Photo Credit: www.slashfilm.com
In 2016, many Asian-American actors fought for visibility and representation within Western entertainment, touching down on important topics such as whitewashing and tokenism. Actress Constance Wu from ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat”, comedian Margaret Cho, Ming-Na Wen from “Agents of S.H.I.E.LD”, and actor Aziz Ansari are just few of the Asian-American actors who have lended their voices towards the cause.
Last year, the box office failed to give us any sort of three-dimensional, Asian-American lead characters, which, in all honesty, is not very surprising. Apart from Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, and Jiang Wen in the box office hit “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”, Grace Huang and Yang Ying in “Independence Day: Resurgence”, and Karen Fukuhara in “Suicide Squad”, there were no other Asian-American actors casted in large block-buster movies that year. Those who were casted were just in the background. (Not only did the box office fail to give us Asian-American lead characters, but they even had actress Tilda Swinton, play a character originally of Tibetan– not European– origin…)
This year’s movie line-up doesn’t seem very promising for Asian-Americans seeking visibility, since most movies announced with a 2017 release all have White leading roles. Two very specific movies have found themselves under fire for whitewashing and using the “White Savior” narrative: “Ghost in the Shell” and “The Great Wall”.
“Ghost in the Shell” is originally a cyberpunk Japanese manga, written by Masamune Shirow in 1989. Although the ethnic background behind the main character– Major Motoko Kusanagi– of “Ghost in the Shell” has never been confirmed (since she is an “augmented-cybernetic human” and not a real human), many fans of the original manga have been left upset by the live action casting of Scarlett Johansson– a white actress. In the end, the original storyline of “Ghost in the Shell” occurs in Japan, and all major cast members are Japanese, so why would they cast a white woman for an Asian role? Fans have signed a petition to get DreamWorks, the production label in charge of “Ghost in the Shell”, to stop whitewashing Asian characters. There have even been rumors that the producers of “Ghost in the Shell” tested visual effects that would make Scarlett Johansson appear more Asian.
As for Matt Damon’s “The Great Wall”, it has come under fire for having a “White Savior”. This narrative consists of a White character rescuing People of Color from their plight, and in many ways, can be deemed as racist. This problematic narrative portrays People of Color as helpless and unable to stand on their own whilst placing White characters on a pedestal. This feeds the ideology that White people are “better” than other racial groups. In an article for the Daily Beast, “The Great Wall”, was accused of whitewashing. Keith Chow, editor of The Nerds of Color, speaks on the Matt Damon lead movie: “But as long as white men keep making movies, white men will always be at the center of them, no matter where it’s set.”
The root of the problem seems to be that people nowadays expect the lead characters of movies to be White, since that is what has been set up as the norm. Many production companies have gone out of their way to cast White actors in roles specifically for People of Color (e.g, Emma Stone in “Aloha”, Analeigh Tipton in “Warm Bodies”, Ben Affleck in “Argo”, Jim Sturgess in “Cloud Atlas”) instead of casting actual people of color! Representation is lacking, and it is obvious. We have yet to see an Asian-American actor or actress casted as the lead role of a block-buster movie instead of being chosen as a minimal, background character.
Asian people are still fighting for visibility and correct representation, not the watered down, stereotyped, and racist versions of them that the media frequently portrays.
There is still a lot of progress to be done, and we’re only a few days into 2017, yet it doesn’t seem to be getting any better from here.