I remember, very clearly, the first time I heard about the term “whitewashing,” the act of giving white actors preference in casting, especially in roles where the character is not white. I almost didn’t want to believe it was real. From seventh grade to high school, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was one of my favorite films. I, like many young teenagers, romanticized the Audrey Hepburn movie’s elegance, fashion and overall splendor. However, when I watched the movie with my friend who is passionate about social justice, she pointed out to me that Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney, was a very offensive portrayal of yellowface. As we continued to watch the movie, I didn’t know how to feel. I wanted to say, “But, other than THAT part, the rest of the movie is great!” However, I knew that there wasn’t any way that I could possibly justify something that is so offensive to the Asian-American community.
After that enlightening instance, I started to pay more attention to casting in movies. I started following the tag on Tumblr, where many angry bloggers vented their frustrations. I began to understand them. Recently, Matt Damon was given the lead of the movie The Great Wall. The movie is a historical fiction story about the protection of Europe and its “growing system of walls, where the characters fight monsters to protect it. Those who think that the movie is actually about the Great Wall of China will be mistaken. The film also takes place during the Song dynasty, a very dynamic time in Chinese history. However, I didn’t know there were white males in China during the Song Dynasty. There are billions of Asians in this world, yet they choose a white person to play an Asian character. To make things worse, Damon also publicly announced that diversity is more important in front of the camera than behind the camera on an episode of HBO’s Project Greenlight. He also said the show should focus on diversity primarily “in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.” Despite the fact that Damon apologized for the statement, it still doesn’t discount the fact that he’s a white man starring in film with a major Chinese landmark as the center of the narrative.
In addition, Scarlett Johansson was recently rumored to have been casted as the lead in the new live-action Mulan movie after she was already under fire for playing a Japanese character in the film Ghost in the Shell. While I am a fan of Johansson, I was definitely not a fan of this decision. In other instances of whitewashing, such as when Angelina Jolie was cast as Cleopatra, there wasn’t much backlash. However, when actress Zendaya Coleman was cast as comic book character Mary Jane in the Spider-Man Homecoming, the casting decision received a lot of flack. While it’s not a secret that minorities are underrepresented in the media, the public is still choosing to be frustrated by the wrong things.
Growing up, the only Asian characters I saw on my TV screen were Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Otherwise, the Asian characters I saw in movies and TV were never the leading roles, only nerds and supporting character. So how is it fair that when there are movies about Asian culture, Hollywood still doesn’t cast Asians? While there has been some progress, with actresses like Mindy Kaling and Constance Wu starring in their own shows, it’s still not enough. Asian Americans should be able to comfortably feel that they are represented in the media and not have their stories, histories and characters whitewashed by Hollywood.
The solution is actually very simple — if the film is about black people, use black actors. If the film is about Native Americans, use Native American actors. If the movie is about Chinese or Taiwanese people, use Chinese or Taiwanese actors. If the show is about Egyptians, please use Egyptian actors. It’s really not hard. If the film has a storyline about characters who are different races, there’s no point if we don’t use the correct race. Our world is diverse, with cultures that are diverse, and our movies should absolutely reflect that.
Erika Lee is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Asian Amerikan Heroine,” runs every other Monday. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan.