Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Image: Verified twitter post from actor Jim Sturgess, who is white and appears in yellowface in the upcoming film Cloud Atlas. Sturgess writes: “Yellowface? Blackface? Pinkface? Pinkberry? Blackberry? Crackberry? Blueberry? Strawberry? Bananas? Frozen Yogurt? All the toppings?.Lovely!
After Phil Yu posted this, I spent a couple hours stewing in a pit of rage. I’m still angry. And I’m still sorting out my reaction.
After some thought, I came to the following conclusion: Jim Sturgess is a tool.
Shocking revelation, right?
But I mean it in a slightly different sense than you might initially think.
Jim could be a perfectly nice guy. He could be kind to his friends, he probably loves his family. He probably makes other jokes that people think are funny and don’t hurt anyone at all.
But he’s a tool in a direct sense, because through some combination of talent, hard work, and luck, he has become the go-to Hollywood guy to play Asian men. Before someone thinks to call John Cho, Dante Basco, Kunal Nayyar, or Archie Kao, Jim gets the first speed dial. Whether it’s replacing a real-life Asian American with a white guy or showing that Asian folks are really just reincarnated white dudes with awful prosthetic slant-eyes, Sturgess is your man.
He is the perfect tool for Hollywood to tell stories about fascinating, exotic Asian cultures without the inconvenience of having to actually cast an Asian man in any but the most demeaning of roles. He’s the perfect tool to cement the notion that American culture is perfectly complete sans anything resembling a real, flesh-and-blood Asian male.
But if a role comes up for an Asian man that’s not a gutless eunuch or an abusive patriarch, then Jim cracks out the makeup kit. And we go back to the Hollywood of 1937.
For Jim, it’s a joke about froyo.
For me, it’s a reminder that no matter what I accomplish in my life, no matter if I become a world-class blackjack player or cure cancer, Jim will be there to tape his eyes back and tell my story. He’ll be there to show America what an “Asian” is. Or more accurately, he’ll be there to show America what a chink is. In a time when it’s unthinkable to teach our kids the word “chink” it’s still necessary to show them, to raise them on media that delineates the role of Asians in society, to film stories about Asianness that exclude or silence Asian bodies, faces, and voices.
So we can have an anatomy lesson on, a shared definition of, chink and gook without ever using the words. Because that would be offensive.
It never surprises me how many reasons can be manufactured to support anachronistic, discriminatory practices. The Last Airbender was only the most recent example. The characters and story were Asian or First Nations in every integral sense, from the background, to the intention of the creators, to their names and food and written language and culture.
But the pile of evidence was not enough, because the question asked by many was “Why can’t they cast a white actor?”–as though the tides of history were stacked so against white actors that they needed defending, they needed the extra opportunity of playing outside their race. As though Asian actors were taking all the good roles, taking all the roles worth doing. As though roles practically screaming for an Asian actor come along everyday, and not just for Long Duk Dong or Charlie Chan or Mr. Chow.
“No,” they said, “these lead roles are clearly fine with white actors. Maybe you’ll get the next one.”
“No. But here’s Red Dawn. That’s cool, right?”
Cloud Atlas goes to wide release on October 26th. I’m not sure where exactly I’ll be. But I know it’ll be in front of a theater, or a studio. I won’t have a ticket, but I will have a sign. And I just hope I’m not alone out there.