Hitting theaters this past March, “Ghost in the Shell” is a live-action movie based off of the ’90s Japanese sci-fi manga by Masamune Shirow. While the film’s typical dystopian blend of cyborgs and humans is no cause to raise eyebrows, the casting of the blond hair and blue eyed Scarlett Johansson to play Major Motoko Kusanagi is. This decision is only another coat of paint to add to the pavement of Hollywood’s history of whitewashing.
The underrepresentation of minorities in the cinematic world is no shocking revelation. From the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to straightforward statistics (75 percent of characters in top grossing films of 2014 were white), the film industry is being bombarded by national backlash and criticism.
But as the spotlight shines on the importance of portraying diversity on America’s television screen, a more clandestine injustice is lurking behind the stage. Minorities, it seems, do not share a level playing field in their underrepresentation. In all its ironic glory, minorities fall into a hierarchy. Amongst those left grovelling in the wings of the stage are Asian Americans.
“Yellowface,” the portrayal of an East Asian person by a white actor, is prevalent throughout the cinematic scene. Scarlett Johansson is no outlier; to name a few instances of “re-imagined” Asian roles: the green eyed Emma Stone played a pilot of Asian and Hawaiian heritage in Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy-drama “Aloha,” the blond Tilda Swinton played a part originally meant to be a Tibetan monk in the recent fantasy film “Doctor Strange,” and Mackenzie Davis played NASA employee Mindy Park in “The Martian.”
The first time I encountered “yellowface” was in sixth grade, as I excitedly sat down with my mom to watch “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” My hopes were high as the first notes of the iconic theme song, “Moon River,” sent me tumbling into the tumultuous sixties and a whirlwind romance featuring Holly Golightly (played by Audrey Hepburn). Right as I reached for another handful of popcorn, Holly’s neighbor popped onto the screen. Introduced as Mr. Yunioshi, this bumbling, buck-toothed, myopic man was supposed to be…Asian? Played by the white actor Mickey Rooney, the absurd caricature of the Japanese man was inserted as comic relief. Instead of laughing, I felt sick to my stomach every time his obnoxious and exaggerated accent made its way on screen.
Jane Hyun’s recent novel, “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians,” illustrates the obstacles Asian Americans face in climbing the workforce ladder. The bamboo ceiling, playing off the “glass ceiling” term commonly used in feminism, is not just for corporate offices. One percent of Asian American actresses and actors are given leading roles in films, and there you have it: Hollywood’s bamboo ceiling.
It is only recently that the entertainment industry has begun to adapt the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” features a predominantly Asian American cast, for the first time in twenty years. With high profile actors such as Jackie Chan, Priyanka Chopra, and Daniel Dae Kim, the recognition of talented Asian American actors are paving the way towards equal representation.
But the battle is slow going. The world of movies and shows have become an integral part of American society. As a society whose culture is defined by the unification of every corner the globe, equal representation is the first step to reinforcing this ideal. So dear Hollywood: please throw out that tiny little box you’ve so graciously shoved Asian Americans into, the one that labels them “smart,” “frugal,” “eccentric,” and more. And tear down that bamboo ceiling while you’re at it.