Rumors around Disney’s Legend of Mulan swirled around the internet today via an anonymous blog post, claiming that writers Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin centered their spec script around a white European trader traveling through China. This is barely a week after Variety confirmed the film’s 2018 release date. Disney made a point to announce a global casting search for a Chinese actor to play Mulan (and since the post was published, Disney put the word out that it’s definitely looking to cast an Asian love interest). It’s worth noting that the blog post refers specifically to an early draft of the script, which was announced as being rewritten at the time of Variety’s post.
Though there’s been a recent spotlight and furor around Hollywood whitewashing roles of Asian characters, the trend is anything but new. In 1935, Anna Mae Wong lost out to German actor Luise Ranier in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Maybe the most infamous example of yellowface is Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney in 1961 in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In fact, for the sake of brevity, here is a depressingly long, non-exhaustive list of yellowface used in American pop culture.
My point is, I have thought long and hard about the history of Anti-Asian racism in American media, to the point where I can no longer find the energy to be angry about it. I wasn’t angry when Scarlett Johansson was cast in the live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell; I wasn’t angry when Tilda Swinton was cast to play the Ancient One in Doctor Strange; I wasn’t even angry when I watched that segment of the O’Reilly Factor recently. I appreciate that there are others out there who are angry. They should be. I just feel deeply saddened and tired, thinking about that growing list of yellowface performances. I think about the story written recently by the American-born New York Times editor who was told to go back to China.
It’s difficult to articulate the frustration of this sort of cultural erasure as part of a group that’s historically starved for media representation. I imagine it’s something that people who aren’t white or male or straight or cisgender experience to varying degrees and specifics. It was enough to make me seek films and music and comics by Asian creators in some hope of reaching some deeper truth about myself and my place in the world. In some ways, it was rewarding. I’m genuinely happy seeing artists like Mitski and Japanese Breakfast take off. I fell in love with the warm, intimate films of Wong Kar-Wai (My favorite is Chungking Express, followed by Happy Together and In the Mood for Love). Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin was one of the boldest meditations on violence I’d ever seen and ended up being one of my favorite films last year. But at the end of the day, this search for an unknowable external validation never revealed some great truth to me. Rarely did I ever feel this deep cultural connectivity I hoped to find. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came close, though.
This feeling of alienation has never left me. It certainly doesn’t help seeing the rise of nativist sentiment this election year. For a significant portion of the United States’ population, I’ll always be too Chinese to be American. But as much as I feel like a stranger in a strange land here, where I was born, I didn’t feel much different traveling overseas. I’m too American to belong in China or Vietnam, where my parents are from. It’s not something I’m ever too vocal about. Many others have worse things to worry about than being stuck in a strange cultural limbo.
This is a long-winded way of saying that I feel incredibly conflicted about the controversies surrounding the whitewashing of certain films. I can’t say I’m too broken up about Doctor Strange, given the source material’s orientalist origins. Nor do I feel particularly excited at the idea of a live-action remake of the 1998 animated Mulan, a film about repelling a foreign horde of dark-skinned, beady-eyed Mongols (it’s not lost on me in 2016, an election year where one of our presidential candidates wants to build a wall to keep dark-skinned foreigners out of our country, that a literal wall was built around China).
This is tough to write about, because I completely agree with the criticisms leveled at these films. Visibility and representation that isn’t rooted in ethnic stereotypes are so important. But mainstream American culture has failed me on these grounds for a century, and I don’t have much of a reason to believe it will stop doing so anytime soon. If you want representation, I recommend something like Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous instead. I don’t trust Disney to speak to me in a way I find meaningful because its interest in representing me stops as soon as it ceases to be profitable. This is cynical, but this is the company that brought us Song of the South, which was broadcast as recently as 2006, and that’s not a hill I’m willing to die on.