Yellow-Face as a Mutating Consistency

When looking at texts like Parrenas-Shimizu, Flower Drum Song, Better Luck Tomorrow, and Chapter 5 of Lee’s Orientals there is the common struggle of Asian Americans operating within a world where they have to fight for intersectionality whereas they would only be portrayed as an object. Of the millions of subjects I could explore, I wanted to focus on the guise of representation (whether from an Asian American perspective or other) within dominant hegemonic values. So, for instance, though Lee’s chapter, Better Luck Tomorrow, and Parrenas-Shimizu are coming from the perspective of Asians, how is this further examined since they operate within American ideals of discourse. Even Flower Drum Song is directed and produced by all white males, which makes for certain perspectives to be skewed. In other words, is it ok that media, who represents minorities (specifically Asians) in a certain light, are dominated by external forces that aren’t a minority? This can be examined through yellow-face as a historical concept seen in Flower Drum Song, and mutated modern concept seen in modern day cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The concept of yellow-face has a long history ranging from it’s mild introduction in the 18th century, to the height of its usage in the early to mid 20th century, and its eventual decline due to resistance around the 1960s onwards. Yellow-face can be defined in two crucial aspects; 1. a non-Asian actor/actress (usually white) dressing up and putting on makeup to look like and act like a caricatured version of Asian stereotypes and 2. using a non-Asian actor/actress to play an Asian role without any attention placed on how they look, thus diminishing the importance of the part being Asian.

As we discussed in class, Juanita Hall who played Madame Liang in Flower Drum Song, was an African American woman who donned yellow-face to play the role. She also won a Tony Award for playing in yellow-face as Bloody Mary in South Pacific. One of my main arguments for bringing this up was to ask, is this okay? We obviously have been very vocal about representation of Asians as themselves and what is means to show Asians as they really are, but what about others ideas on representing Asians? From our brief discussion it seemed that the class was fine with a minority playing another minority, especially for the time period, but they wouldn’t have been ok if it had been a white person playing Asian. And if you look at history, Juanita Hall was never called out for her yellow-face, whereas Mickey Rooney, who in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, played a Japanese man was harshly criticized for his portrayal. This might also be due to the wa each used representation, Juanita Hall had not perpetuated any stereotypes (except maybe a weird accent), but Mickey Rooney was in buckteeth, his eyes almost taped shut, with a horrible accent, as the annoying Asian man. Whatever the case may be, yellow-face occurred and that, I would argue, is due to the outside influence of American ideals of race, or dominant hegemony of the time.

Though yellow-face has subsided as a form of racial stereotyping, I believe it has actually mutated into a more acceptable and palatable form. Specifically, modern cartoon genres primarily produced and voiced by white people. My prime example for this would be Avatar: The Last Airbender and its successor The Legend of Korra. Though, these are two of my favorite shows of all time, I feel as though they give a reboot to yellow-face, but instead of real people, is fleshed out through scenery, storyline, and music. Without giving a synopsis of the entire series or plot points that reflect each instance of yellow-face, the opening sequence can give you an idea about white people producing Asian-esque content. Though we get no clear statement that these characters are Asian, all the points reference eastern principles and ideas.

Because there is still such distance between eastern and western culture that cannot be simplified by Americans being adventurous and eating sushi, or Asians being the assimilated model minority that might be expected, it is my opinion that yellow-face will live on in new and mutated forms until there are no questions about the other culture left.

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