Blog Post 2: The Last Airbender and Early Hollywood: Yellow Peril to Model Minority
If anything, this harkens back to the days of Warner Oland and Luise Rainer, serving as a step back even from Flower Drum Song and the casting of Nancy Kwan as opposed to a Caucasian actress. However, rather than putting actors in yellowface, The Last Airbender blatantly appropriates the Asian culture of the original series for Caucasians. It is essentially even worse than casting Caucasians as Asians and making them up to look like Asians, because it is a society being robbed of its culture, as opposed to a society being portrayed as a stereotype of itself. But even after thousands of people sent in letters protesting the casting of an all-white cast for the lead characters, the studios refused to do anything. The Filipino American voice actor for Zuko, the antagonist of the film, states that he was interested in reprising the part, but that Shyamalan had “a different vision for the casting, namely, one that was comprised primarily of white actors and actresses (1).”
Much like in The Good Earth, where Anna May Wong was considered only for the role of a villain, and the only Asian presence on the set was in the form of extras, the only Asians cast in The Last Airbender take on the roles of antagonists and extras, leaving the main protagonist parts to Caucasian actors and actresses. Similarly, Sessue Hayakawa was, even at the peak of his acting career, pigeonholed into playing “exotic lovers” or “exotic villains,” reflecting the casting of Zuko (the villain) as the only main character of Asian decent.
As noted before, the “yellow peril” discrimination seen in The Last Airbender is even worse than in the early films we screened in the class. In, for instance, The Good Earth, white actors are put in yellowface to play Asian roles. The Last Airbender goes even farther by not only substituting Caucasian or other non-Asian actors and actresses in Asian roles, but also by appropriating Asian culture for a presumably Caucasian audience.
Changing Tides: Flower Drum Song
The era of the “model minority” dawned after the age of the yellow peril came to a close. Marked by a change in media from derogatory representations of Asian Americans to portrayals of Asian American communities as “model minority” communities that achieved success of all kinds in America with little help from the government or others (2), the model minority era is exemplified by the 1961 film adaptation of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song. Flower Drum Song is the story of a young bride arriving in San Francisco with her father to be married to the son of a wealthy woman. However, the son is already involved with another woman, and pawns the young bride off to a friend for his son. Hijinks ensue, all taking place in a utopia Chinatown. It is of note that all the inhabitants of Chinatown are dressed in traditional Western garb, speak perfect English, and revel in classically American material consumption; and the only white person seen in the film is a thief who steals some money – as if the roles of white and Asian are reversed, basically turning Chinatown into a white utopia with an Asian aesthetic.
The film did, however, feature an almost entirely Asian or Asian American cast, with main characters finally being played by Asians in addition to the extras.
Main couples of Flower Drum Song (3)
In fact, the only non-Asian lead was played by Juanita Hall, an African American Broadway performer. The film proved a major step for Asian Americans towards equal representation in film content, as well as fair casting of Asians in Asian roles. However, in recent years, the role of Asian Americans in mainstream/blockbuster films has seemed to have regressed, as seen in The Last Airbender. We will discuss the reasons for this in the final section.
(1) Dante Basco (Zuko) quote: http://www.hollywoodnews.com/2010/07/01/last-airbender-tv-series-voice-actor-speaks-out-about-film-controversy/
(2) Shim, D. “From Yellow Peril through Model Minority to Renewed Yellow Peril.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 22.4 (1998): 385-409. Print.
(3) Picture credit: http://www.nancy-kwan.com/nancyF8.jpg
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