Asian and Asian Americans are a nearly-invisible group when it comes to representation and presence in media/Hollywood, despite their being the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. since 2010. Hollywood’s brief and sordid interest in making Asian-themed movies during the early 20th century involved depictions and representations of Asian people that were inaccurate at best, and disparaging at their worst. The most common and ill-conceived portrayals during that time were of Asian men as sexual deviants or, conversely, as asexual eunuchs, opium drug-lords, gangsters, and evil masterminds. Asian women were portrayed almost in opposition of their male counterparts; they were usually the exotic seductress, cunning mistress, or love interest who repudiates her culture and ethnic identity to assimilate to white society (Marchetti, pp. 2-5).
What’s more, many of the Asian roles were not even portrayed by actual Asian actors or actresses, but by white ones. “The practice of white actors playing Asian and Asian American characters were not scarce. When such characters did exist, a convention of yellow face ensured that they were played primarily by whites (Ono Pham, pg. 45).” Thusly, the earliest imagery many people had of Asian people were actually of white people performing explicit yellowface, which allowed them full control of the way the character was conveyed. The image of Mickey Rooney in explicit yellowface as “Mr. Yunioshi” for Breakfast at Tiffany’s has provided yet another unsavory Asian archetype manufactured by Hollywood. His exaggerated yellowface that featured his taped eyes, balding head and cartoon-like buck-teeth did not paint a pretty picture of Asian men. “Mr. Yunioshi functions as comic relief, especially through his unrealistic desire for Ms. Golightly. His broken english, excessive clumsiness, and implausible sexual fantasy are there for the comedic pleasure of the non-Asian audience (Ono Pham, pg. 49).”
Furthermore, these images are generally devoid of historical, cultural, or racial substance. This is largely due to their being the creation of white writers and filmmakers, who had no genuine knowledge of the East and its vast array of different cultures, societal structures, languages, religious standings, and political systems. “White media producers have created imaginary and derogatory fictional representations of Asians and Asian Americans, while Asian and Asian American actors simultaneously are virtually excluded from writing or playing such roles (Ono Pham, pg. 46).” Keeping Asians out of the industry, even in Asian-themed films, has only made it more difficult for people to accept real Asians into society because of their lack of exposure to authentic Asian people that are relatable.
Postmodern representations of Asians have not changed much, in spite of the relatively forward-moving trajectory of almost all other groups. There have even been recent instances of yellowface, such as Alex Borstein playing “Ms Swan” on MadTV, or Eddie Murphy as “Mr. Wong” in Norbit (Ono Pham, pg. 52). It seems as though everyone is allowed to have a laugh at Asians, at the expense of Asians. Consequently, alienation and vilification of Asians in Hollywood has cemented their roles as “the others” in the U.S. on and off the screen.
Marchetti, G. (1993). Romance and the “yellow peril”: Race, sex, and discursive strategies in
Hollywood fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ono, Kent A., and Vincent N. Pham. “Media Yellowface “logics”” Asian Americans and the
Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010. 45-62. Print.