Comedian Margaret Cho joined forces with author Ellen Oh to talk with Keith Chow of Nerds of Color about the common Hollywood practice of casting white actors as Asian characters or writing Asian characters out of popular culture altogether. It’s the beginning of a month-long campaign using the hashtag #WhiteWashedOut for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month to lobby Hollywood not to whitewash roles and white actors not to take such roles.
The campaign comes after two potentially blockbuster films films revealed that they had cast white actresses in Asian roles. In April, Paramount and Dreamworks released the first picture of Scarlett Johansson as the Major Motoko Kusanagi in the movie adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese series. The photo ignited outrage among fans who argued a Japanese actress should have been cast in the role.
Then the first trailer for Doctor Strange revealed that Tilda Swinton would be playing The Ancient One, a character who is Tibetan in the comic books. Star Trek actor and activist George Tekai took to his Facebook page to express his outrage over this particular casting choice. “Let me get this straight,” Takei wrote on Facebook. “You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales … in Asia? This back-pedalling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots.”
Actors such as Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Ming-Na Wen have also criticized whitewashing and racism in Hollywood. As Margaret Cho pointed out in Tuesday’s tweets, Asian characters in pop culture are already scarce enough. A study conducted by the University of Southern California found that just 5% of the characters in 2014’s top 700 grossing films were Asian. (The percentage has been similarly bleak since the USC started the study in 2007.)
Few Asian actors get the chance to break out of basic stereotypes about the race. And even fewer get to star in their own film or TV show: Cho herself broke ground with the first sitcom on TV about an Asian-American family, All-American Girl, from 1994-1995. Fresh Off the Boat, which premiered last year, is only the second.
Cho and others used the #WhiteWashedOut hashtag on Twitter to protest this status quo.