Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Terminology. That's What.

Yellowface - the practice of putting a non-Asian actor (usually white) into makeup and prosthetics that alter the actor's appearance and make them "look" Asian. The actor will also usually employ some garbled interpretation of an "Asian" accent. 
Fu Manchu - a catch-all name for the male Asian antagonists in movies that are evil and evilly Asian and Asianly evil. Sometimes will speak with an accent, sometimes without. Often portrayed as sly, manipulative, cunning, and in some cases, with an insatiable appetite for sex, usually lusting after white woman.
Charlie Chan - another catch-all phrase for the polar opposite of the Fu Manchu. A character that is a Charlie Chan or a son of Chan is subservient, "adorable," a kiss-ass to white characters, asexual (towards anyone in any race), often portrayed with a heavy accent. 
Lotus Blossom/China Doll - a subservient, demure girl with no backbone and no feelings. Often shown as an innocent, beautiful sexual toy who is corrupted by and infatuated with white men. The accent or lack thereof changes with every role. 
Dragon Lady - the female Fu Manchu. Often has a penchant for killing people or  busting out some karate chop hands. She is fierce, cunning, manipulative, powerful and a dangerously sexy gold digger. 

The Badass Mute - also known as the Bruce Lee, or, depending on the age of the character, a Mr. Miyagi. A buff and wise kung fu master who only speaks in proverbs and remains serene until it's time to kick some ass and then meditate. Sometimes a sexualized character, sometimes not. Enforces the idea that Asian people all have the innate ability to perform martial arts. 

Model Minority - referring to a minority group who is considered "successful" in a society where the majority is not. When applied to Asians, it implies that they will keep their head down, earn perfect scores on their SATs, not make a fuss when made fun of. Asians are considered hardworking and incredibly smart in math and science, or piano prodigies. The model minority stereotype foists higher expectations on people of Asian descent to do well and be naturally good at everything, except perhaps having a backbone or be socially present in white-dominated society. 
The Perpetual Foreigner - the assumption that Asians will never fully integrate into American society because of their race, and that they will always have an accent, always be loyal to their "mother country," and never be truly American. This is more of a subconscious stereotype that serves as a backdrop to the top 5 definitions listed here. 

I'll add more later, promise. 


  1. Recently, someone found this blog by searching the words "do oriental people think that the oriental riff is racist."
    Um... That's kinda like asking if it's okay to call us "Chinks" or "Gooks" or any other racial slur. The word "oriental" is just as racially charged as any of the words I just wrote.
    Just because this person had to GOOGLE if we think it's okay to be called "Orientals" means that we need to be more outspoken than we are now. They assumed that we don't think it's racist! Either that, or they don't know because we're too busy living up to our model minority stereotype and being passive and accepting of all the crap thrown at us! DUH we think it's racist. You shouldn't even have to Google that sort of thing!
    Charlie Chan is dead! So are Orientals!

  2. Again! Somebody found my blog by Googling the words "asian guys love to crunch numbers." Gee thanks. I should just do an entire post on comments/search engines.

  3. Having access to an actual keyboard/computer allows me to post a prolonged comment to you!
    I didn't grow up thinking about these issues being racist/prejudiced. But I did think it was odd and insulting to everyone that a Caucasian male was supposed to be a believable Asian male. I remember watching Peter Sellers play a Charlie Chan type character in the movie "Murder by Death" and while the movie was funny, his portrayal was not.
    Why would anyone continue to think that non-Asian actors should play Asians in movies or theater?
    I must still be in the land of naivete!

  4. Did you think it was odd that it was always a white actor playing an Asian, or was it odd because you had seen Asian people before and known that they didn't necessarily fit into the categories I listed above?

    People continue to think like this because they believe that having a well-known white actor donning yellowface will do better at the box office than an unknown Asian, albeit accurate, actor. It mostly has to do with money - studios are more willing to market an established actor than an unknown one, no matter how offensive the role/portrayal.

  5. I can't think of an American movie off the top of my head that has "yellowface" in it (I know they are out there, especially <1980's)but I can see how offensive it can be to us Asians. Why on earth don't they hire an Asian actor or actress? I think it's less common nowadays to find yellowface actors because now we have Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi. ;) To find a movie or series that portrays Asians as just being "normal" without the stereotypical "oriental-ness" is a rare find!

  6. Unfortunately, living in the US as a minority will always come with some kind of drawback. What I can tell you is that while I was living in Asia for a couple years I was discriminated against, not just for being American, but for being white also. Although I don't condone stereotypes or racism, it is common in every country if you are a minority. Just something to think about.