Monday, October 28, 2013

Why Won't Hollywood Cast An Asian Male Lead - Part 1?

The Issues.....

The whitewashing of Asian characters out of story lines in many American movie productions is a phenomena that no-one - Asian or otherwise - denies occurs on a routine basis in the movie industry. In brief, whitewashing simply means that white actors are used to replace characters that are commonly expected to be Asian. For example, movies adaptations of novels have routinely used white actors to replace characters who were Asian in the book, or even movies that portray historical events have used white actors to play the role of someone who was Asian in real life. This is achieved in various ways; by changing the race of a character,  from Asian to white, by "Asianizing" white (but recently black) actors by using prosthetics to change eye shape, or by using ethnically ambiguous white actors who may have a "part-Asian" look. 

This has, naturally, led to accusations that Hollywood is racist and is discriminating against Asian actors. On the one side of the argument are those who point to whitewashing, in addition to the absence of Asian (particularly male) leads, and the sporadic appearance of racially demeaning depictions in Hollywood productions, as the self-evident manifestation of racism. On the other side, are those who suggest that Hollywood is merely driven by the "bottom line" and that Asians are relatively absent in front of camera simply because they are not "bankable", and won't, don't, or cannot, guarantee sufficient box-office returns. Thus, on this latter view, there is no "racism" in the sense that Asians are not discriminated against because of their race, but have limited opportunities because they have limited appeal to the cinema-going public.

What is interesting is that there are Asian-Americans on both side of this argument - some who believe that Hollywood is systematically excluding Asians, and others on the opposite side of the argument who say that it is entirely a business decision that limits the opportunities of Asian actors. I am agnostic on the issue - I cannot say that I am anywhere near certain that Hollywood is racist, but I think that the issues I outlined provide sufficient reason to not dismiss accusations of racism out of hand. In this post I will outline the main points on both sides of the argument and post my conclusions in the summary.

Whitewashing and the bottom line.

Whitewashing means that white actors are cast in roles that replace a fictional Asian character or even a historically Asian character with a Caucasian one. Going hand-in-hand with this is the practice of "Yellowface" - that is, using makeup, prosthetics, and often a feigned, caricatured, East Asian accent, to transform a white actor into an Asiatic character or caricature. The result is that even in historical films where the protagonist is Asian, the casting of an Asian actor need not be guaranteed.The industry response to this is that Asian leads don't have the box-office appeal to warrant being given such substantial roles. Filmmakers, we are told, are unwilling to take a risk on an Asian lead because they won't make money for the studio.

It is this argument that is possibly the most often cited by those who deny that Hollywood is racist. But what is the the belief based on? I have never seen any actual numbers presented that show beyond a doubt that Asian leads lose money for studios, and since the argument is based on an empirical premise - that is, the profit/loss margin - surely there are some studies showing that Asian leads always fail? Of course, it is extremely difficult to gauge the profitability of Asian leads because there have been so few attempts at it, so right up front, the premise is questionable. But the ultimate question is; is it true that movies with an Asian lead are definitively destined to lose money for studios? The answer is definitely no.

Three movies come to mind that challenge this assertion; Romeo Must Die, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and Ninja Assassin. All three of these movies featured an Asian male lead and they all turned a profit. Here's a summary;

Romeo Must Die                     Starring Jet Li                             
                                                        Budget:          $25 million
  Takings                                          Domestic        $55,973,336    61.5%
                                                        Foreign          $35,063,424    38.5%
                                                        Profit              $66036578                                        

DragonThe Bruce Lee Story   Starring Jason Scott Lee    
                                                        Budget;        $14 million
   Takings                                         Domestic      $35,113,743   55.3%
                                                        Foreign         $28,400,000   44.7%
                                                        Profit            $49,513,745

Ninja Assassin                          Starring Rain                        
                                                        Budget         $40 Million
   Takings                                         Domestic      $38,122,883    61.9%
                                                        Foreign        $23,478,397    38.1%
                                                        Profit            $21,601,280

All of the above movies made a profit for the studios and they all featured Asian males in the lead roles. Granted that is only three movies (although, Jet Li also starred in a movie "The One" that also turned a profit, and there is an obscure French movie called "The Lover", that made a decent worldwide profit, and good profits in the US on limited release, but which also was nominated for an Oscar), but given that three movies possibly represent a lion share of movies that have starred Asian males, it has to be said that this is a reasonably good rate of success for movies that have actually featured an Asian male lead.

At this point it has to be noted that the "bottom line" argument is misleading in that it is remarkably vague, and this vagueness itself seems like a disingenuous approach to engaging with the Asian community on this issue, and often seems like little more than hand-waving away Asian-American concerns. The reason is that such a vague argument allows for goalposts to be shifted dramatically within its nebulous boundaries. For example, when presented with solid figures that plainly show that Asian leads can make money for studios, the goalposts suddenly shift, and the argument narrows to something like "movies with Asian leads show only moderate profits", or they "didn't do as well domestically, so they weren't 'truly' successful". And this is important to note because it highlights the fact that the dearth of Asians in front of the camera goes well beyond the problem of Asian male leads in the blockbuster.

If Asians were absent only as leads in blockbusters, then the bottom-line argument would hold more water. The problem is that Asians are absent in front of the camera at every level of the industry. Asians are rarely seen in any kind of secondary or tertiary co-starring role, or even in prominent supporting roles. The bottom line argument cannot explain this because - particularly in the case of prominent supporting roles - they have negligible affect on the bottom line. There are few critics saying a movie failed because the tertiary co-star or supporting cast were terrible  Furthermore, even if it were true that Asians cannot yet carry a lead in a big-budget blockbuster, the three examples listed above, suggest that Asians can, at least, be able to carry lead roles in the echelon of the industry where only moderate profits are the expectation. And that is another huge hole in the bottom line argument.

Low and medium-budget movies made with the express intention of limited theater release, and then quickly on to DVD, are not expected to make huge profits. In fact, moderate profits are the expectation at this level of production, and Asian leads have shown that they can carry a movie even though the profits may be moderate - although the above figures show that in the case of Romeo Must Die and Dragon, profits were well beyond moderate. But the question arises; why are Asian actors also absent from leads in films at this level of the industry, when they very clearly have been able to make the kinds of profits that this echelon of the industry expects? The bottom line at this level of the industry is different and Asians have shown without a doubt that they can turn a profit. But even worse, is the dearth, even, of co-stars and support roles for Asian actors at this - what we could call - base-level of the industry. 

If the industry were truly egalitarian, then Asians would surely feature more prominently than they do at the very least as supporting cast, in the lower-budget echelon of the industry. But, they don't. Regardless of the lower bottom-line expectations, and the fact that Asians have demonstrated that they can be the lead in profitable movies at the medium/low-budget level, Asians are still almost invisible. The bottom line argument does not explain this. In fact, in light of this, the bottom-line argument seems more like a flimsy hand-waving excuse to not engage genuinely with Asian-Americans about their concerns regarding the limited opportunities for Asian actors.

Demeaning Depictions of Asians in the media

Perhaps even more of an issue for Asian-Americans in its uneasy relationship with Hollywood, is the problem of derogatory depictions and lazy stereotypes of Asians that are produced in the film and television industry from time to time. These demeaning depictions are often simple caricatures that disparage among other things, Asian racial characteristics, manners of speech, and cultural particulars. At other times, these depictions are xenophobic and inflammatory and hatefully shows Asians as almost literal monsters with no humane qualities. Often, the depictions are accompanied by acts of random and sadistic violence, which make light of, and justify casual violence against the Asian people being depicted. So the spectrum runs from disparaging to xenophobic and sadistically violent. Often these demeaning and dehumanizing ideas are expressed without even the vehicle of an actual character who has any meaningful lines and in a manner which has little or no significance to any plot or storyline - that is, their presence serves no apparent purpose in the context of the production and would not be fatal to the plot or characterizations if the depictions didn't exist.

Naturally, racism is denied as the motivation behind these one-sided, dehumanizing, racially insensitive, and xenophobic depictions, and it is almost impossible to state categorically that racism does drive these depictions. Yet, the fact remains that even if racism isn't the driving force, the depictions themselves rely on racial stereotypes and dehumanizing caricatures.

So there are two sides to this aspect of Asian representation in film and television; those depictions that are brief but are merely a collection of all or some of the most derogatory representations that have been associated with Asian people but are irrelevant to the plot, and those depictions of depictions via characters that are integral to a plot, but are also loaded with derogatory qualities associated with Asians which demonize them via inflammatory characterizations. The former depictions normalizes racist behaviour towards Asians, whilst the latter models and normalizes racial suspicion, distrust, and hostility.

This concludes the first part of this post. In part 2 I will summarize the issues and present conclusions.


  1. Great work as usual. There were many good points that I hadn't thought about before and actual numbers are real data which is always useful. I am looking forward to part 2.

  2. Great, Ben. If in the future, those on the other side of the fence, defending the behavior of Hollywood solely based on monetary purpose, you can show them this post.

    1. Bint Id co-sign that, sheet nigga. Ben you should start backlinking this article this article on the YOMYOMF blog.

  3. Apollyon and Bint

    Thanks guys! I'll post part 2 in the next couple of days.

  4. This is a great post, especially the numbers. Keep exposing these racist ass clowns.

  5. Oh, Ben, you may want to add this too..

    "Sessue Hayakawa captured the hearts of many white women in the early 1900's Hollywood even as the perpetual villain who lost the
    white female to the white male. The insecure white racists were quick to learn from this and henceforth sabotaged East Asian men
    with negatives stereotypes instead of letting Asian men shine - even as a villain. This pattern of resorting to lies and dirty tricks would
    be the foundation for all racist anglo and Asian male relationships up to and including the present day."

    1. Yes Sessue was a bad-ass! But I was focusing on the ambivalent nature of modern-day Hollywood's attitudes and actions. The racism that affected Sessue's career was obvious, possible modern-day Hollywood racism is less clearly defined.

  6. Asians are white washed and Hollywood adds diversity with black actors or sometimes Hispanic actors but rarely asian actors. They (those who bankroll movies and TV in Hollywood) may think that adding an Asian to the mix doesn't add much. I am inclined to think that whenever an Asian is added to a story they aren't allowed to do much more than be "Asian". That's too narrow. There are many different types of Asians with many different ways of seeing and responding to the world. I would love for our movies and TV to show Asians being Asian the way that Asians would really respond. That can add a lot to a story. I'd love to see Lucy Liu be more Asian and I'd love to see Harold and Kumar (or someone like them) kick some more ass. By the way, I'm black and I've seen this thing with black actors too.

    1. Hi Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment and welcome!

      Those are good points. In large part, Asian roles are designed to tell the mainstream (that is, white) story about who they believe, or have made Asians out, to be. Despite this - as I showed in the post - there are good reasons to believe that Asian male leads can carry a movie, or television series, to profit.

      On overlooked aspect of the problem is that Asian actors and actresses take roles that are racially demeaning and the equivalent of "dead-end jobs". Then they wonder why there are not more nuanced roles made available when part of the reason is that by accepting demeaning roles, they have contributed to the demand and popularity of racist roles, and diminished their opportunities for better ones.

      So we need to both challenge mainstream propagation of racial stereotypes and also call for Asian actors to be more discerning about the roles they accept and do more advocacy on their own behalf by refusing racist roles.

  7. Here's a great video about why it's important for Asian Americans to become actors, writers, and producers.