Archive for December 12, 2010

Blog Post 3: Paramount and the Renewed Yellow Peril: Changing World Politics

The final section will analyze the reemergence of a “yellow peril,” discussing such issues as why the representation of the yellow peril is reappearing, and why Paramount transitioned from promoting Asian American actors and actresses (casting Asian Americans in Flower Drum Song, casting Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express, writing Daughter of Shanghai when Wong campaigned vigorously for better roles for Asian women) to the doctrine of yellow face and stereotyping that has produced such films as The Last Airbender, My Geisha, The Love Guru, and Team America: World Police.

Reemergence of the Yellow Peril
Paramount films of recent show a regression from a “model minority” or non-stereotypical depiction to a “yellow peril” style portrayal of Asian Americans.

A brief history of Asian Americans in feature films, and the tides that they accompany, will provide some background on the current status of Asian Americans in Paramount films.
The first era of Yellow Peril was accompanied by movies like Daughter of the Dragon (and the rest of the Fu Manchu series), The Good Earth, and Broken Blossoms. Broken Blossoms, one of the early silent films, starred Richard Barthelmess in yellowface as a young Asian man who becomes devoted to a young abused girl. There are no actors or actresses of Asian decent in the film, aside from a few extras in the opening scene showing “China.” Daughter of the Dragon, a Paramount film, starred Anna May Wong as the devious, exotic daughter of the villain Fu Manchu. While this did mark an instance of an Asian being cast in a feature film, it was still with Wong in the role of a villain. Sessue Hayakawa’s role in Daughter of the Dragon was notable in that his character was both Asian and a main protagonist, suggesting that during the initial yellow peril, Paramount had a slightly less racially prejudiced view towards casting Asians and Asian Americans than other studios did. Case in point: MGM’s The Good Earth, which followed Daughter of the Dragon by 6 years, was set in China, yet the six main Chinese characters were all played by Caucasian actors and actresses. Anna May Wong was offered the role of the (again) villainous Lotus, but she refused it, not wanting to be typecast as the villainous exotic Asian female once again.
The reasoning behind the yellow peril can be attributed predominantly to two causes: Chinese workers taking American jobs after the transcontinental railroad was completed, and the exoticism and difference of Chinese culture and practices to white Americans, making Chinese Americans subsequently mysterious and dangerous to white Americans. Says writer Robert Lawson,

“The Chinese, of course, were by far the most foreign and outlandish. They
ran laundries, no work for a man anyway, they had no families or
children, they were neither Democrats nor Republicans. They wrote
backwards and upside down, with a brush, they worked incessantly night
and day, Saturdays and Sundays, all of which stamped them as the most
alien heathen…. We knew that they lived entirely on a horrible
dish called chopsooey which was composed of rats, mice, cats, and
puppydogs (Quoted from Shim 388).”

America transitioned into a period of depicting Asian Americans as model minorities, first of the Chinese, then the Japanese, then of all Americans of Asian descent. World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor shifted resentment towards Asian Americans on a whole to resentment of Japanese Americans, exalting Chinese Americans for their resilience to continued Japanese attacks. However, the tables quickly turned on the Chinese, as Communists took over China, and Japan in turn was the good guy for adopting American democracy. When all Asians were labeled model minorities, it was only to be “made into puppets by racial politics (Shim 392),” to repudiate African Americans for failing to replicate the financial and educational success of Asian Americans. Born of this model minority era were movies like Shanghai Express and Daughter of Shanghai, and perhaps most importantly, Flower Drum Song, with its aforementioned all-Asian cast.
Yellow Peril
Paramount’s recent films with Asian cast members include The Last Airbender, My Geisha, The Love Guru, and Team America: World Police. Each of these four movies casts Asians in stereotypical, often antagonistic light, and none of these (or the over 100 other feature films Paramount has produced between 2000 and 2010) feature an Asian American as the leading man or woman. The Last Airbender features an Asian antagonist and Asian extras, My Geisha involves a white woman who tries to pass as an Asian woman (meta yellowface?), The Love Guru has a Caucasian actor play an Indian guru, and Team America: World Police showcases Kim Jong Il as a villain with a heavy Asian accent. In fact, only two of the major Asian roles were actually played by Asians – Storm Shadow (GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra) and Hikaru Sulu (Star Trek), which both perpetuate the stereotype that Asian men can only have major roles in martial arts or combat parts, and which were both created before the 1990s (Sulu in 1966, Storm Shadow in 1984). In addition, none of the characters are women, and only John Cho, who plays Hikaru Sulu, is American (Byung Hun-Lee, who plays Storm Shadow, is Korean) (1).

But why has Paramount regressed to (or even further than) the levels of the previous yellow peril? To answer that, we must look at current global events between the US and Asia, and changing economic and political tides. First and foremost is the emergence of China and India as major economic powers. Like in the case of Vincent Chin, there is American backlash at rising success of Asians, which is then transposed to resentment of Asian Americans (2). As the word “outsource” became more and more prevalent, American fear of both an eclipse of the American economy by Asia as well as, on a more personal level, jobs being taken by lower-paid workers across the Pacific blossomed. This developing anger was further compounded by the events of September 11th 2001, and the ensuing “War on Terror,” which led to widespread xenophobia that carried over from views of the Middle East to views of the Far East.

It is telling that Paramount’s biggest current Asian star is an animated panda named Po. And while independent Asian American media may have made leaps and bounds over the past decades, mainstream media seems to have regressed. And while media and the economy may be irrevocably tied to each other, Paramount has regressed to pre-original yellow peril levels, by not casting Asian Americans in a film based on a television series that inspired a generation of young Asian Americans, many of whom looked forward to seeing their idols on the big screen, to seeing someone who looked like them. The Last Airbender failed them.

Sophie Wang

(1) Paramount stats:
(2) Osajima, Keith. “Asian Americans as the Model Minority: An Analysis of the Popular Press Image in the 1960s and 1980s.” A Companion to Asian American Studies. By Kent A. Ono. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. 215-23. Print.

December 12, 2010 at 8:20 pm 1 comment

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:
(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:

December 12, 2010 at 7:49 pm 2 comments

Blog Post 1: The New Dawn of Yellowface: Racebending


You would think that each of the items showcased in the video is, without a doubt, strongly tied to the Asian cultures they came from. They would not, under any normal circumstances, be seen as representations of a white, Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon society. But much of the audience of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender (as well as for Shyamalan himself), sees them as such. The main characters of Shyamalan’s live action film adaptation of the popular and critically acclaimed animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender are played by white actors and actresses. This would generally not be an issue, if not for the blatant disregard of the Asian culture and representations of Asian culture that the film makes in regards to the original series. Each of the aforementioned items is seen throughout the Avatar: The Last Airbender television series. And while those elements show up in the film, it is only as symbols of white cultures that they do. Including the elements under the guise of a completely non-Asian culture is essentially cultural appropriation of the Asian cultures the elements came from, and arguably much worse than completely ridding the film of those elements. The Last Airbender is only the latest in a slew of films produced by Paramount that degrade Asian Americans, whether implicitly through lack of representation, or explicitly, through stereotypical and false representation. This series of blog posts will analyze how The Last Airbender is essentially the nail in the coffin in a reversion to the “yellow peril” representation of Asian Americans in the early days of film, and a regression from the former model minority mainstream media view of Asian Americans.

The casting of non-Asians in roles that are Asian in the original series was not 1) an act of chance, 2) a casting based on acting ability, or 3) a bid to increase revenue with a household name actor or actress:

1): An act of chance:
The casting call for the movie specifically called for people who are “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” to audition. Caucasian actors were clearly preferred over people of color, as when filmmakers truly want people of all ethnicities to audition, the casting calls generally read just “any ethnicity.”

2): Skill level in acting:
None of the three main protagonists are award-winning performers. Noah Ringer, a 14-year-old with no previous acting experience, plays Aang, the movie’s primary protagonist. Nicola Peltz, who plays Aang’s companion Katara, has had small parts in three widely critically panned movies. And the major claim to fame of Sokka actor Jackson Rathbone is his portrayal of an angst-ridden vampire in the Twilight movie series. In fact, the only main character with any acting accolades is the sole Asian of the four, Dev Patel, who plays villan Zuko. Patel was a part of the critically acclaimed British TV series, Skins, and won numerous awards for his role as Slumdog Millionaire protagonist Jamal Malik.

3): To increase publicity/revenue with a big name star:
While there are many things wrong with the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as the Persian protagonist of the videogame-based movie Prince of Persia, that casting has one defense that the Avatar castings do not: household name status of the actor. Jake Gyllenhaal has been acting since the age of 10, has appeared in over 20 feature films, and has been garnered with an ever increasing number of awards that have the words “sexy,” “attractive,” “hot,” and/or “beautiful.” Casting him in the main role guarantees the movie a certain portion of the audience that will go see the movie just because Gyllenhaal is in it, as well as increased publicity from having a household name star. The Last Airbender, on the other hand, gained nothing in the casting of its white actresses and actors.

This only reinforces the “glass ceiling” that Asian American actors and actresses battle against every day in Hollywood, a glass ceiling that prevents young Asian Americans from having role models of their own in mainstream media.

Additionally, there are currently not many roles for Asian Americans in Hollywood, and the casting of The Last Airbender takes away just another chance for young Asian American (aspiring) actors and actresses to be part of something that already inspired a generation of Asian American youth. For example, John Cho, who plays the part of Hikaru Sulu in the 2009 Star Trek “Reboot” movie, often states in interviews how inspiring it was to see George Takei (who played Sulu in the original series and movies) on screen, as a fellow Asian American. In an interview with Teen Hollywood, Cho says, “Although I wasn’t a Trekkie, my primary connection to the show was just being excited about George Takei being on television. I remember just yelling across the house, ‘There’s an Asian guy on TV! There’s an Asian guy on TV, come quick, come quick, he may disappear, he may disappear, hurry up. Come now.’ (2)”

However, the premise behind the “whitifying” of the movie’s cultures is not the only racially flawed aspect of the film. The people involved with the film were just as much a part of the issue. The production staff of The Last Airbender demonstrated its “stunning lack of cultural incompetency (3)” when one casting director released the following statements in regards to open casting calls for extras: “We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you’re Korean, wear a kimono,” (kimonos are Japanese, not Korean) and ‘“it doesn’t mean you’re at a disadvantage if you didn’t come in a big African thing,” [and another] casting director is also quoted as describing the background extras being cast as “authentic Asians.”’(4) This cultural insensitivity extends even into the cast, where Jason Rathbone, who plays one of the main protagonists, announced that he thinks “It’s one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan. It’s one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit, (5)” in response to concerns that he, as a Caucasian, was slated to play a character of Inuit/Asian Pacific descent. While his two costar protagonists are still young, Jason Rathbone is 25. It is not beyond reason to expect him to not make culturally insensitive, implicitly derogatory statements.

From top to bottom: Aang, played by Noah Ringer; Zuko, played by Dev Patel; Katara, played by Nicola Peltz; Sokka, played by Jackson Rathbone. (6)

M. Night Shyamalan has repeatedly noted the presence of many Asians (extras) in the film to combat accusations of racism. I read this great analogy by “PV” at

“For M. Knight to call this movie racially diverse and driven is a spit in the eye. To give an analogy of what he really did to make this film racially diverse:
M. Knight sees a child fiercely struggling to swim to shore to avoid drowning. The Paramount Beach owners see this, and ask if anyone is willing to save the child. M. Knight stands up and tells how once upon a past Halloween, he and his daughter played out her favorite drowning scene and he came to her rescue. He feels he can do the real thing. So M. Knight runs into the water…but he stops after getting in waist deep. He grabs the closest children, who are not in any danger of drowning, and pulls them to shore. M. Knight turns to the onlooker, who asks why he didn’t save the child further out, still struggling to make it to shore alone. With that, M. Knight puffs out his chest and says, ‘I did save the children! Didn’t you see? I saved many children from drowning!’

The on lookers then say, ‘But there is still one more, struggling further out!’

M. Knight looks back to the struggling child and looks back at the people. He shakes his head indignantly, then responds with, ‘Why are you all so mad? I saved the children!’”

As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam write in Unthinking Eurocentrism, “Even ‘affirmative action’ casting can swerve racist purposes, as when the role of the White judge in the novel Bonfire of the Vanities was given to Morgan Freeman in the film, but only as a defense mechanism to ward off accusations of racism (Shohat and Stam 190).” Shyamalan’s movie reeks of this backtracking and “appeasing” in the casting of Asian extras.

Shyamalan has also often used an excuse along the lines of that of “course he isn’t racist, he’s Asian American himself!” that Shohat and Stam address. “The usual sequence in media accusations of racism is that the racist statement is made, offense is expressed, punishment is called for: all of which provokes a series of counter-statements – that the person in question is not racist, that some of the person’s best friends belong to the race in questions (or in this case, the person belongs to the race in questions), and so forth. The process has the apparently positive result of placing certain statements beyond the pale of civil speech; blatant racism is stigmatized and punished. But the more subtle, deeper forms of discursively and institutionally structured racism remain unrecognized…racism is reduced to an individiual, attitudinal problem, distracting attention from racism as a systematic self reproducing discursive apparatus that itself shapes racist attitudes.” (Shohat and Stam 201)

And oh yeah. It should probably be mentioned that there is one East Asian female in the entire film. Her role? She massages a Fire Nation character’s feet.

(1) Video link/credit:
(2) John Cho interview at
(3) Casting director quote from
(4) Casting director quotes:
(5) Rathbone quote:
(6) Photo credit to

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation.” Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London ; New York: Routledge, 1994. 178-215. Print.

December 12, 2010 at 7:41 pm 1 comment


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