White Washing– Broken Blossoms to Avatar the Last Airbender (Alissa Final)

December 16, 2019 at 6:43 pm 1 comment

Boiled down to stereotypes and historical images in contemporary media, Asian Americans struggle to obtain a diverse representation that encompasses the vast population of cultures, backgrounds, and ethnicities that are all defined under a single identity. The absence of accurate portrayals of Asian Americans in media is quite apparent. There are many factors that result in the under-representation and misrepresentation of Asian and Asian Americans such as “Hollywood whitewashing”, which is the act of casting white actors in the roles of non-white people. Broken Blossoms is one of the first films that we watched this semester that demonstrates the issues of Hollywood-whitewashing and the effect on Asian American portrayal.

Image result for broken blossoms movieImage result for broken blossoms movie

The movie, Broken Blossoms (1919)  was derived from Thomas Burke’s short story, The Chink and the Girl and followed the story of a love between an immigrant Chinese man and a young white girl. Lillian Gish played 15-year-old Lucy Burrows who lives with her abusive father, Battling Burrows played by Donald Crisp. “The Yellow Man”, Cheng Huan who was played by Richard Barthelmess was portrayed as a man of peace and honor while the white protagonist, Battling Burrows was seen as an incredibly evil and viscous Anglo-Saxon due to his uncaring nature and his brutality when it came to his daughter, Lucy. Broken Blossoms is considered to be one of the first depictions of Asians sympathetically. However, it also limits Asian American representation due to the whitewashing at play. Cheng Huan, or “The Yellow Man” was not played by an Asian American and rather, played by a person, not of Asian descent, in yellowface. In Robert G. Lee’s book, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture he writes, “Yellowface marks the Asian body as unmistakably Oriental; it sharply defines the Oriental in a racial opposition to whiteness… Yellowface exaggerates ‘racial’ features that have been designated ‘Oriental,’ such as ‘slanted’ eyes, overbite, and mustard-yellow skin color”. These common stereotypes of Asian Americans are clearly depicted in the whitewashed character, Cheng Huan. The action of whitewashing results in an Asian American being regarded as not seen and unheard, without a place in this society.


In 2008, producers of the film adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender (the original animated show is absolutely amazing… a must-see!) got heat when they announced their casting decisions for the main roles. As a small child, I used to watch this cartoon as I loved the powerful messages behind the goofy scenes. Avatar was set in a world that comprised of four different “nations”, each nation having the ability to control another element (earth, water, fire, and air).



The nations that were depicted in this show clearly drew inspiration from a variety of Asian and Inuit people’s culture.  There are four main characters– Aang Katara, Sokka, and Zuko. However, many fans were enraged when they saw that the beloved characters from the television show were extremely adapted and white-washed. Aang, Katara, and Sokka were played by white actors and the show’s villain Zuko was played by a brown actor.  You can see the differences from the actual depictions of characters in the cartoon and the actors and actresses that were cast as them. Clearly, the pictures on the left of each cartoon show the film’s desire for whiteness. There was an exception for the bad-guy Fire Nation characters who were dark-skinned. Still, Hollywood continues to use white skin to represent “good” and dark skin, or non-Caucasian, as “bad”. Movie critics have said that, “Airbender’s casting is just the latest example of a long history in Hollywood of demeaning people of colour– from having white actors in makeup portray minorities to sidelining them in second-tier roles to replacing them entirely…” (read that here https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/last-airbender-movie-blasted-for-whitewashing-1.918316)



Avatar: The Last Airbender


“The Last Airbender”


Now, the hashtag #whitewashedOUT is being used to criticize recent casting choices of white actors playing Asian characters. Asian American community members such as Margaret Cho have taken action to try and publicly address the problematic aspects of whitewashing. A campaign against whitewashing was popular in 2016 due to Asian American communities being distraught in the lack of representation in media. Although whitewashing is still happening to our most beloved characters, many people are taking a stance to not just complain about whitewashing but to hopefully enact change. 

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Hollywood. Do. Better.


“Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man & the Girl (1919).” Counter, 17 June 2013, http://www.counter-currents.com/2013/06/broken-blossoms-or-the-yellow-man-and-the-girl-1919/.
Cheng, Susan. “Inside The Hashtag Protest Of Hollywood’s Asian-American Problem.” BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed, 5 May 2016, http://www.buzzfeed.com/susancheng/whitewashedout.
Chow, Keith. “Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Apr. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/23/opinion/why-wont-hollywood-cast-asian-actors.html.
“Last Airbender Movie Blasted for ‘Whitewashing’ | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 25 May 2010, http://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/last-airbender-movie-blasted-for-whitewashing-1.918316.
Rose, Steve. “’The Idea That It’s Good Business Is a Myth’ – Why Hollywood Whitewashing Has Become Toxic.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Aug. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/aug/29/the-idea-that-its-good-business-is-a-myth-why-hollywood-whitewashing-has-become-toxic.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. asianamericansinmedia  |  December 24, 2019 at 7:03 am

    Firstly, remember to fact check before making a post. There are factually incorrect information in this post. Also, many of the statements in your post should be written in your voice (if they are your arguments) or with citations (if they are from sources in your research). In addition, I think the links would work better if embedded within your post itself without their URLs.

    I appreciate the blend of the personal and academic/critical voices in your writing. I hope you will further develop this hybrid voice in your upcoming posts. It works well within the context of blogging. The structure of this post needs work because there is not a central argument that flows through the post. Rather there are a number of related ideas and discussions that should probably be broken down into their own sections, or your text should be edited to create that coherent argument.

    Lastly, as your first post, I think you should use it as an introduction to frame and define your project as a series.

    Prof Ma


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