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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Indecent (Asian American) Exposure


Column by Matt Kartanata

Matt Kartanata - Leina'ala Voss

Scarlett Johansson is not of Asian descent. But that didn’t stop her or Tilda Swinton from taking on roles of characters originally written as Asian in the upcoming films “Ghost in the Shell” and “Doctor Strange.” They came under fire earlier this month when the Twitter hashtag #whitewashedOUT brought to bear the film industry’s racist tendency to cast white actors in roles of Asian characters. Hollywood’s use of yellowface is nothing new — Emma Stone in “Aloha”, Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or most notably Polly Moran’s disgraceful imitation of Chinese-American trailblazer Anna May Wong — have all shown that the Asian face continues to be a replaceable commodity, if not a punchline. And yet, in a year where all this has been placed under the spotlight, there is reason for celebration.

This year marks the 14th anniversary that Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month has existed since it was permanently designated in May of 1992. Since the 90s, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have made strides in representation on both the big and small screens, though #whitewashedOUT has emphasized that what progress has been made is still not enough. But regardless of your politics that may envision a world where varied histories are embraced year-round, rather than in the space of a few weeks, and despite the awful castings of Johansson and Swinton, there is still much to celebrate in the world of AAPIs: Aziz Ansari debuted his Netflix exclusive “Master of None” last November to great praise for its largely non-white cast, and just two months ago, ABC renewed author and foodie Eddie Huang’s comedy series “Fresh Off the Boat” for a third season.

To be honest, though, I am glad that both shows have received accolades, I haven’t been a huge fan of either, in addition to shows like Ken Jeong’s “Dr. Ken” or YouTube stars Andrew and David Fung’s “What the Fung?” On one hand, knowing the dearth of exposure that exists for AAPIs, I am quick to welcome these shows when the other option is yellowface. But simultaneously, I have wrestled with the question of whether or not ALL exposure is GOOD exposure. Ansari’s “Master of None” has faced criticism for anti-blackness despite its embrace of a non-white cast, while Huang once compared the plight of the emasculated Asian male to that of black women — and don’t get me started on the some-thousand word document resting on my computer dedicated to critiquing the Fung brothers’ near-entire body of work for its unabashed prejudice and misogyny.

But my feelings are tempered when I think of the high standard of excellence we hold exclusively for people of color when they do make it onto the big stage — when there are just a few shows about AAPIs, we want all of them to be perfect and without fault. We fear that without success in every aspect of its being, the same figureheads that greenlighted these very shows will see little reason for them to stay on air. We want our favorite creative minds to say all the right things, be the best people and remain our idealized, perfect role models — an expectation that is both unrealistic and unfair.

There are dozens — even hundreds — of movies and television shows with primarily white casts, directors, etc. that are not just mediocre, but downright awful. (Why is “Fuller House” a thing? How has “The Big Bang Theory” survived as long as it did?) This content is not only given a pass, but hardly faces the same scrutiny in the expectation to represent all creative work made by people of color. Ansari, Huang and the Fung Brothers should not go without critique, but the issue with their shows is not simply about their shows — it’s that their shows are the only option. When there are a hundred mediocre shows that feature diverse casting, problematic content can sink to the bottom of the ocean. But in the meantime, it’s important to situate the pedestal upon which we have placed our community’s work.

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