By Guest Contributor Jennifer; originally published at Mixed Race America
There are many people who have written about the phenomenon of “yellowface,” which is the Asian version of “blackface”–having white (although at times there have been black) actors and actresses portraying Asian and Asian American people in Hollywood films. Racebending.com has a particularly astute and thorough accounting by contributor Michelle I. I recommend reading her piece, “Yellowface: A Story in Pictures,” to familiarize yourself with the looooong history of yellowface in Hollywood cinema. But I think this photo of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s probably says it all:
As I wrote about in yesterday’s post, there’s a certain narrative logic that the filmmakers had in mind for putting their non-Asian actors in yellowface (including the African American actor Keith David in a role that reminded me of Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix, if they had taped back Fishburne’s eyes). One of the themes of the narrative (film as well as book) is a repetition or eternal recurrence of experiences, of relationships, of people with a comet birthmark who show up across space and time. To connect these otherwise disparate narratives, the filmmakers chose to have actors and actresses play various roles in all six segments/stories of the film–so Halle Berry has a throwaway minor role as a woman dressed in a sari (she’s supposed to be an Indian woman in London) but in two other stories she has a major role (as a Latina reporter in 1970s SF and in the future as a post-apocalyptic survivor who has access to technology). One of the stories takes place in 2144 in Neo Seoul, a dystopic “corporocracy”where “pure bloods” are consumers and “fabricants” are the cloned humans who serve them. So that brings us to the white actors playing Korean or Neo Korean men:
Asian women do not need to be distinguishable from one another, either in the film or outside the film when talking about the actresses portraying cloned Asian women. Also, while Halle Berry does have a love scene where you see her naked back in one of the vignettes (the one where she is in whiteface), the Neo Seoul segments show the female fabricants either naked or in very skimpy clothing meant to sexualize them. This is a huge problem in terms of the Orientalization going on in this film because there is a long history of Asian women depicted as sexually available and sexually evocative in Hollywood cinema. And I didn’t really see the point of depicting the women naked–perhaps the scantily clad part I get, but the film only seemed to reinforce all of the pre-existing stereotypes that we have about Asian women, especially as they’ve been rendered in celluloid.
But don’t take my word for it, see Elaine Kim’s documentary, Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded for a history of the sexualization of Asian women that has taken place in the past and still takes place in the present, with Cloud Atlas as the latest entry in the Orientalizing of Asian women.
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