In the past few years, Hollywood has gotten some well-deserved backlash over how it’s treated its minority members. With campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite, people are discussing important issues like the lack of diversity in front of and behind the camera. That’s definitely a good thing. It’s also good that these conversations not only focus on including black and Latino people in Hollywood, but Asian Americans as well.
The lack of roles for Asian American actors, as well as the lack of roles that aren’t stereotypes, has gotten a lot of attention recently due to Twitter hashtag campaigns like #StarringJohnCho, and the vocal internet backlash over the casting of white actresses to play characters who were originally Asian in Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell. Recently, the New York Times published a feature that focused on this activism, and how Asian American actors like Aziz Ansari and Constance Wu have been speaking up about the lack of opportunity for people who look like them in front of the camera. These issues, of course, aren’t anything new, nor is the activism against them. Here are some of the major touchstones informing the debate about how Asian actors are treated in Hollywood.
Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Sixteen Candles
Two of the most famous examples of racism against Asians in movies come from a pair of films that are still beloved and watched today. Directed by Blake Edwards from a short novel by Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s came out in 1961 and became a hit in large part thanks to Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of the seemingly carefree society girl Holly Golightly. The film also features the decidedly non-Asian actor Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man named Mr. Yunioshi, complete with heavy make-up and stereotyped fake teeth. He also put on a heavy accent, pronouncing his l’s as r’s as Asian people supposedly do. Of course, the yellowface that Rooney employed wasn’t anything new at that point. The practice goes back to the silent film era, and includes such notable examples as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in the 1956 film The Conqueror. And though Breakfast at Tiffany’s is still considered a classic, Asian American groups have protested recent screenings of the film, including one in Brooklyn in 2011. Acknowledging how bad the Mr. Yunioshi caricature is, a recent DVD release also includes the short documentary, “Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective,” and even Rooney finally admitted that he wouldn’t have done the role if he knew how offended people would be by it.
More than 20 years after Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sixteen Candles introduced us to a plethora of Asian stereotypes with Long Duk Dong — the name, the accent, the complete social and sexual ineptitude — in one caricature. Played by Gedde Watanabe, Dong is a foreign exchange student from an unidentified Asian country (does it matter which one?), who provides ample comic relief by being mystified by American culture, going after Molly Ringwald’s character, getting a girlfriend despite being completely sexually unappealing, and then pleading with someone to help him cure his hangover by saying, “Oh, no more yanky my wanky. The Donger needs food.”
The impact on young Asian Americans growing up in the ’80s was an infuriating one, with Asian American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine creating a comic recounting how his classmates would try and get him to reenact some of Long’s more cringeworthy lines. As with Breakfast at Tiffany‘s the backlash seemed to have sunk in with those who were involved decades later. In 2004, Molly Ringwald said she found the character “regrettable.” Even Dong’s portrayer, Gedde Watanabe, didn’t realize how offensive people would find the character. “I was making people laugh,” he told NPR.