Fox hears “yellowface” and turns yellow
There’s one other point that deserves some elaboration in the Charlie Chan controversy — and that centers on the Asian critics’ frequent use of the term “yellowface.”
Eddie Wong, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association executive director, wrote in his letter to Fox Movie Channel that “Asian Americans feel that Charlie Chan is a demeaning portrayal that is culturally inaccurate and ‘entertaining’ at our expense. Add to it the insult of ‘yellowface’.” The Asian lobby group’s release says an early 80s Chan film “featured Peter Ustinov in yellowface” and asked its recipients whether they were “offended by yellowface …”
Now, naive person that I am, I actually assumed that “yellowface” meant, by analogy with “blackface,” a kind of grossly-exaggerated skin-tone makeup used by a European to play an Asian. But on reflection, that didn’t make sense. Whatever the morality of “blackface,” if a white person is going to play a black person in a black-and-white film, he clearly has to use some kind of skin-tone makeup.
There also existed in the era of Charlie Chan other kinds of pancake makeup used to blanche actors’ faces, although often by a white actor for purposes other than racial identification (e.g. silent comedian Harry Langdon’s baby-face clown). Ironically, that same whitening makeup is widely used in Japanese period films (e.g., KWAIDAN and UGETSU MONOGATARI) to signify ghosts. And contemporary latex-prosthetic makeup allows any actor to play any skin tone (e.g. the memorable barber-shop scene between Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in COMING TO AMERICA).
But “yellowface”? In real life, Asians run along a similar pale-swarthy spectrum as whites (e.g., Ang Lee is very pale; Wong Kar-wai very swarthy). And I have seen enough Asian-made movies to know that the range of Asian skin tones — as captured by black-and-white film — isn’t *that* different from the range of European skin tones. Obviously things were done around a white actor’s eyes to make them look slanted and such costuming effects as mustaches, hairdos and clothes can be used to make a white person look “more Asian.” But “yellowface”? In films like Charlie Chan that weren’t in color? I solicited on a silent-movies newsgroup, where numerous historians and collectors post, for anyone to tell me whether there was such a thing as “yellowface” makeup. One person defended the Asian protests, but said the term “yellowface” was not strictly accurate, but merely an analogy (which he thought defensible in service of the larger point). The LA Times article, if one read carefully with this particular fact in mind, also showed that this wasn’t what the Asian groups meant. It uses the phrase “what they have dubbed ‘yellowface’ — Caucasian actors playing Asian characters.”
There is a question here of intellectual honesty and rhetorical probity. I’d hazard that 95 percent of the population, when asked to define “blackface” would say “a type of acting makeup and/or its use” rather than “any and every casting of a white actor in a black role.” And therefore, upon reading the NAATA statement and other quotes, think the Charlie Chan movies are like a Spike Lee fantasy, which isn’t only not true, but false in a particular way. To put it bluntly, whatever private language the Asian groups might think they’re using, they made-believe a lie for the purposes of producing a particular reaction in the ignorant. I include myself in the term “the ignorant” … while I never really believed there *was* such a thing as “yellowface” (and the NAATA press release’s inaccurate descriptions of the Charlie Chan character made me doubt their cinematic knowledge from the beginning), I felt sufficiently unsure to ask about it in public.
The LA Times article provides the key to understanding why make-believe *this* lie. It cites Guy Aoki, founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, as calling such images “no less hurtful and dehumanizing for us than blackface has been to African Americans.” And this is why I think this minor point about the term “yellowface” is worth chewing over. It is symptomatic of one of the laziest rhetorical tropes in political discourse, and one that pretty quickly causes me to lose regard for its maker. If SOUTH PARK’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone were to write a script about this brouhaha, they might call it “Operation Get Behind The Darkies.”
The rhetorical trope, an analogy with the black civil-rights movement, is common to many people other than the ethnic-grievance groups (or even to liberals). Homosexual advocates, especially Andrew Sullivan, campaign for homosexual “marriage” by trying to analogize the status quo to anti-miscenegation laws; for Jesse Jackson, everything, from the Juliette Binoche movie CHOCOLAT to the hiring of football coaches, is always “Selma”; even right-wing groups critical of affirmative action and abortion argue that they are upholding the civil-rights movement’s ideals of a color-blind society and equal protection.
People will find these various named causes’ similarity to the civil-rights moments varyingly persuasive (and I’ve named only a tiny sample). But what interests me here is why everything in American life has to find its comparison to the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, no matter how strained. It’s as if that’s the only way to get any moral traction with the broader public is to wrap yourself, not in the flag, but in “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This law, we might call it the Godwin’s Law of the Pre-Internet, may have something to do with the civil-rights movement being the last successful moral crusade before the 60s generation smashed the existing moral language and social structures and planted a global suspicion toward those very concepts.
But, regardless of its cause, this trope is intellectually impoverishing and lazy, the contemporary Political Cartesianism — “I’m offended, therefore I am.” Politics and cultural life get reduced to “my offense” and/or “your guilt.” It’s also false to the civil-rights movement, whose leaders become secular saints and objects of quasi-religious veneration rather than the complex and vibrant human beings they were.
No thanks to any of this.
Here are the links to the information cited in these Charlie Chan articles:
The LA Times news article
The discussions on the controversy among film buffs:
The leading Asian lobby group:
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