Friday, January 29, 2016

The Emma Stone Whitewashing Saga.

Asian-American Cognitive Dissonance.

I had to stifle a mirthful laugh last year when the movie "Aloha" was released amidst outraged criticisms of its casting. Critics griped at the lack of Asian main characters in the film despite the fact that it was set in Hawaii (a place swarming with East and South East Asians), but the main issue concerned the casting of Emma Stone - a blue-eyed and occasionally, blonde red-headed Caucasian woman - in the role of a mixed-race Asian woman.

Naturally, I understand the sentiments - Asian-American actors are discriminated against in film and television (although this past year has seen a significant improvement) in that so many Asian roles are implicitly racially demeaning, Asians have been largely absent from lead roles, and, of course, some roles are whitewashed. The favourite argument given for this state of affairs is that Asians actors (particularly men) cannot carry a lead role and bring in major returns, or that there simply are no well-known Asian-american actors who can carry these roles - of course, not being given opportunities may contribute to the fact that there so few well-known and bankable Asian actors.

Yet, I could not help but wonder if the actions of some Asian-Americans in the industry might be damaging the credibility of these complaints aimed at white film makers. The reason I say this is that some Asian-American film-makers are doing a piss-poor job of doing the very thing that they demand of white film-makers. Of course, I am speaking specifically about Asian-American female film-makers whose record when it comes to diversity considerations may actually be far, far, far worse than that of white film-makers.

As I wrote in a previous post - here - a study of largely independent films made by Asian-Americans (both male and female) reveals that whilst Asian male film-makers create content that provides significant opportunities for Asian female actors to gain experience and showcase their talents in lead roles, Asian female film-makers do the exact opposite. I found in my study that Asian female film-makers follow the same standards of discrimination of white film-makers - Asian men are largely non-existent in lead or romantic roles (an important point since many of themes of their movies are of a romantic nature), and are thus not afforded opportunities even by their own community to showcase their acting abilities and hone their acting skills.

Even worse, although white film-makers have a poor track-record when it comes to providing non-demeaning roles to Asian men, I found that in cases where white film-makers created serious content about Asians, they provided more opportunities for Asian male actors than Asian female film-makers. Hence, my laughter about the "outrageous" crime of Cameron Crowe in giving the role to Stone instead of an Asian woman.

In short, it is hard to take such complaints seriously when Asian female film-makers adopt the same approach to their craft as the racist white male dominated mainstream in which white men are afforded starring roles whilst minorities are somewhat relegated to the periphery. Furthermore, there seems to be little meaningful pressure within the Asian-American community to change this proclivity to uphold white racist practices in the film industry amongst Asian female film-makers.

I don't see it as unreasonable to expect Asian-American film-makers - many of whom seem aware of the discrimination faced by Asians performers - to do their utmost to provide the platform that would give Asian actors (of both sexes) the opportunity to showcase their talents. If we don't offer that to our community, then who will? Most importantly, if Asian female film-makers have no problem with maintaining the racist status quo, then how can we demand that white film-makers use more diverse casting? Why are they obliged to cast Asian leads when Asian female film-makers feel perfectly justified in imitating this discrimination in their own projects? It naturally follows that white film-makers have no obligation to make their casting practices more diverse - particularly when it comes to casting Asian-Americans.

What has become apparent to me is that there may be a fundamental difference between the genders in Asian-America on what they want from the film industry - Asian men seem to want to see an improvement in representation for both Asian men and women so that neither are demeaned or discriminated against. Asian women in the industry seem more interested in maintaining the status quo.

Equally problematic is the silence of Asian-American actors and others in the industry who participate in projects - both in front and behind the camera - that contain racially dehumanizing content. Two recent shows come to mind here; Make It Pop, and Dads.

Make It Pop garnered considerable controversy when its producer apparently exclaimed during a boardroom meeting that having Asian guys on his show was "not gonna happen" even though the show is inspired by K-Pop, and half of K-Pop artists are Korean men whose predominantly non-Asian female fans drive the industry's success. The show has three Asian-American female leads, and Asian males in supporting roles, but no leads as such. The show "Dads" was met even more hostility as it seemed to set out to racially provoke minority audiences. Although it was criticized for its general insensitivity to race, Asian-Americans objected to the show for its racialized sexism and its demeaning jokes on Asian men's penis sizes.

I have come to expect the white media to propagate demeaning and dehumanizing stereotypes and depictions of Asians, but it is the reaction of the Asians involved in these shows that disappointed. As far as I know, not a single one of the actors involved in these two projects opted to make a stand against the racism in their productions. Worse still, they ignored or defended their shows and their participation in them.

Speaking about the criticisms of her show, Make It Pop lead Megan Lee had this to say....
As for the Asian male lead, I heard some things about that and some people kind of misunderstood and got slightly offended. We do have Asian male characters in the show, I want to make that clear, we might not have an Asian male lead, but that was not specifically cleared out that way. We're not trying to exclude Asian males in any way. The casting kind of went that way. It was an open-ethnicity casting call. It was not even meant to be three Asian female leads either. It was all open ethnicities and, from what I've heard, whoever portrayed the role right got the part. It's not specifically "This is a Caucasian role, this is an Asian role, this is a whatever role."
To paraphrase, Lee pleads ignorance - she only "heard" some things about the producer refusing to entertain the idea of an Asian male lead - and then outright contradicts the straightforward statement of the show's producer when he said he would never have an Asian male in the show. That's quite a remarkable set of comments considering that on the one hand Lee claims to have only "heard some things about that", yet she is able to make specific claims about about the casting process. In short, Lee's defence/explanation of the producer's racist comments seemed like mere dismissive excuse-making.

Seth Macfarlane's "Dads" presents those Asians involved in the project with a far more significant problem. The show was overtly and unapologetically racially provocative - not provocative in any positive sense, but only in an ignorant, childish way. Two issues in particular raised concerns amongst Asian-Americans: firstly, an Asian-female lead, Brenda Song, was deemed to have been racially stereotyped and hypersexualized by being made to wear a "Japanese school-girl" outfit; secondly, Song's race became a running joke throughout the series, and, of course, the infamous gratuitous scene in which Asian men were sexually denigrated

It is worth noting at this point, that this kind of sexual denigration is not only racially dehumanizing, it is actually sexist. This is a remarkable phenomenon that rarely gets noticed; Asian men are regularly the object of sexist denigration in American culture and are subject to a sexual mockery that would not be accepted if it was applied to women of any race. This fact alone should warrant some serious discussion, but the fact that none of the Asian actors (not just the two Asian female leads - Song and Vanessa Lachey - but also the Asian men who had bit parts in the series) spoke up about either the racial jokes about Song, nor the racialized sexism directed at Asian men.

I've said it before, but it apparently needs to be said again - Asian-American efforts to end discrimination against Asian actors and racially demeaning stereotypes are pointless unless Asian-Americans in the industry draw a line in the sand and refuse to participate in these kinds of projects. It's not an unreasonable suggestion - Native-American actors walked off the set of an Adam Sandler movie recently complaining of racially denigrating depictions of their characters.

So why do Asian-American actors continue to legitimize these racist projects not only with their continued participation but also with their lack of condemnation? Doesn't it make sense that if Asians consistently refuse demeaning roles that the industry would stop creating them? Wouldn't it have sent the strongest message to the industry if Song, Lachey, and the other Asian bit part actors had simply refused to be racially demeaned and had chosen instead to simply walk off set? If they don't advocate for better depictions for themselves and others, then why should the industry bother changing?

Sadly, Lachey seemed to make no comment on the issue at all, whilst Song actually defended the show's casual racism. Talking to Audrey magazine, she had this to say....
“With the controversy, I found it interesting,” says Song. “People took a 30-second bit and, in my eyes, blew it out of proportion. Our show isn’t for everyone; that’s why I was so attracted to the character of Veronica. On a show like that, we’re able to poke fun at stereotypes. It’s empowering to get ahead of the joke......Something I might find funny, my dad may not find funny,” she adds. “But we’re not out to please everyone.” 
The problem here is that Song has actually defended every racially demeaning stereotype ever produced by the white racist media as though somehow, it is the duration of the racism that gives it its dehumanizing power. In fact, it is certainly not one single brief racist scene that is the problem, it is the fact that there exist a multitude of such brief media moments that together amount to a cultural norm. Stereotypes and demeaning slurs are designed to be a kind of shorthand dehumanization, a condensation of profound philosophical racism into a single word or idea that expresses the most fundamental idea of racist thinking; that non-whites are lesser beings and not worthy of consideration as individuals.

It is the brevity of such stereotypical depictions that prove the pervasiveness of the racist thinking they have distilled. The ideas expressed are common and widespread - they wouldn't have meant anything to anyone if the ideas being expressed were vague and not widely known and it only takes a brief moment of airtime to remind audiences of a wealth of racist ideas and beliefs.

Yet, Asian actors - as Song does later in the same interview - continue to wonder why they cannot get better roles. I would say that if they continue to help create the demand for demeaning roles by participating and then defending them, then producers will be unlikely to be motivated to change their attitudes.

If Asian-Americans want to overcome media racism (both in its portrayal of Asians and its discriminatory casting habits), we have to hope that those Asians already in the industry stop defending demeaning depictions. Most importantly, we have to hope that female Asian-American film makers stop adopting white racist practices when it comes to casting otherwise they continue to undermine the demand for diversity and equality in film and television.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I Wanted To Be White.....

LOL!!! Psyche - No I Didn't!

An article in the Guardian this past week caught my attention and I thought it would provide a good excuse to start the blogging year on a lighter note!

A Filipino priest has been suspended by his Diocese for giving the welcoming blessings for Christmas Eve Mass while singing a hymn - all while gliding up and down the aisles on a hoverboard. The Diocese was not amused and accused the priest of "capriciously" trying to get the attention of the people. Although I don't know for sure if the priest is Pinoy, to me his actions are Filipino-esque and are certainly culturally appropriate - which should be taken into account when judging him.

I say culturally appropriate because Filipino culture - and hence Filipino people - tends to look favourably on extroversion. Of course, this stands in stark contrast to the solemnity expected for Catholic worship practices, but it also contrasts with the traditional racist view of Asian cultures being introspective and reserved. In fact, not only do Filipinos have an extroverted streak, we are, sometimes, the biggest cheerleaders for any Filipinos who exhibit this trait.

It so happened that my family was the cheerleading-for-Filipinos type. Of particular interest for this blog was that I grew up hearing extremely positive things about Filipino men, both those in my immediate family, but also positive things about the character and masculine qualities of Filipino men in general.

In short, I developed a general sense that being Filipino was just awesome and being a Filipino man came with a proud and powerful history to both live up to and strive for. Whether the stories were true, partially true, or embellished I cannot know, but that is not really all that important - it's the possibilities for aspiration that these kinds of stories present that gave them significance. For someone like myself growing up in a society that demeaned Asians - particularly being the only Asian around - this positive image of Filipino men was hugely instrumental in creating a foundation to mentally resist racial denigration that most of us are exposed to.

Thus, when this article came out last year - and has just been republished as one of 2015's Best Personal Essays by Salon - I found the piece to be strangely familiar, but also at odds with my own experience. Describing his racialized childhood experience, author Tom Phan recounts how his identity as an Asian made him stand out from the white people he lived amongst and how much angst this caused for him. His obvious racial characteristics, various microaggression-type incidences, and even his own Asian name, all served as obstacles to his desire and drive to fit in with his white peers.

The result was that Phan distanced himself from his Asian-ness and from other Asian people, rebelling against the stereotypes placed upon him by consciously trying to embrace behaviours and activities that he felt could set him apart from other Asians. Phan describes this as internalizing his racism and bias so that he could look down on other Asians and be more like the white people he lived amongst.

I am always saddened when I see Asians expressing these kinds of sentiments, and I think that if some of these guys had only taken a solitary first step toward looking at their white peers more critically they might have saved themselves from years of identity issues. Don't get me wrong, I understand and have experienced what it is like to grow up in a culture that dehumanizes Asians but I still wonder why it seems so hard for Asian-Americans to take that leap from wide-eyed adoration to disillusionment about the object of their aspiration.

It's a natural personal process and a common cultural narrative to yearn for something or someone for so long, only to find that once you attain it it was merely an illusion. Asians who have described the process of wanting to be white and who reject their Asian-ness usually get to a point where they choose to embrace their race, but never do they describe the process of being disillusioned with the whiteness they craved. Never do they seem to reach point where look at whiteness with an edge of cynicism about the presumptions it makes about itself.

Cynicism has a bad reputation, but I think that for ethnic minorities, it can be a rational stance to adopt. Even when Phan realizes that he has internalized his experience of racism, I am left wondering if he has made that leap into disillusionment that might finally rid him of the drive to venerate whiteness. Has Phan - or any other Asians with similar experiences to him - started to look at whiteness and the white identity and wonder what the fuss was all about? Is there any inkling of disappointment at having striven so hard to fit in only to find that the fitting in might not have been all it was cracked up to be? That seems to be the part of the journey that we never seem to arrive at.

It is almost a classic journey of self-discovery in which the protagonist yearns for something he perceives some other group possesses, only to achieve his goal and discover that the people he looked up to are a disappointment. That element almost seems to not exist in the Asian-American narrative - or perhaps it does and we are just too polite to mention it. But, it is not just individuals that seem to never reach the point of disillusionment.

I find myself looking at Asian-American culture and I wonder if we are ever sufficiently cynical of the mainstream that we are marginalized from. Are Asian-Americans ever cynical about their conceptions of mainstream sensibilities in their own creative output? It might be hard to find such a theme of disillusionment in Asian-American culture, which is sad because that seems to be the very thing that young Asian-Americans who are struggling to find themselves need. We need the disappointment of seeing the warts in whiteness so that we can distance ourselves from its overbearing and intrusive monopoly on defining the Asian identity.

It is worth mentioning on this point, that Fresh Off The Boat may become the most successful Asian-American centered show to date and its premise seems to be fundamentally critical of whiteness. Cynicism and disillusionment sells.

My disillusionment with whiteness was inherited as a by-product of the positive stories I was hearing about Filipinos, and the disappointment it fostered in me was liberating. The cynicism that followed in its wake knocked the pedestal out from under the mainstream sensibilities that put whiteness up there. My disillusionment was also circumstantial - I experienced anti-Chinese racism because people thought I was Chinese. I could not help but look at these people and be disappointed for them. The result was that I did not internalize racism, but instead found that I was comparing myself favorably against the majority and was happy to look and be different in the ways that Asians look, and are, different.

The gist of all of this is that Phan's rebellion against his background, and his desire to set himself apart from his Asian peers was a good and normal process. Wanting to not be like those you come from is actually normal also. The only negative is that he seems not to have gone far enough in his rebellion because he seems not to have cast an equally critical eye on whiteness.

But, what does all of this have to do with being proud of my Filipino heritage? Being on the receiving end of racists who thought I was Chinese, but who were confounded when they discovered I was Filipino - a people they apparently had never heard of - only reinforced my sense that there was nothing in principle that necessitated my placing white folks on a pedestal and I developed a cynicism about, and disappointment with, notions of white awesomeness. Being inundated with stories of strong Filipino men and the attitude that being Filipino was just awesome gave me a rich inner narrative that went untouched by the ignorance around me.

My unsought advice for young Asian-Americans who struggle with identity and who see whiteness as a Shangri-La is to simply say; look for the warts and the dirt around the edges of the whiteness you see around you. Notice how the system is set up to foster the illusion of white awesomeness and then notice and laugh at the ways that it certainly is not. My hope for Asian-American culture is that it, too, will develop as a critical iconoclastic endeavour that sweeps through the places of white worship in the minds of Asian-Americans, smashing the idols of white perfection that reside there.