Only White Males Can Be Heroes in Hollywood.

I’m going to talk about an uncomfortable topic that has been bugging me about our society, Western society to be exact. Having been born and raised Seoul, South Korea until I was seven, I grew up watching and idolizing protagonists in films produced mostly by Korean production companies. Perhaps this is what made me more perceptive to this blatant marginalization. I’m talking about the marginalization of male actors of Asian racial background in western pop-culture.

In western media, Asian actors are marginalized to playing roles where they are portrayed as some type of martial arts fighter incapable of having emotional/sexual desires, an antagonist/side-kick, or as an emasculated, geeky, dismissive male. Through the marginalization of Asian actors in western media, white filmmakers and producers and ‘yellow-faced‘ performers are permitted to determine what it means to be Asian.

Korean Movie Industry

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In Hollywood:

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It is rare to see Asian male actors in a protagonist role unless you’re outside western media.  It’s a destructive, biased representation that perpetuates Asian stereotypes in western society.

Mako Iwamatsu, who is mostly-known for his Academy and Golden Globe award nominated role in the movie The Sand Pebbles, recalls a studio executive’s reaction when asked about featuring a non-Asian in the lead of “Kung Fu,” the classic 1970s TV show: “I remember one of the vice presidents — in charge of production, I suppose — who said, ‘If we put a yellow man up on the tube, the audience will turn the switch off in less than five minutes.’ ”
While producers can no longer make such statements, this replacement of Asian protagonist in the script by white males still occurs in western pop-culture. It was such a perpetual occurrence that the term Yellowface has been adopted to explain this oppression. For example, in the recent movie, Cloud Atlas, we have Jim Sturgess

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playing the role of an Asian protagonist, Hae-Joo Chang.
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There are also cases where the script is changed around to accommodate a white protagonist. Take for example, the movie The Last Samurai, which was based on the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigo Takamori, a Japanese samurai. The screenplay alters from the Satsuma Rebellion to the point where it loses touch with reality, just to portray an American Officer as the protagonist. In case you haven’t watched it; the American Officer who doesn’t speak a word of Japanese, is captured as a prisoner of war and manages to assimilate into the samurai village and its way of life. Later he leads the Samurai in a final battle to death against the Western Influenced, Japanese Imperial Army where he becomes the last surviving ‘samurai’. Along the way he falls in love with a Japanese woman that he widowed. This movie portrays both white privilege and male privilege, as discussed by Ms. McIntosh in our class readings, in a way which reinforces hegemonic ideals and hypersexualizes the Japanese woman. The fact that the general public in western society did not question how an American prisoner of war manages to assimilate into a Samurai Culture in such a short period of time, or that the female falls in love with a man who kills her own husband shows us how “the representation of minorities are so embedded in the intersection of race and media that they operate at a subconscious level” (http://violetmae.tumblr.com/post/37412767/asians-in-the-city). Perhaps it’s the result of the intersection between americentrism and androcentrism, resulting in these male centered, white rescue situations which reinforces a white-male tendency to maintain central roles in the media. In TV news, the pairing of an older white man with a younger, Asian American, female co-anchor has become so familiar that some in the news business refer to it as “the Connie Chung effect.” Chung was the first Asian American female to co-anchor a network newscast (with Dan Rather) in 1993.

However, an advertising exec, Imada sees change coming, albeit slowly. In the “Harold & Kumar” movies, he points out; the title characters (who are of Korean and East Indian descent) have non-Asian girlfriends. And on “The Walking Dead,” the post-apocalyptic drama series on AMC, a running plotline is a romance between a young Korean American man and a white woman over the objections of her father.

What do you guys think caused this emasculation of Asian males in western society? Or the hypersexualization of Asian females?

Do you think Hollywood can change from the deeply invested idea of American exceptionalism?

Remember The Bechdel test:

– Are there two women, with names?
– Who speak to one another?
– About something other than a man?

Try to adapt the Bechdel test and conduct it to open up questions about the representation of persons of colour.

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14 thoughts on “Only White Males Can Be Heroes in Hollywood.

  1. Very good post! Learned all about it in a bunch of East Asian Studies classes. In defense of Jim Sturgess/”Cloud” Atlas though, he plays like three or four other roles, for good reason. They had the other Asian lady, and tried to make her white in another scene. Pretty awkward.

    But, “The Last Samurai”!! Haha, Paul Mooney says it best on The Chappelle Show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oE4XK2YZL9Y (only 43 seconds~)

    To answer your questions: I feel that the emasculation (though I don’t really like that word) and hypersexualization comes from- you guessed it- pure racism. The only reason black people have managed to tip the scales is because we’re pretty vocal against racism, and America has a conspicuous history of racism against blacks. Not so much for Asians, so people can still discriminate and Hollywood can Yellowface. What do you think about “21 and over”?

    Can Hollywood change? I’m sure they could, but they have to have profit from doing so…. They destroyed “The Last Airbender” despite the cash-in it could have been. Though I heard M. Night is doing another one…. No hope?

  2. In response to your questions and the above post- yeah, definitely some awful racism. Hypersexualization of women → women as objects → oppression. Emasculation of males → males in an “inferior” position based on a male dominated system → once again, oppression. I think that with overly sexual images of Asian women (or women confined within the “geek” stereotype) and images of Asian men as being “geeky” or very stereotypically Asian within a hegemonic system where the highest standard is an educated white man, Asian actors and actresses are often prevented from gaining the respect that white actors have handed to them (helloooo white privilege). How unfortunate that people are constantly confined to racial stereotypes.

    Can someone explain Jim Sturgess’s makeup in that movie?! Would it not have been easier to cast an Asian actor? I’m curious as to why he was chosen and what you think that says about Hollywood…

    • Well, in other scenes, he was a abolitionist in America and, I believe, a musician in England- not exactly something easy that we can suspend our disbelief for if an Asian actor had the role. There was an Asian actor and they tried to make her look Hispanic and white in other scenes of the movie.. Like I said, very awkward…

      • I still find it very americentric and exemplifying hollywood’s need to portray white-male domination by the fact that they thought it would be better for a white actor to play as an asian male vs. asian male playing as a white actor; that was more of the point I was trying to make there.

        And about the female Asian actress: exactly, the Korean actress Doo na Bae (http://tinyurl.com/bt7db7p) also portrayed a red-haired, green-eyed Caucasian woman, a Latina woman and Tom Hanks’ blond-haired, blue-eyed sister in three other segments. Halle Berry was also portrayed as a white character. It wasn’t just a matter of not being able to white-face an actor/actress of colour as actresses portrayed other races in order to maintain white male’s portrayal of dominance.

        Rebecca, the movie is about multiple generations/dimensions about how one soul affects another’s life. So in the first time period (1800’s), Jim Sturgess was a lawyer, who eventually turns into an abolitionist after a slave saves him. In another generation, he plays the role of Hae-Joo Chang, a rouge agent in neo-Seoul (capital of South Korea).

  3. I’ll have to disagree in this case for the very examples you name (especially since the make-up was obvious- were they really trying to portray Halle Berry as white? Didn’t realize that at all). I believe it is more on the fact that he won the spot instead of maintaining white male dominance, either implicitly or explicitly.

    • Were they really trying to portray Halle Berry as white? I believe they were, but you can form your own opinions (http://tinyurl.com/csx5vz9).

      With regards to your 2nd statement: Maybe Jim did ‘win the spot’, however did the directors/producers go the great lengths they went to cast Doo na Bae for an Asian actor? What was their intentions/reasoning for putting forth more effort in finding an Asian actress to fill in the female role. The filmmakers personally called around to reach her who was completely agent-less at the time. (“They just called me! It was weird because I had no American agent at the time, and I didn’t even have a manager in Korea. I was in between managers, so it was hard to find me. [Laughs] But I got a call from my Korean friend, the film director Pil-Sung Yim [Doomsday Book], and he said, “Doona, some famous Hollywood filmmakers want to send you a script – do you want to read it?”). In an interview (http://movieline.com/2012/10/23/doona-bae-cloud-atlas-interview-korean-sonmi/), the actress states that she wasn’t even looking to do english-language films at the time and had to take a crash course in English.

      Cloud Atlas prides itself on its ‘multi-racial cast’, but it clearly portrayed Hollywood’s status-quo of a multi-racial cast: white men and women of color.

      • Woah, there were black men there, too, that had multiple parts.

        Plus, I was thinking Halle Berry was supposed to be some foreign much-younger lover of the old white guy, someone that a white male like the musician would perhaps be tempted by so as to repress his homosexual urges. Buuuuut, that didn’t happen.

        No, they didn’t go to great lengths, I see. I suppose they wanted more races in their cast. She was the main vision of Neo Seoul, and the setting took place in Korea. It seems respectful to get an Asian actor. Just like others who were main focus of their segments.

      • Yes, there were black males there too but never in a leadership role, nor as a main character. By not representing minorities in leadership roles, producers are communicating a message that white males are more able as being a leader

  4. One of my friends has been watching Korea’s Next Top Model and made a comment about how all of the models are, in fact, Korean. This is the same for China’s Next Top Model, etc. She jokingly calls herself racist because she is apparently “not attracted to Chinese guys”- only Korean guys. With reference to your question about the Bechdel test, if we were to look for a film or show with two central non-white characters, we would have no problem finding that in countries like Korea and China. Meanwhile, America’s Next Top Model/Canada’s Next Top Model have included contestants who are black, Asian, Latina, and white. Could we say that the Korean or Chinese versions are racist, then? Or can oppressed races not be considered racist?

    • I don’t know if I’m understanding you correctly, but if that is the case for CNTM and KNTM, yea, that would be racist. I heard in Japan that don’t even let Korean descendants vote, even if they have lived their whole lives there. That’s racist, as well. Once you oppress a race somehow for your own benefit, I believe that’s racist. I also feel when black people only date black/white people they are being just as racist as white people who only date black/white people.

    • The context I was getting at with my article was more along the lines of misrepresentation or the complete lack thereof of minority groups within America. America as a country experienced consistent immigration of people from all the major continents (Europe, Africa, Asia), while both Korea and China are so racially non-diverse that much of its population is classified in ethnic groups rather than race. To compare, in USA 72.4% of the population is white, 12.6% Black American, 4.8% Asian, 0.9% Alaska Native, 0.2% Native Hawaiian, 6.2% Other and 2.9% Multiracial. In China 98.8% can be classified under the Chinese Race. While the majority ethnic group is Han Chinese (91.51%). In South Korea 99% of the population is of Korean ethnicity. So by having perhaps a black or white model on these shows out of 12 models, would already be an over representation of of that race.

  5. I am also Korean and I see so many great looking Asian guys in many Korean shows. However, in Hollywood, many Asians are short and fat. My friends think all the Asian guys look like that. In the movie, G.I. Joe, the movie actor called, Byung Hun Lee appears. He look different from the “typical” looking Asians. He has big eyes, he is muscular, and he is not fat or short. I really hope that someday Asian guys can be the heroes and the main characters in Hollywood movies.

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