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Yellowface and the Adult Film Industry’s Asian American Problem

February 11, 2013

What happens when a prominent adult film producer creates a homage to one of the few television shows with an Asian American character–and decides to depict that character in blatant yellowface? Guest blogger N’jaila Rhee takes on the subject of yellowface in the adult film industry.

[Age Content/NSFW Disclaimer: While the following article contains no images with nudity, it does discuss a recent high profile incident of yellowfacing in the pornography industry.]

Yellow Face isn’t okay, not on stage, not on Halloween and not in film–and yes, that includes not in porn. So if you are going to have any hand in creating a porn “parody” of smash hit show that has a fan favorite character who is Korean American, hiring a white actor taping his eyes back and smearing what looks like Cheeto dust on his face is just not going to sit well with people.


Image: Danny Wylde wearing yellowface to depict the character Glenn Rhee in “The Walking Dead XXX”

People will be upset because it’s racist mockery of Asian features–and if there’s one group that doesn’t have options when it comes to porn, it’s Asian Americans.

What’s great about free speech is you can be as tasteless you can muster, and there is no one too high or low for criticism. Pornography is not accountability free. This content doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum.

I say this with a bit of cautious authority. As an former exotic dancer and as a cam model–depending on who you ask–I’m a breath above or several leagues below a porn performer in the hierarchy of sex work. I’ve also been covering the adult industry as objectively as I can since 2005. This isn’t coming from someone unfamiliar with what’s out there, how it’s distributed or the process of creating it. I have no personal gripes with the production company Burning Angel, writer/director, Tommy Pistol, actor Danny Wylde, or adult film reviewer Peter Warren. In fact, the few times I’ve met The Walking Dead XXX producer Joanna Angel she left positive impressions on me. I even presented her with a small gift for being voted coolest Rutgers Alumni in a poll conducted by the student-run newspaper.

Sadly, being nice doesn’t mean a person is impervious to common racist attitudes or behaviors. Joanna Angel’s response to criticism on her personal blog is disappointing:

“Alright, I know some of you lame asses were offended by me turning someone non-Asian into someone Asian, but Danny is an important member of the BurningAngel family and I really wanted him in this movie – and he actually has a lot of similar features as Glenn and made the most sense to play him. Around election time, I aged Danny about 60 years and turned him into Joe Biden. In Evil Head, we gave him an 80’s looking wig. I was not doing this to make fun of anyone of any race – I did this because it was a parody. So all you over-sensitive PC people: calm down.” [source (NSFW)]

Actions done in jest can hurt just as deeply as malicious ones. Racism is not always a seething hatred. It can be a callous dismissal or frank indifference. Responses like Angel’s only serve one purpose and that’s to trivialize and diminish the impact of racism while blaming its victims: There’s no racism here because the whole thing is a joke and this white actor is the best we could find. So why are YOU making this big fuss? The long hurtful history of yellowface isn’t allowed to be discussed because I’m only making jokes and wank material. If Wylde looked so similar to Glenn, portrayed on television by Korean American actor Steven Yeun, why was there need to put him in yellowface at all?


Image: Actor Steven Yeun, sexy like a Sir.

Angel did not say: Don’t even think about you jerking off without being reminded that the best you is someone white, but the image of yellowface Glenn can send that message regardless of her intent. I would hope that a woman who went to one of the most diverse universities in the country would know that using makeup to approximate Asian features on a white man is a lot different than putting on a wig. There were no internment camps for 80’s wigs, there was never a 80’s wig exclusion act, and 80’s wigs never had 70’s wigs tell them what 80’s wigs are allowed to be upset about.


The make up artist tweets back at an Asian actress, telling her “Creating characters in movies is what movie making is all about. It is common in both mainstream and porn to do [yellowface.]“

The writer and director of the movie, Tommy Pistol, is also defending his casting choice. In his own words:

“My choice to have Danny Wylde play the Korean-American character Glenn was two fold- I believe him to be an intelligent actor who can play various roles and I wanted to stay true to the ethnic lineage as created in the series. I felt he could pull off an intelligent young adult, pulled from his family and thrust into a new world where he finds inner strength and manhood. In the field of sexual liberation and exploration that pornography allows- my thought was why not role play? Danny was not cast to stereotype- his make up which did not include tape, just eyeshadow and foundation, was no more offensive than giving a guy playing an inmate fake prison tattoos. Can we ponder how role playing could, in effect shoot down bigot and xenophobic ideologies by allowing one to empathize with something new? Is this not progression over moral ambiguity?” [source]

Pistol fails to recognize that his idea that ‘bigoted views of Asians can be eliminated when an Asian is represented by a white person’ is not progressive, and damn sure ain’t Proustian as he would like his readers to believe. This is the crap they tried to tell Anna May Wong while casting her as an Asian villainess and a white woman as the Asian love interest in 1922. How can we teach people to appreciate people of color when they are shown actual people of color aren’t necessary? Why is “enlightenment about Asians in need” a white vessel to use for reference?

Pistol claims the casting was not stereotypical, but his description of Glenn’s character is questionable at best. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the fundamentals of Glenn, but “needing to find inner strength” and “his manhood”? This is a character introduced saving Rick while on a dangerous mission for the sake of his friends’ survival. Glenn knows where his balls are, and they are actually quite massive. Perhaps Pistol brought his own notion of what Glenn must have been from a preconceived notion of Asian masculinity?


Steven Yeun as Glenn and Lauren Cohan as Maggie on The Walking Dead

Pistol takes a similar stance to criticism as Joanna Angel. To them it’s just not offensive because Asianness is just a few layers of cheap foundation away. It’s nothing that really matters. It’s not like those eyes or pigmentation came along with cultures, different societal expectations or treatment –unless a character is acting all ASIAN STEREOTYPE-Y–they’re practically white anyway! Asian and Asian American identity is more of a visual add-on than a world-shaping permanent status that affects every facet of one’s life.

I find difficult to take Pistol seriously, to believe that his use of yellowface was only an exercise in ‘role playing to enlightenment.’ Pistol is also in a porn homage to The Karate Kid that stars Ron Jeremy as Mr. Miyagi. Perhaps he just kinda digs it, even while he protests the use of the terms “yellowface” and “blackface”, their actual practice seem far less upsetting to him.


The Karate Kid XXX DVD cover

Even more alarmingly, Adult Video News associate editor Peter Warren defended of the use of yellowface. AVN is an adult industry trade magazine–for better or worse the Hollywood Reporter of Porn. In his ignorance singularity in the form of a rebuttal to Jezebel.com, he writes, “to charge the makers of a PORN PARODY with racism for casting a white dude as an Asian dude has to be one of the most absurd things we’ve seen any media outlet do in a good while.”

The crux of Warren’s argument against Jezebel’s criticism basically boils down to:’Jewish people are conscious of racism, porn is racist because it’s porn, and the sharpest sting: there are no Asian actors to hire. He then compares the casting in the Burning Angel The Walking Dead parody to non-Jewish actresses in the adult film Nice Jewish Girls. He admits that that film was made by a Jewish man, and fails to mention that none of the women had a makeup artist give them exaggerated physical features attributed as Jewish. Warren describes Joanna Angel as “a very overtly Jewish gal plenty conscious of ethnic bigotry,” as if it experiencing bigotry towards your own people makes one impervious to being bigoted towards against another group and as if all groups encounter racism and prejudice equally and in a uniform fashion. (The racism against Asian Americans and specifically Asian American men deals with a lot of emasculation and exclusion, easily erased and ignored in public view.) Warren also fails to mention that unlike in The Walking Dead XXX, Nice Jewish Girls cast Jewish actors and that there were Jewish people in decision-making positions.

There were no Asian Americans in decision-making roles in The Walking Dead XXX production. The people in power decided to go with yellowface and are continuing to defend it. Interestingly enough, actor Danny Wylde writes in his apology that the role of Glenn was the last to be cast. Not being familiar with the show, he wasn’t aware that he would be playing an Asian- American. After seeing himself in make up, he raised questions about racism. The reaction he received was mostly laughter. He writes:

“I wrote in my previous blog entry, ‘Is my portrayal of Glenn racist? I honestly don’t know.’ What I should have asked was, ‘Is my portrayal of Glenn a socially acceptable form of racism?’ The question is, I think, more honest and relevant. Because to a set full of white pornographers in the year 2012, the answer was, ‘Yes.’

“As it has been pointed out many times in the past, there aren’t many Asian men in American porn. In fact, I can think of only one US-based, Asian male porn star. For a number of reasons, he did not make it into this film. Therefore, I was cast as Glenn simply because I am a Burning Angel regular.”

Wylde was cast because he was already considered an “acceptable” performer. Every person involved in defending the production has mentioned that the casting was inevitable because the one prominent Asian man in porn either wasn’t available, wasn’t Korean, or just wasn’t considered. Pistol and Warren weakly argued that people would have been just as upset if Keni Styles was cast as Glenn–something I highly doubt as the British Thai actor is somewhat of a Asian American folk hero and favorite among female adult movie viewers. While Keni Styles is one of the first award winning Asian actors in the United States, he’s far from the first or the only Asian man to be doing straight porn. No one mentions actors from websites such as Asian-Man.com , Shelovesasiancock.com or PhuckFuMasters.com, the latter having three Asian and Asian American male performers. Even more tellingly, no one defending the yellowface has mentioned the idea of finding a Korean American actor for the role.

Pistol smugly told an Asian American actress vocally opposed to his film that if she could “bring me a a hung Korean American that can act” he would be open to using him in the sequel. If there was any actual interest in finding Asian talent, why didn’t he do that in the first place? It’s a low blow to tell a underrepresented and often overlooked group that the reason they’re invisible is because no one is bringing them to the light, then shutting off that light when they actually have a chance present themselves.

Warren, Pistol, and Wylde all write that there are plenty of stereotypical portrayals of Asian in American porn, they are absolutely correct. There are stereotypical and negative portrayals of every group, but what is uniquely lacking for Asian Americans is options. Black and Latino people can find content created with the intent to be consumed by blacks and Latino people, content without racist overtones. Lesbians who are sick of seeing female sexuality performed for heterosexual male fantasy can check out Girlfriends Films. Buck Angel created Sexing the Transman for the often ignored female-to-male transgender population to feel celebrated. If Asian Americans want to see non-objectified Asian American sexuality performed by Asian American men and women together, where are the choices? If Asian American men want to see a reflection of themselves perform on screen, where can they turn?

The industry blames the lack of Asian American men on screen on the lack of Asian American men attempting to get in the business, but if the mainstream gatekeepers don’t allow them in or don’t actively seek them, how do they know who is trying to get in? More importantly, this goes deeper than what you see on screen and impacts the hiring practices and livelihoods of performers of color.

If the adult industry continues to court the attention of the mainstream with its big-budget parodies, it needs to adapt. With Asian American spending power expected to reach $1 trillion in the next 5 years, perhaps the industry will finally wise up?

Categories: blog, History and Concepts
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About the Author

N’jaila Rhee grew up in north New Jersey and graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communication media from Rutgers University in 2009. She currently blogs at blasianbytch.com

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  • http://www.facebook.com/timothy.du Timothy Du

    About Walking Dead XXX, I hated it for both yellow face and insulting Glenn, who’s the only asian zombie survivor. Now that he’s dead in comic, it’s more disrespectful.

    • http://www.blasianbytch.com BlasianBytch

      dude…spoilers. ( i know it happened months ago but a lot of people haven’t read that yet. )

  • http://vulvs.tumblr.com/ oofstar

    i hate this shit. eta: i meant the racism!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BYET73EDWVTJFCFGGZ7XSAPR7Q ChellG

    Look at racist white people get offended when a white movie is blackwashed and they have little or nothing to say when Asian one is whitewashed….
    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2013/02/quvenzhane-wallis-to-star-in-annie-remake/#comment-4936344

    • http://www.facebook.com/TidesofEuropa Topher Brown

      Not sure if everyone in the comments qualify as racist. Sure, some of these people are clearly racist, and should be pointed out as such.

      BUT, the problem here is that you generalized everyone in the comments, and using “racist white people” so loosely reflex poorly on you.

  • Sījié Liáng

    I don’t understand why they just didn’t hire Steven Yeun and Lauren Cohan. I mean the demand seems to be there. :P

  • Leekwan Kim

    Let’s face it! White people have no problem portraying people of color, including historical leaders like Kings or Queens of China, Japanese Samurai or Ninjas, African Pharaohs in Egypt, israelite Kings such as King David, Native American Chiefs, and Polynesian Kings and Queens.

    I bet you that if you had any person of color play George Washington, The Queen of England, or any other major White historical figure in a serious motion picture, White people would be up in arms, screaming that those people were White, not Asian, Black, Indian, Latino, Native American, etc., and we know it.