Monday, June 6, 2011

musings on Yellow Face

Why, when Black Face is deemed illegal is Yellow Face still OK in the United States? I hadn’t really thought about this until I heard about a play called Yellow Face.  I feel bad that I hadn’t been offended by past productions of Miss Saigon and even other plays and movies such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and even Thoroughly Modern Millie where Asian characters are played by white actors and are sometimes blatantly made fun of in these plays. I used to think white actors had to play the roles of Chinese, Japanese , Vietnamese etc characters because the pool of actors didn’t have people of ethnicity to play those characters. But we do not dress up white actors in Black Face because the actor pool doesn’t have people to fill those roles.  In fact, we…including myself…wouldn’t even bat an eye at the use of Yellow Face.

Thoroughly Modern Millie

During the late 19th and early 20th century anti-Asian sentiments were expressed by politicians and writers. The pollutant stereotype began in 1850s California. Asians were viewed as alien and a threat to wage-earners, and a movement began that had the goal of making California racially pure. Newspapers called it “The Yellow Peril” ( Los Angeles Times, 1886). In the 1920s,  politicians responded with the
Japanese Internment Camp c1942
Japanese Exclusion Act and the American Immigration Act, limiting the number of Asian immigrants because they were considered an “undesirable race”. In 1942 approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps 62% of which were American citizens.   Although we have moved past these extreme forms of racism towards Asian-Americans, Yellowface gives control of the depiction of Asians in popular culture to the dominant White culture which often leads to racist Asian stereotypes and caricatures (hello Miss Swan from Mad TV).

Racist Asian stereotypes in Film and TV and Theatre include:
  • The non-threatening “Oriental” with his fortune-cookie wisdom. The character was usually portrayed by Caucasian actors in its many incarnations, but Asians have occasionally taken on the role; for example Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi
  • The silly Asian sidekick, with the buck teeth and 'rs' in place of 'ls'.
  • The conniving evil Asian. Someone with deep mysticism and scheming ways. Murder and opium were favorites.
  • The dragon lady. A sexually available/loose Asian woman who dared to try and be with the white man.
  • Since the mid-1960s, the media has popularized an image of Asian Americans as the perfectly assimilated ethnic minority in the United States. This emergence of the model minority image let to a preoccupation among many Asian Americans with "good" stereotypes vs "bad" stereotypes.

Micky Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's

The 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's has been criticized for its portrayal of the character Mr. Yunioshi, Holly's bucktoothed, stereotyped Japanese neighbor. Played by Caucasian Mickey Rooney, Rooney wore Yellowface makeup to change his features to a caricatured approximation of a Japanese person.

In the 45th anniversary edition DVD release, producer Richard Shepherd repeatedly apologizes, saying, "If we could just change Mickey Rooney, I'd be thrilled with the movie." Director Blake Edwards stated, "Looking back, I wish I had never done it...and I would give anything to be able to recast it, but it's there, and onward and upward." In a 2008 interview about the film, 87-year-old Rooney said he was heartbroken about the criticism and that he had never received any complaints about his portrayal of the character.

Miss Saigon (1989–1999) is a West End musical, is loosely based on Madama Butterfly.

Miss Saigon
The setting of the plot is relocated to the 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War, and Madame Butterfly's American Lieutenant and Japanese geisha coupling is replaced by a romance between an American GI and a Vietnamese bar girl. This musical has received criticism for what some have perceived as a racist or sexist overtone, including protests regarding its portrayal of Asian men, Asian women, or women in general.

The Engineer in Miss Saigon
Originally, Jonathan Pryce and Keith Burns, white actors playing Eurasian/Asian characters, wore eye prostheses and bronzing cream to make themselves look more Asian, which outraged some who drew comparisons to a "minstrel show". From April 1989 to May 1990, nearly 100 shows were produced under the agreement between Equity and the League of American Theatres and Producers, 33 of the shows, with 504 roles, had no ethnic minority actors and 12 other productions had only one or two ethnic actors.

Kinda makes you think of things differently, huh? Is this unethical? On the flip side, would it be racist for people of mixed ethnicity to play a White character? Is there such thing as White Face? What about other ethnicities? Are we compromising our artistic integrity?

Anywho, I am not looking to change the world, I just thought this was interesting to share. And since I am half Japanese this isn’t COMPLETELY totally cliché for me.


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