Jul. 31st, 2016

My [Ashkenazi Jewish American] father [married to my Han Chinese American mother] emailed me about representation of Asians in media, including the current furor over Matt Damon starring in the upcoming "The Great Wall." I decided to post my response to him here for posterity.

There's been a lot of awareness on Twitter recently of the (old) trend of whitewashing Asian actors/characters and replacing them with white ones instead, under the hashtag #whitewashedOUT.

However, I am in the minority among Asian Americans regarding Matt Damon starring in "The Great Wall," in that I support the film. While I think it's unfortunate that a white actor was cast as the star and I would have liked to see more progressive (non-white) casting, I think that being angry about it is blaming the victim, and is minimizing the progress that the film does represent. The film has a Chinese director (Zhang Yimou), is produced by a Hong Kong-based production company (Legendary East, though admittedly a subsidiary company of the American Legendary Entertainment), and is financially backed by a Chinese TV company (LeEco). From the trailers it looks like the vast majority of the extras are Asian, two of the five stars are Chinese, and all of the other named cast members are Asian (I didn't take the time to check if Chinese or other Asian). Yes, it'd be better if all five of the stars were Chinese, but this is amazing progress IMO and we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. This film will increase the visibility of Chinese actors and directors, and it's amazing that a Chinese film is going to reach a wide Western audience.

The other thing that I feel like Wu (and others critical of the whitewashing of the film) fail to take into account is that as a Chinese film, American ideas of race and racism do not apply. Race is a social construct, so it has different meaning when removed from that original social context and placed into a different one. Once you start looking at media outside the USA, it's important to acknowledge the near-worship of American celebrity in many other countries. For example, there was a bizarre Chinese ad for an online video game, Call of Duty Online, released last year, which featured Chris Evans (better known as the [white] actor behind Captain America) as the only white English-speaking person while everyone else spoke Chinese. This ad was banking on the celebrity and deification of American actors because they are American - note that it's the actor who plays Captain America. If Captain America were played by Anthony Mackie (an African American, who plays another Marvel character who in the comic books later becomes Captain America), then I have no doubt that this Call of Duty Online ad would have starred Mackie instead. Similarly, the casting of not only [white] Matt Damon, but also [white] Willem Dafoe and Chilean American Pedro Pascal (better known from Game of Thrones) is actually a major coup for a Chinese film.

In idolizing American celebrity in this way, yes the makers of this film are perpetuating whitewashing, however I feel that they're more victims of racism in Hollywood than perpetrators themselves. (Much like black cops can perpetrate racist actions against African Americans, but I blame the systemic racism in policing more than I do those individual cops. And similarly, a businesswoman who is harsher towards women employees is herself a victim of internalized misogyny.) While it definitely isn't okay for this film to be perpetuating racism in the form of whitewashing, I think my energy is better spent fighting films that are creations of Hollywood directors and production companies, than fighting films that actually are Chinese in origin.

Feel free to share this with others if you like, but it's worth pointing out again that I am in the minority among Asian Americans on this.



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