Racism and cultural appropriation in Hollywood

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By Val Reynoso

In 1960s Hollywood films, characters of color were played by white actors in order for more people to consume the media due to the notion that whiteness is more acceptable and is the default race; these white actors also embodied dangerous stereotypes about people of color and appropriated their features and cultures in their roles due to the societal otherization and dehumanization of nonwhite people.

The capitalist society that is the US is fundamentally racist, imperialist, hegemonic and the ways in which these phenomena are presented in the media and Hollywood are prominent, have a varying impact on consumers, and demonstrates how people of color are seen as tools for capitalist gain and costumes for white actors to wear to play roles in films.

The specific character that will be analyzed in context of the US in the 1960s is Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The whitewashing of the casting of the adaption of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is reflective of anti-Asian racism and a reinforcement of eurocentricism because of its display of racist stereotypes towards Japanese people, usage of yellowface, cultural appropriation, and indicator of stigmas towards the Japanese in post-WWII US.

The depiction of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is rooted in racist, anti-Asian stereotypes towards Japanese people. In the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Yunioshi is shown clumsily heading for the door to open for Holly Golightly, who rang the bell; he accidentally snaps a picture of himself with his giant camera, manages to obtain his glasses and trips against a lamp after doing so and is grunting in a virtually incomprehensible English in a manner that is stereotypical of how Asians whose first language is not English speak. Mr. Yunioshi also has buck teeth and exaggeratedly narrow eyes.

In Hashimura Togo Went to War: Yellowface, the Yellow Peril, and Philosophy of Poppaganda,” Yoshiko describes the impact that the usage of stereotyped Japanese roles has on the perception society has on Japanese people; “Unquestionably, the staple of Hashimura Togo’s humorous social writings is his artificial ‘Japanned’ English. Togo’s vernacular accents produce laughter not just at the expense of himself (or his being Japanese as the racial Other). They produce laughter because they create an ironical gap between what they say and what they mean to convey, thus subverting whatever categorical assumptions we have”. Like Mr Yunioshi, Togo’s “Japanned” broken English is incorporated into said roles in Hollywood films in order to otherize the character as being different from the other characters because they are of color. These characters are based on stereotypes people have of Japanese people and the way they speak, which is then satirized given that the broken English is meant to induce laughter from viewers and to view yellowface as being humorous as opposed to downright racist as it truly is.

Yellowface has also historically consisted of other stereotypes of Asian people including broken teeth and having eyes so small that they are not able to see. In the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Yunioshi is unable to see where he is going and is tripping over everything he encounters until he grabs his glasses, which, from a sociological standpoint and given the usage of yellowface in this role, is meant to insinuate that Japanese people are blind because of their almond-shaped eyes and reinforces the “chink” stereotype. Given that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is from 1961, it was released sixteen years after the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945 and the end of WWII on September 2nd 1945. The film was released in a post-WWII US and such attitudes carried during the war permeated mainstream media; among said attitudes were those attributed to the Yellow Peril — xenophobic theory of a threat posed to Western nations such as the US by the Japanese and Chinese given the influx of Asian migration to the US in the mid- to late-1940s. As stated by Patrick Sharp in From Yellow Peril to Japanese Wasteland: John Hersey’s Hiroshima, “These narratives of future war with the Yellow Peril became a primary way for the American media to make sense out of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. While many in the US denounced the Nazis for their racial ideology, a similar ideology was purveyed by Yellow Peril future-war stories. Throughout the war, the Yellow Peril — in the form of the Japanese — was consistently represented in the US media as an obedient, cruel, efficient, and homogenous ‘herd’ that single-mindedly carried out Japanese leaders’ dreams of global domination”.

The ideals of the Yellow Peril can be attributed to Mr. Yunioshi, given that he is depicted as a threat as a Japanese man in an all-white movie — with the exception of himself. In one scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Yunioshi is taking a hot bath and when the steam subsides, he is unsettled and angry as if there were an issue that provoked discomfort in him in that instant. Afterwards, Holly Golightly is going down the stairs with a man and when she looks up, Mr. Yunioshi is looking down at her from the staircase of the floor above in a menacing and stern expression — he is in a bathrobe with a bandana on his head and dripping in water as he had just gotten out of the tub. Mr. Yunioshi’s expression directed at Holly Golightly embodies the stigma of cruelty attached to the Japanese as a result of the Yellow Peril and its presence in mainstream media. He is the only character in the film that is shown as having a threatening, invasive and aggressive presence in relation to the others; the fact that he is the nonwhite person in the film makes his hostile aura more prominent because of the otherization of nonwhite people as deviating from the default that is whiteness.

Given the existence of post-WWII attitudes among the US public and mainstream media in the 1960s, viewers would still internalize characters from films of this time period, such as Mr Yunioshi, as being representative of the Japanese as a whole and this ethnic group’s consideration as being the enemy of the US. Anti-Asian racism and propaganda dominated mainstream media in the form of films, art, illustrations, newspapers and theater following WWII and the US bombing of Hiroshima. Especially given the passing of FDR’s Executive Order 2066 (1945) which called for the internment of Japanese Americans, xenophobic attitudes prevailed.

In Model Minority, Yellow Peril: Functions of Foreignness in the Construction of Asian American Legal Identity, Taylor Saito states, “Today, despite the extensive legal, governmental and social acknowledgment that the internment was wrong, popular imagery still reflects the World War II portrayal of Japanese Americans as the enemy, reinforcing the conclusion that something more than wartime hysteria was at work. In 1995, during the trial of O.J. Simpson, the following text appeared next to a buck-toothed caricature of Judge Lance Ito, a third generation Japanese American, in what was described as a “spoof’ on the legal pad used by Simpson”.

Anti-Japanese sentiment was still present in US society and media albeit the supposed widespread acknowledgement that the internment of the Japanese was despicable and inhumane. Many US citizens still possessed an image in their minds of a Japanese person being nothing more than a buck-toothed caricature and a threat to the well-being of the nation. Mr. Yunioshi personifies said xenophobic and stereotypical atittudes given that he is buck-toothed, menacing and dominant. Given that he is Holly Golightly’s landlord, his depiction is even more dominating in nature because he is in the highest position of power in the building. Mr. Yunioshi is irritable, always yelling at Holly Golightly and insinuating he does not want her to live in the building anymore throughout the film; this asserts the Yellow Peril seeing that he poses a threat to Holly Golightly, whom is white and a part of Western culture, with his racialized aggression and dominance in the building in which she resides.

The racialization of theater became mainstream as a result of Yellow Peril and other Post WWII phenomena and is indicative of eurocentricism. Orientalism became a predominate component of Western theater and media; as explicated by Yoshiko Uzawa in Hashimura Togo Went to War: Yellowface, the Yellow Peril and Philosophy of Poppaganda, “Likewise, yellowface minstrelsy caricatured Chinese and Japanese immigrants as the ‘Oriental’; the most ‘exotic’ (hence, alien) racial otherness was exemplified by ‘John Chinaman’ (Toll, ‘Social Commentary’ 93; Lee, 34–43; Moon 36–38). These theatrical racial masquerades incorporated such various elements as music, dancing, drama, comedy sketches, and news; this grew into a vital part of white American ‘common man’s culture’ (Toll, Blacking Up 3) in the course of the nineteenth century”.

Mr. Yunioshi is an emblem of Orientalism and the manners through which this phenomena has manifested itself in the media and theater world. Orientalism is the way Westerners perceives East Asia such that this perception emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences between European cultures and East Asian cultures. The term is utilized as a means to reinforce the positive image Westerners have of themselves by depicting the East and all that pertains to it as being odd, baffling, asinine and barbaric; it is founded on the notion that the Western world is the epitome of morality, progress, power and humanity, and that the Eastern world is the direct opposite of the grand West.

Orientalism is reliant on the otherization, exoticizing and alienation of East Asian and Middle Eastern people. In Western cultures, which are inherently white supremacist and white is the default race in all aspects, people of color become perverse to the Western world due to their deviation from the societal norm, and are regarded as such in all present institutions and mainstream media. Mr. Yunioshi is a caricature of a Japanese man in his physical appearance, way of speaking, physical characteristics and attitude. His role as a caricature as opposed to a regular person dehumanizes him such that he becomes a subject of ridicule and racist entertainment instead of someone entitled to the same level of dignity as the white characters are.

Orientalist caricatures such as Mr. Yunioshi are significant in Western culture given their notable presence throughout films and plays; hence making Orientalism a vital part of white culture in the US during the course of the 1960s. Orientalism normalizes the West and otherizes the East by lump-summing Asian cultures as being one solitary entity that is subject to ridicule from others. It is a falsely conceived, dogmatic perception of the East that is based off of stigmas pushed towards Asians whose cultures and customs were foreign and perverse to the self-praising Westerners; cultural appropriation is a product of the otherization of non-Western nations.

In the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Yunioshi’s apartment is shown with bamboo panels, a lantern with characters on it and small potted plants on the table he stumbled over when he attempted to answer the door for Holly Golightly. These objects in Mr. Yunioshi’s apartment are clearly based on the Orientalism of East Asian cultures, and are reduced to stereotypes of what East Asian cultures consist of as opposed to what they truly are in context of the specific East Asian country — which denotes cultural appropriation.

The bastardization of East Asian cultures through the objects in Mr. Yunioshi’s apartment are indicative of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from the cultures of marginalized people for profit and aesthetic without any regard to the deep significance of the culture to its owners and without experiencing the oppression that comes along with being part of that culture.

The bamboo panels in Mr. Yunioshi’s apartment is culturally appropriative and Orientalist given that they are stereotypically associated with East Asian cultures although it is not necessarily so, especially in regards to Japanese culture in particular. The potted plant Mr. Yunioshi held onto as he struggled to reach the door is alluded to the Japanese bonsai tree, given that he is a caricature of the Japanese, but in reality the plant does not bear much resemblance to an actual bonsai tree. The potted plant was meant to be a bastardization of bonsai trees and hence cultural appropriation of Japanese culture as well as Orientalism.

Whether or not the lantern constitutes as appropriation is debatable, as lanterns such as those in Mr. Yunioshi’s apartment are present in multiple East Asian cultures including Chinese and Japanese cultures. However, given that the other elements of the apartment are appropriative and Orientalist and Mr. Yunioshi is a racial caricature, it is likely that the lantern was utilized as an Orientalist aesthetic in the film as opposed to an accurate depiction of Japanese furnishing.

Mickey Rooney was the actor who played the role of Mr.Yunioshi and given that he is a white man, he donned yellowface when playing the character. White actors playing the roles of people of color in films and theater is representative of whitewashing — where white actors are cast for roles of people of color as opposed to actual people of color playing those designated roles.

According to Julia Boyd in An Examination of Native Americans in Films and Rise of Native Filmmakers, “Whitewashing, meaning the casting of white actors as characters of non-white races, has long been a pervasive problem for many minority actors and filmmakers. Shohat and Stam point out that because of white cultural dominance and Anglo ethnocentrism, white beauty is often held as the standard in even majority non-white countries, existing as ‘the mythical norms of Eurocentric esthetics’. Casting white actors in Native American roles, ignoring the talent and contribution of Indian actors, has been occurring for decades”.

Due to Eurocentric beauty standards, white cultural dominance in the Western world, and Anglo ethnocentricism, a white actor would be preferred to an actor of color even in roles of people of color. Western media is white-dominated and deeply racist, hence actors of color hardly get any representation at all even in roles of characters that share their same ethnicity.

Usage of white actors in films is more likely to sell than movies with people of color in it because of eurocentricism and the societal ideal that people have internalized of white being superior. Characters of color in films are depicted as more desirable when played by a white actor because the whitewashing of the character makes them better conform to eurocentric beauty standards. Had Mr. Yunioshi been played by a real Japanese man as opposed to Mickey Rooney, it would have deviated from the racist, eurocentric, white supremacist narrative that dominates Western media. Characters of color, for the most part, are regarded as nothing more than caricatures and their cultures and races nothing more than costumes for white actors to wear for the sake of entertainment.

Progress has yet to be made in Hollywood in relation to whitewashing of roles and racism, given that these practices are still in effect in contemporary Western films.

Val Reynoso is a Politics and Human Rights undergrad, journalist and Marxist-Leninist activist.

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