Guest Contributor: Mark Tseng Putterman (@tsengputterman)
Asian American Twitter has been abuzz this week with news that Tilda Swinton singled out Margaret Cho to explain to her the backlash surrounding her whitewashed casting as “The Ancient One” in Dr. Strange. On a recent episode of Bobby Lee’s TigerBelly podcast, Cho described the odd email exchange with Swinton, who she had never met, explaining that it left her feeling like a “house Asian, like I’m her servant.”
While many commentators have rightfully jumped on Swinton’s behavior as another example of white people expecting people (especially women) of color to perform uncompensated intellectual and emotional labor, few have discussed how Cho’s coopting of the term “house Asian” represents a parallel trend of non-Black Asian Americans repurposing Black movements, analyses, and terminology for our own purposes.
Yesterday, a Facebook group called “Wisconsin for Trump” — which has more than 25,000 likes — shared a super racist anti-Asian meme critical of Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
I know I’m about a week late on this news, but I’ve got something really important to say: ScarJo, you look absolutely ridiculous in yellowface.
When the news first broke that Scarlett Johansson had been inexplicably cast in Paramount’s film adaptation of blockbuster anime/manga series Ghost in the Shell, I wrote a scathing post declaring that ScarJo is #NotMyMotoko. Last week, that debate was rekindled when studios released a teaser image of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi. I think we can all agree: sporting a black wig styled into an asymmetric bob, Johansson looks unbelievably absurd in the role of a Japanese cyborg woman who has long stood as an icon of Asian and Asian American feminism, queer identity, and gender fluidity.
Having learned nothing apparently from last year’s “Mikado” fiasco in Seattle, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) — a more than 30-year-old professional repertory company devoted to staging performances of Gilbert & Sullivan works — announced this year that “The Mikado” would be included in their 2015-2016 season. Written in 1885, “The Mikado”‘s opening run was one of the longest of its time, and is considered one of the most popular works in the Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire. “The Mikado” is also highly offensive: intended to satirize British politics, the play is set in an Orientalist fantasy of Japan, and is typically staged by White actors in costumes and makeup designed to make them appear Asian; or, more colloquially, in “yellowface“.
The NYGASP’s show is no exception: judging by images from its 2010 and 2013 performances (see featured image above), NYGASP’s performance is replete with non-Asian actors donning black wigs, kimonos, and face paint. This year, NYGASP’s version of “The Mikado” is scheduled to appear at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU December 26-January 2.
Last month, a yellowface production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta “The Mikado” — put on by local Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society — sparked national controversy and a number of outraged articles. Multiple Asian American writers and advocates spoke out against the use of yellowface in “The Mikado” (including Sean Miura, who published a compelling guest post on this site) and several Asian American organizations issued statements in protest of the Seattle-based production, including the OCA and JACL.
This national conversation on yellowface may have its focal point in Seattle, but the issue extends far beyond that city. For, as defenders of Seattle’s yellowface production of this operetta have pointed out, “The Mikado” is one of the most popular and widely performed productions out of the Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire.
Today, hundreds of productions of “The Mikado” are performed annually in the United States; many recreate the same yellowface that characterized the operetta’s original 1885 run at the Savoy Theatre in London. But the show’s enduring popularity as contemporary and unchallenged yellowface does not negate its racism.
Thankfully, the debate first sparked by Seattle’s yellowface production Mikado have inspired others to speak out against yellowface racism elsewhere in the country. Last month, Opera Providence (located in Providence, Rhode Island) opened a three-night production of “The Mikado” that ran from August 8 – 10, and which also featured actors in yellowface.
Several Rhode Island residents courageously organized a street protest and a petition against Opera Providence’s yellowface staging, even though they faced threats and retribution from Opera Providence for exercising their First Amendment rights including an alleged death threat against protesters uttered by an actor during the on-stage production. I had a chance to interview two of the protest organizers, James McShane (@james_mcshane) and Sakiko Mori (@mrsoioi), about what inspired them to take a stand; the full interview appears after the jump.