Upcoming “Absolutely Fabulous” Film Will Feature Actor in Yellowface

Janette Tough, in yellowface costume as Japanese fashion designer Huki Muki in the upcoming "Absolutely Fabulous" film. (Photo credit: Twitter)
Janette Tough, in yellowface costume as Japanese fashion designer Huki Muki in the upcoming “Absolutely Fabulous” film. (Photo credit: Twitter)

The British 1990’s sitcom “Absolutely Fabulous”  is slated to return in 2016 after a 20 year run on British television that ended in 2012. Cast members will reunite in a feature length film, which will include show stars Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley reprising their roles as drug-abusing PR agent, Edina Monsoon, and magazine editor, Patsy Stone.

Fans of “AbFab” have long anticipated the reunion film, which was rumoured to be planned as early as 2011. However, the film is now making headlines for a not-so-fabulous reason: the movie will apparently feature an actor in yellowface.

In the film, comedian Janette Tough (aka Janette Krankie), who is well-known to Scottish audiences for her 40-year portrayal of her schoolboy character, Jimmy Krankie, will don a black wig and wing-tipped sunglasses to portray male Japanese fashion designer, Huki Muki.

Tough is neither Japanese, nor is she Asian.

Janette Tough (front left) appears in costume as character Huki Muki, a male Japanese fashion designer, in the upcoming "Absolutely Fabulous" film.
Janette Tough (front left) appears in costume as character Huki Muki, a male Japanese fashion designer, in the upcoming “Absolutely Fabulous” film.

Although the casting news had been known (and criticized) for several months, outrage over Tough’s yellowface performance had not permeated America’s social justice circles until Asian American comedian Margaret Cho published a series of tweets earlier this week drawing new attention to Tough’s casting. Among her other tweets:

There are those who have risen to Tough’s defense, questioning why Tough’s yellowface performance as Huki Muki is racist, but her “pantomime” as Jimmy Krankie is not. Quite simply, it is about power. Yellowface — like blackface and brownface — are not forms of innocent fun; racial drag theatre has a long history as a tool to reinforce White supremacy through its caricatured depictions of non-White people as the Other. Minstrel shows and early yellowface, popular both in America as well as in other parts of the Western world, were built on racial stereotype and caricature to depict Black, Asian, and other people of colour as buffoons. The entire theatre of “colourface” is about reinforcing normative Whiteness through “clown” performances of non-Whiteness. No use of racial drag can be divorced from this racist history, and therefore any reprisal of yellowface, blackface, or brownface — then or now — is innately damaging to people of colour.

Janette Tough, out of character, in a TV appearance on the Alan Titchmarsh Show.
Janette Tough, out of character, in a TV appearance on the Alan Titchmarsh Show.

Further, some have speculated that Huki Muki, who appears briefly in the upcoming film and has no speaking lines, may be a thinly-veiled reference to real-life (and actually Japanese) writer and artist, Yayoi Kusuma, who is known for her short stature, wing-tipped sunglasses, and fascination with polka dots. If so, Tough’s depiction is all the more damaging: she uses racial caricature to reference a living, breathing Asian person.

Tough’s camp has responded to the accusations of racism with the usual half-assed non-apology. In an interview with the  Exeter Express and Echo, Tough’s husband and “Krankies” partner, Ian Tough, claimed that Margaret Cho just “didn’t understand the British sense of humour”:

“It’s not racist, it’s basically the British sense of humour. It’s a parody,” he said, “Has this girl got job envy? You’ve got to understand the British sense of humour. They hired Janette to please the British public.

“Why are we listening to an American, they have no idea of humour. When Sean Connery played a Russian in The Hunt For Red October, should they have got a Russian playing that?

…Janette’s been playing characters for years. The director phoned up and said Jennifer Saunders had asked her to play this character. There’s no speaking in the role, it’s just a visual one. She was booked basically because of her height and because of her name

Yet again, we see a perpetrator of blatantly racist performance invoke the lazy, half-assed “it’s not racism, it’s satire” defense (mixed with a strong dose of mistaking race with ethnicity). Yet again, the offender tries to turn the tables on people of colour: rather than consider whether or not the behaviour might actually be offensive or problematic, they dismiss people of colour as jealous, humourless buzzkills. It’s as if they expect the well-behaved person of colour to chuckle along as they wear our skin as a costume, and as they perform our racial identities for a punchline. Our dehumanization should be praised as “absolutely fabulous”, apparently.

This is not parody. This is not satire. Even if it were, neither parody nor satire are a free pass to engage in blackface, brownface or yellowface.

This is racism, and it’s #NotSoFabulous.

I probably would never have gone to see “Absolutely Fabulous” in theatres beforehand, but I sure as heck will not be seeing it now.

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