Scarlett. Emma. Tilda. Matt. Hollywood’s A-listers grace the front of this shirt worn by star of 13 Reasons Why, Michele Selene Ang. No, Ang isn’t just a huge fan. The shirt is a response to the whitewashing of Asian roles in Hollywood.
To illustrate, let’s start with the names on the shirt. Matt Damon, who starred in The Great Wall, faced backlash for playing a “white saviour” in a predominantly Chinese film. Emma Stone played quarter Hawaiian and quarter Chinese in Aloha, while Tilda Swinton‘s character in Doctor Strange was originally written as an old Tibetan monk. Most recently, Scarlett Johansson portrayed a Japanese cyborg in the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.
Whitewashing of Asians in western film and television is hardly new. In 1984, Linda Hunt won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for depicting a Chinese man. Charlie Chan, a popular film detective in the ’30s and ’40s was played by white men in makeup. Even beloved films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s have white actors cast as bumbling Asian caricatures, complete with prosthetics.
Real-life Asians have been eradicated from movies and replaced by white versions of themselves in film. Cora Lijek, a Japanese American diplomat who was part of the 1980 Iran hostage crisis was played by Clea Duvall in Argo. According to Roger Ebert, Harrison Ford’s character in 2010’s Extraordinary Measures, Robert Stonehill, was inspired by Taiwanese doctor Yuan-Tsong Chen. The lead protagonist in 21, Chinese American MIT student Jeff Ma, was changed to “Ben Campbell” and played by Jim Sturgess. The list goes on.
It’s not that we aren’t fans of these white actors’ bodies of work. It’s that most roles in Hollywood are already made for white actors. To put it bluntly, we have not reached that fabled idealistic point in society where John Cho and Ryan Gosling would be in competition for the leading role in the latest rom-com. Be honest, can you even think of a current film in Hollywood where an Asian man plays the romantic lead?
When a character is written as Asian and is most suited to be portrayed by an Asian actor, why is it still acceptable that a white person depict them? Asian culture is used time and time again as backgrounds and backdrops for film, while actual Asian people are erased from the narrative completely. When Hollywood ultimately decides that Asian ideas look better white, systemic racism is further entrenched as status quo. Whitewashing does nothing but prove that while Asian stories are deemed valuable, our bodies are dispensable.
The shirt, designed by UCB Comedy Troupe, Asian AF can be purchased here, and helps pay for logistical needs for the Asian AF show at the UCB Theatre.