by Julian Canlas

(Writer’s note: I specifically wrote this article focusing on East and South-East Asian portrayals. Despite being in the same continent, I do think that South Asian and Western Asian representations in media differ vastly from those of East and South-East Asians.)

There’s no doubt: East and South-East Asians in mainstream media can’t exist without being reduced into racist caricatures. Asians, including me, cannot exist beyond the characterisation of our slant eyes, buckteeth, and thick accent. We are good at maths, martial arts, and being meek. We are not artists, but tech geniuses. We cannot be main characters, only sidekicks. Only comic reliefs, either sexless nerds or docile sex fetishes, and ladyboys. Because if we do, we turn white.

Last week, Marvel dropped the trailer for Dr. Strange. The trailer features Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a male Tibetan mystic in the Marvel Comics lore. A few days later, Paramount Pictures released the first official photo from their Western adaptation of the iconic cyberpunk manga known for its Japanese characters, Japanese setting and Japanese storyline, Ghost in the Shell. The photo features Major Kusanagi, a Japanese cyborg, played by Scarlett Johansson – a really, really white actress.

They’ve literally put white actors in ethnically Asian roles. Why are we surprised, though?

Harsh media backlash ensues, the same accusations from when both films was first announced of yellowface–the good, old tradition of white actors and artists playing characters of East and South-East Asian descent. The Ghost in the Shell producers also allegedly tried to use CGI, to make the white actors look less white, more Asian-y, and, in the process, themselves look irreversibly sillier, more ignorant, more unwittingly racist. They’ve literally put white actors in ethnically Asian roles. Why are we surprised, though?

Asian exclusion and yellowface still remain deep within contemporary Hollywood and mainstream media conventions. From MADtv’s Ms. Swan, a walking Asian stereotype, with her slit-eyed stare and two front buckteeth, played by white actress Alex Borstein to Aloha’s Alison Ng, meaningfully non-white interracial played by white-in-real-life actress Emma Stone, there is no genre distinction: white can yellow it up, too.


When Asians are allowed to portray their own race, for every strong Grey’s Anatomy Cristina Yang, there’s a Leslie Chow, a loud, high-pitched, foul-mouthed Chinese gangster with a vengeance in The Hangover played by Ken Jeong. In an interview with the New York Times, Jeong reveals that his mentor advised him ‘stay the hell out of LA’ because he was a good actor, and that casting agents have ordered him to adopt the stereotype of the Asian accent.

The Asian must never be the focal point of the film. Sub-Zero, a Chinese American character in the Mortal Kombat franchise, is masked? Then let’s replace him with a white guy in the film adaptations! Even films that appreciate and dissect Asian culture need to be helmed by a condition of whiteness. Americans would certainly not have understood The Last Samurai if Tom Cruise was not the focal point of the story set in Meiji Japan. Cruise kills a Japanese samurai and marries the guy’s wife. Happy ending!

What about Memoirs of a Geisha, a film adapted from the novel by Arthur Golden, a white American? Beauty in orientalist tropes and romanticised misrepresentations. Or conversely as funny hookers prying on rich Westeners, immortalised in Full Metal Jacket: ‘Me love you long time.’ I’m not even going to talk about the Avatar and Dragon Ball film adaptations.


In an era of identity politics and supposedly heightened social consciousness of multiculturalism, it is incredibly frustrating to constantly be reminded that yellowface and Asian caricatures still largely remain unchallenged and dismissed. Asians who have been brought up in the West still experience the model minority myth and the syndrome of the perpetual foreigner: while we can never truly be assimilated despite our achievements, we are still the hard working minority that other POCs should emulate; our invisibility in the media is exemplary. We are not to complain about our experiences, because of Asians’ supposedly privileged position in comparison to ethnic minorities — a discourse tactic that renders hardships experienced by Asians to not only be ignored, but actually unseen.

I am constantly asked the question ‘Where are you from?’ even before they hear my accent. In every night out I will experience at least one form of discrimination to the point that I just laugh and brush off whenever someone compares me to Jackie Chan. As a gay man, I won’t even start with how blatantly, disgustingly, and visibly racist the gay community generally is. And my experience is not unique.


This is why representation and exposure are important. More of Glenn Rhee anti-Asian stereotypes and Asian narratives produced by Asians themselves like the Joy Luck Club. To claim that there aren’t Asian actors as good and bankable as Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton is both stupid beyond belief and insulting. Whitesplaining ensues, because apparently white people know Asian struggles better than Asians who have lived and experienced forms of discrimination and oppression related to being Asian since we were cute and chubby Asian babies. Maybe Asians aren’t perceived as bankable, because there aren’t enough bankable roles for us in Hollywood, and white actors take those that could be.

Amandla Stenberg’s comment also echoes in Asian circles: What if we loved black people as much as black culture? Yellowface and whitewashing denote that while Asian culture is beautiful and ‘exotic’, Asians, themselves, are disposable. This is not appreciation; this is erasure. When a white character is placed over heavy emphasis on multiracial films and stories set against in Asia, it does not only imply that Asian narratives are unimportant but inferior to the white ones. Also, a study shows that TV decrease self-esteem in black boys and girls, and white girls, while boosting that of white boys. I wonder if the results would be similar with Asian children.

This is not appreciation; this is erasure.

Back to the issue of Ghost in the Shell. An argument used to deflect criticism is that Japan remains largely indifferent to the situation. This is anti-Asian rhetoric: it ignores the experiences Asians experience as minorities in Western society. Unlike in USA, Asians in China and Japan will never get called chink and gook, or be compared to Jackie Chan. If we had more nuanced Asian representations in mainstream films, the associations surrounding Asian identity would also become more nuanced, taking the spaces that stereotypes and clichés used to occupy. Also, Asians who have lived in USA and Europe are more likely to experience the effects of whitewashing, because they/we live alongside non-Asian consumers, whose views of Asians are shaped by personal experience and media.

But more importantly, whitewashing the cast of Ghost in the Shell makes as much sense as having white actors portray the characters in The Boondocks or having a non-white actress play Elizabeth II in The Queen (i.e. it doesn’t make sense).  This is beyond how ‘white’ the characters in Ghost in the Shell appear to be. Ghost in the Shell is intrinsically Japanese, with a critical commentary on Japan’s position during the Cold War as a leader in electronic production and a demilitarised country. And it introduced a badass Japanese female feminist lead, who owns her body and sexuality, to the Japanese audience.

Featured image © Paramount Pictures

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