocal and has fought whitewashing repeatedly, now that whitewashing is being clearly recognized it is time for America to change how it portrays Asians in popular culture.

 

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THANK YOU

WORKS CITED

Arad, A., Arad, A., Cositgan, M., Paul, S. (Producers), Sanders, R., (Director). (2017). Ghost in the Shell. United States. Dream Works Pictures.

Crowe, C., Rudin, S. (Producers), Crowe, C. (Director). (2015) Aloha. United States: RatPac Entertainment,Recency Enterprises, Scott Rudin Productions, Vinyl Films.

Knight, T., Sutner, A.(Producers), Knight, T (Director). (2016). Kubo and the Two Strings. United States: Laika

Nishime, L. (2017). Whitewashing Yellow Futures in Ex Machina, Cloud Atlas, and Advantageous: Gender, Labor, and Technology in Sci-fi Film. Journal of Asian American Studies 20(1), 29-49. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved May 14, 2017, from Project MUSE database.

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6 thoughts on “Just Add White : Whitewashing of Asians in Film

  1. I think that week when we watched those videos of characters that were other races and ethnicities from major pictures and saw the statistics was when I became more aware of this issue. Even off the screen, there is more white males to be directing than the minorities. I also think it was interesting that you used an animated movie for an example. That movie was so good and I didn’t think about who the voices were until this blog. It is important for the culture since it is their own. I enjoyed your post very much and think you did a great job using resources.

    • Thank you Erica! Yeah it was hard to talk about Kubo and the Two Strings in my post, I liked it so much and it honestly made me cry but I thought it was an important part to my topic.

  2. Hi mnknako,
    I really liked the examples you used to support your thesis statement. The fact that you used an animation movie to support the same was a great idea. It is indeed very surprising that whitewashing exists to a very large extent even today and actors aren’t called in to play their own cultural role despite being the most apt person for that role. I also liked the way you explained the problems and the perceptions that are created around it.
    -Gomathy

    • Thank you Gomathy!
      I thought it was important and interesting to talk about this film, I felt like it would expand my topic more.

  3. Hi Mia!
    I enjoyed reading your article on whitewashing and thought that it was put together very well. I found your examples very interesting on how Asian characters were portrayed by white actors. In your example with Emma Stone, it is clear just by looking at her that she is neither Hawaiian or Chinese, so for her character to claim that in the film, I can see how that created controversy. Also in Kubo, an animated movie, it would have made sense to have an Asian person do the voice of an Asian character, however I was very surprised to see that the entire cast was white.
    After reading your post, I have a greater understanding of whitewashing in films and agree with you that it is a problem that needs to change in order to have an accurate representation of Asians. Overall great post!

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