Making Waves and Changing Lanes:
Asian Representation In Media
2017 is off to a wild ride to say the least, as a former reality TV show star is President of the United States, the public has been scrambling to recalibrate their moral compasses and the thin line between politics and entertainment has been erased. Where everything has become politics and everything on camera is political. While unrest is in perpetual occurrence, the American public is having more discussions and conversations about our own societal flaws, how we got here, and what we’re gonna do about it.
While public racism and hate crimes towards minorities have risen. In entertainment, Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight shocked the world in the controversy of this year’s Oscars as the story of a gay black male named Chiron won Best Picture alongside this year’s films Hidden Figures and Fences, two other great films focused on black characters. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has broken Broadway records with its high attendance and sales in the rap-influenced musical story of Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton with its diverse ensemble. Jordan Peele has become the first black writer-director with a $100 million movie debut for his psychological thriller horror, Get Out, a satirical take on interracial dating fears. Star Wars: Rogue One featuring Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, and Diego Luna sparked a flame as Cassian Andor’s dialogue was delivered with a thick Mexican accent. Disney’s live-action film Beauty and The Beast has revealed that LeFou, Gaston’s henchman was gay leading to conservative states to ban the showing of the film. While much of America is growing tired of reboots and remakes. The audience voice has never been more clear: “WE WANT NEW STORIES, LET THE MARGINALIZED SPEAK!”
While there is a very clear demand for change. At the center of entertainment’s current controversy is “whitewashing” in which white actors are cast for non-white character roles. While there has been a long history of Hollywood whitewashed roles there currently seems to be a trend of one group that it keeps happening to. So who exactly is targeted for whitewashing? And why isn’t anyone doing anything about it? Answer: Asians and it’s complicated.
With the release of the Marvel’s Netflix series Iron Fist* starring Finn Jones, being released on March 17th and live-action film The Ghost In The Shell based of the Japanese manga starring Scarlett Johansson on March 31st. The topic of Asian actors, characters, stories, and cultural appropriation seem to be getting discussed all at the same time. So the concepts concerning race can be a little tricky to digest and understand.
*I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that in the original writing of Iron Fist — the character of Danny Rand is written as a caucasian character. While not whitewashing still takes on a dilemma in Asian characters and scripts.
Whitewashing isn’t a hard concept and seems like it has an easy solution. Cast actors appropriately for their characters and that should seem easy in 2017. But when it comes down to it there’s multiple factors at work here.
Mismarketing and Risk Taking
Starting with Scarlett Johansson’s casting in The Ghost In The Shell. The story focuses on The Major, a character regarded as being traditionally Japanese. The tale focuses on Motoko Kusanagi investigating the cyberterrorists in the criminal underworld of future Japan created by Masamune Shirow. The story was regarded as one of the greatest manga stories with a rich world, characters, and complex concepts contributing to its success internationally.
Hollywood has failed multiple times trying to adapt Asian animes into American films with such attempts that also got whitewashed with films like Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the campy-ness of Speed Racer’s film style and story, produced by the Wachowskis (because that was the appeal of the original series to me). The casting of the leads could’ve gone to Asian actors with the hairstyles, fashion styles, looks and mannerisms of characters like Trixie and Spritle clearly intended to be Asian.
With higher quality animes like The Ghost In The Shell, Akira, and Cowboy Bebop (two other animes once considered for live-action film treatment) the artwork and world of The Ghost In The Shell was so beautiful and characters considered flawless that any replicated look is hard to stray away from. Which lead to using CGI to make the characters look more like the originals. These films basically don’t need any new story boards for filming because all the iconic shots exist there. Which leads to a lot of upset with casting. Perhaps it’s just Asian animated series getting lost in translation by getting turned into live-action films by American studios? That’d be the case but even American animated series are not immune from bad casting. Avatar: The Last Airbender the successful animated series by Nickelodeon suffered the same backlash and disappointment from fans when M. Night Shyamalan attempted to give his take on a live-action film. With the original series’ characters and world “heavily built around Asian and Inuit culture,” as stated by comic book artist Derek Kirk Kim. The film also carried some subtleness in their decision to cast paler lead heroic characters while the villain was recast with a darker complexion, while in the original that color complex was reversed.
The problem here isn’t lost from animation to studio its translated to market towards its audience — white America, which Hollywood believes is the only audience to appeal to aka the Oscar council and film industry heads.
Disregarding the way the creators and fans originally viewed these characters upsetting the original fans and people originally buying these comics or watching the animated series. Money being the root of all evil. The film studio heads are still run and funded by rich white males and “that’s just how it’s always been.” Simply put the old companies have the money to fund production of these movies and the risks of investing money without a high return is too high with properties, especially new properties. Hence remakes and reboots of old properties in order to replicate the success of the original while not taking risks with new properties. With the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as The Major. She was a big name known by the public that even if the series The Ghost In The Shell was unknown at least you knew the name Scarlett Johansson as explained by writer-director Max Landis. This ideology leads to further feedback that continuing the cycle of film productions, audience attendance, and whitewashing. This not only affects the films but the writing of stories in order not to be accused of whitewashing.
Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Pimping
The inevitable feedback leads to films and shows like — The Great Wall, The Last Samurai, 47 Ronin, and Iron Fist. Even the original Karate Kid movies. These films all carry the common theme of the “white savior narrative.”
While some films portrayal of this aren’t as offensive as others. Marvel over the last couple of years has been trying to create a push for diversity with gender swapped roles and diverse characters. The demand for diversity is so high as to even create a black Spider-man with Miles Morales sparked by the #DonaldForSpiderman. It seems to be a different case when fighting for the diversity of characters if those characters are Asian. Asians don’t need films about a white hero saving us. Asians need films about Asians saving ourselves. Produced in America. Marvel whitewashed The Chosen One, another Asian based role from Doctor Strange into a bald Celtic woman played by Tilda Swinton and released a statement that they didn’t wanna give into an Asian stereotype of a dragon lady and changed the Nepal monk narrative to be based around Celtic magic. With modern adaptation it seems culturally we’re missing a point when it comes to current time period, casting decisions and reducing opportunities for Asian actors by eliminating roles.
Now we arrive at Iron Fist. So changing the character role to not offend still reduces Asian actors from work when scripts rewritten to cast a white actor/actress is a problem with representation for Asians. In Luke Cage they typecasted Asian actors as Luke Cage’s landlords but they did not give them thick broken English accents which was a smart move by Marvel. So to understand this conflict with Iron Fist is learning about the origins of the hero. How the Iron Fist’s Danny Rand came to be was in 1974 as a creator’s homage to the kung fu films at the time created alongside the character Luke Cage, a homage to the blacksploitation films of the time. The problem with this narrative is for the adjustment to modern times. Casts have looked to create diversity for modern times the character Danny Rand, makes the most sense to be an Asian character. A rich child traveling with his parents mountain climbing and his family is set up in a coup resulting in the murder of his parents parents. He is taken in to a Tibetan city of K’un-L’un, is trained in the martial arts surpasses his teachers and takes on the mantle of the Iron Fist and his motive as a character is revenge. But because of him being a white character it’s basically a Donald Trump fever dream. With these adaptations and current time period— they’ve updated nearly every series in Netflix’s Marvel Defenders to fit the modern day narrative. The decision not to consider changing the race of Danny Rand to fit the 1974 imagining of Iron Fist seems like it’s to pay homage to the original character. But at the same time it’s accepting that the racism of cultural pimping and appropriation of 1974 America is still acceptable today.
The narrative of the white savior and white roles in Asian culture based movies is this: Asian culture is great for entertainment, it’s the people who aren’t.
When they decided to remake the Karate Kid film with Jackie Chan and Jayden Smith they gave an appropriate reboot where the Asian culture was respected and didn’t steal the opportunity of representation from the people of the culture. What Asian actors need is less films where we’re subjected to the roles of martial arts, knowing magic, being the nerd, comic relief, or restaurant and Chinatown store owners. We just need characters who have culture and are living their lives and have screen time. While I’m dragging Marvel, DC comics also has a terrible case with representation with the character Katana in last year’s film Suicide Squad. While Karen Fukuhara was accurately casted the character’s backstory and role was significantly diminished with minimal screen-time and dialogue. So representation was there, but only just to fill a quota. The options for films with Asians wrongfully cast or exclusion of them. To recap: Asian actors can’t get casted to represent their own race in anime remakes and Asian actors can’t get casted to represent their own culture without being bad stereotypes.
Arden Cho tweeted, “As @violadavis said, “you cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there” LONG way to go for Asians when we can’t even book Animes.”
The Vicious Circle
The continued cycle of attendance and viewing of these films and shows leads to a cultural response. The high ticket sales of films which do get whitewashed are wrapped in so much controversy that people attend just to watch the hullabaloo. In the eyes of the public and studios — they don’t care why you watched it. They just care that you did. The numbers add up and they continue to operate as they would. The casting decisions of A-listers to cover up wrongful casting ends up having a social response by lack of exposure to Asian and unknown actors onscreen. Reducing opportunities for Asian actors. Representation goes down. Then ideologies like Asian men are undesirable, Asian women are submissive and perfect house wives become an accept norm of stereotypes and that there’s no depth or culture behind base stereotypes. Which leads to writers choosing not write about Asian characters with substance because they cannot sell them to studios. Actors cannot get roles, if the roles do not exist in the first place. Which leads to Asian actors having to succumb to bad typecasting in order to get work or look for racially ambiguous or race blind characters and hope they get casted.
While there seems to be so many whitewashed roles there are steps happening in the right direction. With shows like ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, an Asian-American based sitcom, based on the memoir of Eddie Huang, whose been successful is a sign and shows that Asian characters can have depth and are given a different light than what has been seen — the American family and growing up. Disney also just released Andi Mack, an Asian-American centered television show in a push for diversity. The film adaptation of the book Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan focuses on Asian-American life set in modern times without any martial arts or magic taking on the elitism of Asian culture in a Pride and Prejudice type story. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is giving a narrative of Asians and minorities opportunities to be seen and have their stories told. Disney has promised to cast Chinese actors for their live action version of Mulan and Middle Eastern actors for their live action version of Aladdin. So while you’re thinking about bingeing on Asian cultured shows and movies — have respect for the culture. The audience is in control more than the studios but you need to choose smart. Support shows with diverse casts that represent their cultures. Boycott these huge studios that pimp out Asian culture but exclude Asians from their films. End the cycle.