The Yellowface Controversy

Every year, Hollywood comes out with the usual set of summer blockbusters. This year’s films—from Inception to Despicable Me—have generally been high-quality, well-made films. Inception has already been tagged by some critics as a classic.

Then there was The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, which may earn a Razzie for worst picture of the year. From its storyboard inception (pardon the pun) to its sorry release, Airbender has been dragged in the wake of its controversial casting decisions. Though Airbender is based on the Nickelodeon TV series Avatar, based predominantly on East Asian philosophy and culture, Shyamalan chose to cast white actors to play Asian characters—in other words, to use yellowface.

Why did Shyamalan choose to use yellowface, and why does Hollywood still allow this practice more than half a century after blackface was rightfully ended?

Simple, old-fashioned racism does not fully answer the question. Shyamalan himself is Indian, yet he cast an Indian actor as the villain. If one were simply to say, “Shyamalan is a racist, end of story,” then his casting of an Indian actor as the villain—and white actors as the protagonists—wouldn’t make sense. More broadly, the entertainment business is probably not run by a coterie of racist billionaires (at least nowadays). Though obviously not everyone who lives around Studio City is in the entertainment business or even an actor, Hollywood has historically lacked diversity. According to U.S. Census American Community Survey estimates, West Hollywood is around 82 percent white, and Beverly Hills hovers around 88 percent. Los Angeles County, meanwhile, is only about 50 percent white. One might expect that recent waves of immigration, particularly those affecting Los Angeles, would have helped improve racial diversity in and around Hollywood, but in the past ten years Beverly Hills has actually gotten whiter. Past racial discrimination has definitely left the minority talent pool around Hollywood weaker.

An alternate explanation for why genuinely well-intentioned people in Hollywood continue promoting backward practices like yellowface involves economics and the faceless force of the market. Take supply and demand: it would not be unreasonable to assume that the majority of Hollywood’s available labor pool is white. Becoming a Hollywood superstar is something that appeals to a very specific demographic, and that demographic is probably paler than America itself. Proportionally, there are quite few Asian-Americans in entertainment. Choosing a white actor to play a non-white role may simply be the easier path.

Hollywood’s writers and producers also have families to feed and dreams of blockbuster success, necessities and ambitions which sometimes require sacrificing principles. Shyamalan and others in the industry want to make productions that sell. It’s their job. Maybe they think—or have been trained to think—that a sit-com or movie without a white male lead would be less popular. Directors or producers, locked into the mold, set white male leads because they know Hollywood can sell white male characters. They make films that they think audiences will accept. Ironically, this probably makes audiences even less accepting of non-white, non-male leads because they’re so used to the traditional version. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Yet despite all the economic rationalizations, yellowface does not seem entirely justified. Shyamalan’s movie, after all, bombed at the box office despite his best efforts to appeal to white America. When Shyamalan put a white actor in an Asian role, he assumed that middle America was not willing to watch a movie with a minority lead. Yet Americans have consistently proven willing to watch movies with minority leads. The success of Denzel Washington and Will Smith has shown that non-white leads can succeed just as well as white ones. And the popularity of the Harold & Kumar series—two movies in which the main actors are East Asian and Indian—indicates that willingness to watch minority leads applies not just to black actors.

Finally, there is the international market to consider. International ticket sales are an increasingly important avenue to the financial success of mid-range Hollywood movies. Rich Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan constitute an important part of this audience. I have a hunch that East Asians would not particularly appreciate the casting of a white actor to play an East Asian lead. With the growing international market, contentious race-sensitive casting decisions might do damage to ticket sales.

If the American entertainment industry wakes up, it might realize that banning practices such as yellowface would probably boost sales, and it’d be the right thing to do.

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