Arts and Entertainment

Hollywood’s Misrepresentation of Asians

Without Asians holding more responsibility, Hollywood is able to continue with its bad casting decisions and racist stereotypes.

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Is #HollywoodSoWhite still trending? It should be. Time and time again, Hollywood has disappointed with its lack of diversity. Sure, there’s the occasional black protagonist, but there’s more to diversity than just black and white.

Hollywood consistently delivers Asian stereotypes in its films and oftentimes, movies are “whitewashed” in favor of white actors because of the negative impact of these stereotypes.

Hollywood’s negative representation of Asians has probably existed since Hollywood’s beginning in 1853. Around the time that Hollywood was starting to gain traction, “yellow peril” was a major fear of the white population in the U.S., Canada, and overseas. This fear stemmed from the idea that whites would be overwhelmed by the influx of East Asian immigrants, contributing to perceptions that Asians would spread their foreign culture and language and would steal jobs. Today, Asian Americans are often labeled intellectual and assimilatory and thus still threatening to white jobs in technology sectors. These perceptions are the origin of Asian stereotypes that are perpetuated in Hollywood to this day.

These stereotypes lead to active “whitewashing” of films. There is a term called “racial prototypicality” where someone who looks authentically like a certain race is unconsciously given a label based on stereotypes. For example, someone who looks black may be immediately portrayed as violent and harboring delinquency. Asians are viewed as smart in only the STEM fields and as being unable to socialize well. “Whitewashing” is a subset of racial prototypicality in that casting directors unconsciously associate Asian actors with stereotypes that would make Asians unfit to be actors, even in films that are associated with Asians specifically.

Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead in the live-action movie “Ghost in a Shell” based on the Japanese anime of the same name. The casting of a white woman instead of an Asian one caused an uproar. In an interview with Marie Claire Magazine, Johansson refuted claims of racism, saying, “Having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity.” Believe it or not, having a franchise with an Asian female protagonist is an even rarer one. Johansson instead claimed that the movie role was about feminism in an attempt to avoid the racism discussion. Excuses like these perpetuate whitewashing by avoiding conversations about its destructive impacts. More people should be addressing the stereotypes and consequent “whitewashing” that occurs in films.

Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” received backlash for its choice to cast white actor Tilda Swinton to play the role of a Tibetan monk. In August, Netflix released “Death Note,” which is based on a Japanese anime and manga. Like “Ghost in a Shell,” the movie features a predominantly white cast. When trying to audition for the role of protagonist Light Yagami in “Death Note,” one Asian American actor, Edward Zo, stated that he “was told to [his] face that they were not looking to see Asian actors for the role of Light Yagami.” Instead of an Asian actor, Netflix has changed Light Yagami to Light Turner to accommodate for white actor Nat Wolff’s role as the protagonist.

“The Great Wall” starring Matt Damon is an example of white assimilation on-screen and whitewashing off-screen. The movie is about a European man, William, from medieval times who tries to assimilate into 11th-century Asian society in order to find a rumored substance to improve European life. Such a film demonstrates the concept of white saviorism where the whites save the day with exceptional ability that exceeds that of foreigners.

Along with white saviorism, negative stereotypes about Asians play into the environment of the movie considerably. The film depicts hundreds of thousands of Chinese warriors ready to fight against the enemy but shows most of them quickly dying in the first few moments of battle as if the Chinese are not capable of defending themselves. William, however, deals more damage with a bow and arrows than the complicated weapons technology that the Chinese have at hand. He also fearlessly dives into the fray to fight for the Chinese even though it is made obvious from the start of the film that William has little intention of helping foreigners with their affairs.

Off-screen, the movie may have been directed by an Asian and featured a cast of several notable Asian actors, but the storyline was written by at least seven white men. It is mind-boggling how a movie featuring predominantly Asians was not written by any.

In Hollywood, stereotypes are a large factor in how films are produced and how Asians are viewed in the film industry. Bad associations prevent Asians from playing bigger roles in movies even when those movies require actual Asians. The first step and the only way that Asians can start to have roles in films is to stop audiences and casting directors from harboring negative racist stereotypes that exclude Asians from major roles. People need to stop making excuses and truly address the oppression of Asians in the film industry. Without doing so, one of the largest populations in the world will continuously be judged based on rude misconceptions.