Over the years, as I gave workshops across the country about media images of Asian Americans, I often warned that if our community had spoken up when they saw offensive depictions of AAs in television and film, we wouldn’t have so many of them today. So now with the growing use of the Internet, AAs have spoken up. Often wrong-headedly. Often to detrimental effect.

More and more as I read comments on Facebook and online reactions to articles, I find well-meaning people using the term “yellowface” much too loosely. It should apply to non-Asians putting on make-up to look Asian, usually pulling or slanting their eyes and/or changing their natural skin color. Same as black face. Picture Al Jolson. You get the picture.

Some past examples: Mickey Rooney cast as the bumbling Japanese photographer in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Joel Grey as martial arts teacher Chiun in “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins,” Alex Borstein portraying nail salon owner Ms. Swan on “MAD TV,” Eddie Murphy unrecognizable as Mr. Wong in “Norbit,” Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, James D’arcy and Keith David playing futuristic Koreans in “Cloud Atlas,” and yes, even Rob Schneider painted up to look like a Japanese priest in “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.”

It’s not “yellowface” when a non-Asian merely puts on Asian-styled clothes.

So Katy Perry donning a modified version of a kimono for her opening number on the November American Music Awards telecast was not yellowface.  She didn’t even go for the full-white cake make-up, and she did nothing to her eyes.

On the recent episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” three white cast members played three masters of “slapping” (it was a silly, even dumb episode that didn’t even include the character in the title of the show, who was finally revealed in May after eight seasons; get on with it and show us how they met already!). Cobie Smulders wore a red outfit, Alyson Hannigan a white one, and Josh Radnor a green/turquoise outfit. They all had heavier make-up but not particularly to look “more Asian.” Radnor wore a Chinese ponytail and Fu Manchu mustache. OK, those I could’ve done without.

Josh Radnor, Alyson Hannigan, and Cobie Smulders on “How I Met Your Mother.”
Josh Radnor, Alyson Hannigan, and Cobie Smulders on “How I Met Your Mother.”

But many in the press got it wrong by calling it “yellowface” in general and saying the actors spoke in Asian accents. None of them did. Radnor even used modern-day slang like “dude.” It’s pretty bad when reporters can’t get the basic facts correct so their readership can understand the situation and make up their own minds about it.

When the producers — who were trying to pay tribute to hokey kung fu movies they loved — apologized for the episode, saying they’d heard the criticism and realized they’d screwed up, I wasn’t sure if even they knew what they were apologizing for. For getting people angry? For putting their regulars in Asian clothes? For putting on heavier make-up? For the Fu Manchu mustache? For creating three “Asian masters”?

Part of educating Hollywood about stereotypes is helping them understand where the line is. In this and many other recent examples, the line was all over the place. The dangerous effect is creative people not wanting to use Asian-themed episodes at all for fear of offending the community. As I was told many times as I crusaded against various television shows and movies, they’ve having a “chilling effect” on the creative process.

Katie Perry at the American Music Awards.
Katy Perry at the American Music Awards.

For me to now warn members of my own community of that effect shows how extreme they’ve become. I seem like an apologist by comparison. Hey, I’m just sticking to accurate definitions, ones we should all be able to agree on. But then again, who said online comments were the most thought-out? There’s a reason why celebrities are warned never to Google their names and read articles — and opinions — about themselves.

I’m also concerned that many have used “yellowface” to describe situations where non-Asian actors are playing roles originally meant for Asians. Like the many white actors portraying Aang, Katara, Sokka and Zuko in the movie version of “The Last Airbender,” which was based on the television series “Avatar,” where everyone was either Asian or Inuit. Or Jim Sturgess playing the Jeff Ma character from the best-selling book “Bringing Down the House,” which was turned into the movie “21.”

These are not examples of “yellowface.” It’s “white-washed casting.”

Ultimately, we can agree to disagree about what bothers us, what doesn’t, and what constitutes “an offensive portrayal,” but let’s at least get the definitions straight, OK?

Examples of yellowface (from left): Eddie Murphy as Mr. Wong in "Norbit'; Rob Schneider (even though he is part Filipino) as an Asian minister in "I Now Prounounce You Chuck and Larry"; and Alex Borstein as Ms. Swan in "MAD TV."
Examples of yellowface (from left): Eddie Murphy as Mr. Wong in “Norbit’; Rob Schneider (even though he is part Filipino) as an Asian minister in “I Now Prounounce You Chuck and Larry”; and Alex Borstein as Ms. Swan in “MAD TV.”

“I Knew Him When” Department: It’s interesting that John Ridley got an Oscar nomination for “Best Adapted Screenplay” for writing “12 Years a Slave.” About 12 years ago (no pun intended, really!), Ridley had a deal with ABC, and he tried writing pilots that featured — even starred — Asian Americans (word is his wife, who’s Asian American, bugged him to). Unfortunately, none of them were ever green-lit as series.

When I was given a copy of one of them, “Chang Family Saves the World,” I knew why. The dialogue was hokey, the situations outrageous, and the laughs often unintentional. Maybe Ridley’s heart was in the right place, but he couldn’t capture the authenticity of an Asian American family — and good TV shows in general — to help us back then.

I have no plans to see “Slave” (Brutal whippings and rapes? Too cruel for me to watch, though one of my favorite mini-series of all time was “Roots: The Next Generations,” which I bought on DVD), but I’m glad he’s doing important work in talking about and capturing the authenticity of the African American experience.

Annual M. Night Shyamalan Awards Department: Well, actually, it’s the annual Golden Razzies for the worst in movies (the nominations and winners are revealed the day before their Oscars counterpart). It’s just that our “favorite director” seems to be get acknowledged whenever he releases something. He and much of his cast got multiple “honors” for “Last Airbender,” and he’s now up once again for “Worst Picture,” “Worst Director,” and “Worst Screenplay” for “After Earth,” which starred Jaden and Will Smith (“Worst Actor” and “Worst Supporting Actor,” respectively, and “Worst Screen Combo” for “Planet Nepotism: After Earth,” just to make sure the public knows why the Academy hates them so much). Go M. Night!

’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.


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  1. The worst of all that was not mentioned was David Carradine in Kung Fu TV series where I heard that Bruce Lee was supposed to be “Grasshopper”.

    I am 3rd generation (Sansei) and I always loved the movie “Sayonara” which I believe should be remade but as Denzel Washington playing the US Air Force Major that was stationed in Kobe, Japan (Marlon Brando originally played). And I was equally happy that Miyoshi Umeki was Mrs. Livingston in the “Courtship of Eddie’s Father” years later.

  2. You heard Guy, everyone. Let’s all agree on where the line is. It’s where he says it is. Why can’t we all agree that he’s right and those of us who get offended at the wrong thing or use a term that feels appropriate to us but isn’t the way Guy used the term is wrong. Yellowface does not just mean a face painted yellow…it also means eyes pulled back or buckteeth…but NOT a Chinese ponytail hairstyle of a Fu Manchu mustache. Get it straight. Yellowface means what Guy Aoki says it means, no more and no less. Oh, yeah, and Guy says this >>> The dangerous effect is creative people not wanting to use Asian-themed episodes at all for fear of offending the community. <<<< and he's right. Sometimes producers and directors would rather walk around including Asians in the first place rather than take a chance at offending. How lazy they are? Rather than be confused about what is offensive and what isn't, all they have to do is call Guy Aoki… I mean, no chance that Guy is a major reason the producers and directors worry about using Asian subjects…is there?

  3. So, when Jonathan Pryce stopped wearing eye prosthetics (to “slant” his eyes) to play the Eurasian pimp in “Miss Saigon,” he was no longer in yellowface?