Disney announced that they’re doing a global search for a Chinese actor to play Mulan, as well as an Asian actor to play her love interest, which is great news for fans who want to see the 1998 animated classic authentically brought to live action.
A petition circulating since last year has amassed over 100,000 signatures from people pleading Disney not to cast white actors to play the Chinese characters in the live-action Mulan film. We’re glad Disney is casting Chinese leads, but we can’t judge people for worrying, because Hollywood clearly has white-washing problem.
White-washing, the act of casting a white person in a person of colour’s role—and the thing that made John Oliver ask “How is this still a thing?”—isn’t a practice of the past by any means. People of colour are still fighting for visibility and representation.
Hollywood has churned out lots of movies, new and old, which have white-washed Asian characters. Take, for example, 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s which featured Mickey Rooney in yellowface as the horribly stereotypical Mr. Yunioshi.
Similarly, the events that inspired 2008’s 21 centred around Asian-American Jeffrey Ma, but the majority of the movie’s cast is white and starred Jim Sturgess as Ma.
Then, last year, Aloha cast Emma Stone as a woman who is half Chinese, half Hawaiian, and we were just supposed to pretend Stone didn’t look entirely white.
The white-washing hasn’t stopped, yet the Internet crapped its pants when black actors Amandla Stenberg was cast as Rue in The Hunger Games and Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Then, in August, Zendaya was cast as Mary-Jane in the new Spider-Man movie. To the skeptics, we say, just squint and pretend she’s white. We had to believe Jake Gyllenhaal was Persian that one time.
Remember what Alan Yang said at the Emmys? “There’s 17 million Asian-Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian-Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong, so we’ve got a long way to go.”
Yang perfectly expressed the fact that people of colour are given roles with depth, authenticity and meaning at a fraction of the rate of white actors. He’s not alone in voicing his frustrations—several high-profile celebrities like Mindy Kaling and Eva Longoria have spoken out against discrimination in the industry after white actors made up the top 20 nominees at the 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards.
And when it comes to the roles that people of colour have played, most of them are embarrassingly stereotypical—take for example Dong from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Lilly from Pitch Perfect. Just the name Dong should tell you how terribly this character is written and the whole joke behind Lilly is that she’s quiet and timid, a stereotype that has plagued Asian women for ages.
The portrayal of people of colour in media should be more thoughtful than the tired caricatures audiences have seen over and over again. When audiences only see one type of Asian character in media, that can shape how they perceive people of colour they encounter in real life. Even on a personal basis, people of colour find their identities challenged when who they are isn’t how the media—and the rest of the world—sees them.
Our current social and cultural landscapes are already riddled with violence against marginalized groups, and we shouldn’t tolerate directors who perpetuate erasure because they are too lazy to look for talented people of colour.
There are amazing stories to be told, so let’s tell them to the best of our abilities. Disney is taking the right step by doing the bare minimum, but it’s still more than what other studios are doing, And to those studios, we say, “Dishonour” on your whole family.