Yellowface is Not The Way to Portray Culture on Television (or Anywhere Else)
What’s one way to showcase culture on television? For producers of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Saturday Night Live,” the answer was yellowface. In a January episode of HIMYM, the show paid “homage” to the genre of kung fu by outfitting white actors with yellowface make up, “Asian” costumes, and a Fu Manchu mustache. Not to mention wind chime music playing throughout the episode. In SNL’s rendition, actor Taran Killam narrated a mid-air kung fu battle between Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Moynihan with an “eastern” accent, squinty eyed expressions, and a Nehru jacket, all while a gong goes off in the background.
While some viewers may have found these skits funny, they serve as a reminder that the stereotypical portrayal of Asians is regrettably still around.
The History of Yellowface in Hollywood
In a way, yellowface seems like a fitting approach to portraying Asians on both shows. After all, neither HIMYM or SNL have Asian actors cast as season regulars.
Therein lies the problem.
Yellowface’s history in Hollywood is longstanding and its ramifications persist even today. If you’re scratching your head and asking, “what exactly is yellowface?”, it goes far beyond expressing an Asian aesthetic through costumes, makeup, music, set pieces and accents. As stated in Racebending, “yellowface, at its core, is not only the practice of applying prostheses or paint to simulate a crude idea of what ‘Asians’ look like; it is non-Asian bodies (usually white) controlling what it means to be Asian on screen and stage, particularly in lead/major roles.” Sounds very similar to what HIMYM and SNL actors did, doesn’t it?
While the term “yellowface” first surfaced in the 1950s at the advent of anti-Asian sentiment during World War II, the use of white actors to portray Asian people started in the early twentieth century. Leading roles for Asian characters went to white actors because viewers did not want to watch “real Asians,” and white actors were obviously more readily available. In many of these productions, Asians were portrayed as “villians,” or the “model minority,” and viewed as “perpetual foreigners” in the United States. There was also sentiment that Asians could not portray complex or compelling characters, so many “genuine” Asian actors were often cast in menial roles such as laundrymen, servants, and prostitutes. As the century progressed, though anti-Asian fervor and immigration laws waned and relaxed, the effects of a century yellowface and the stereotypes it produced remain.
#HowIMetYourRacism and #SaturdayNightLies
Soon after both episodes aired, viewers shared their thoughts of the performances online. The dismay was so great that Twitter hashtags #HowIMetYourRacism and #SaturdayNightLies were created in reaction, with tweets still streaming in the weeks after the shows aired. At the core of these conversations are criticisms surrounding diversity in the media and cultural appropriation, and questions as to why major networks still permit yellowface to happen. Additionally, a protest of SNL’s yellowface skit was scheduled February 15 at NBC’s New York studio, but has since been delayed due to Olympic coverage during SNL’s time slot.
While NBC has not issued any response to the skit, HIMYM creator Carter Bays took to Twitter to apologize for offending any viewers.
Click below to see photos and videos from both yellowface skits:
Will Yellowface Ever Go Away?
Not everyone was “up in arms” about the yellowface skits. Many tweets state how “ridiculous” the criticism is and that the content wasn’t that offensive. If producers and actors of popular shows are fine with performing this material, what could be the harm? The answer is not that simple. Even if the shows were meant to be funny and not in the least harmful, it is a direction shows should avoid going in altogether.
To be fair, not everyone knows about the history of yellowface, and HIMYM and SNL’s comedic sentiments were, in fact, funny to some. In any case, yellowface perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes about one group as portrayed by another. On a side note, while gains have been made for ethnic groups in the media, namely, with shows like The Mindy Project and Elementary casting Asians as lead characters, yellowface also reflects the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
Arguably, the most important takeaway from these incidents is this: whether or not they intended to, HIMYM and SNL have reminded us of the fact that this cultural sensitivity is not achieved overnight, and stereotypes takes a very long time to truly diminish. Moving forward, we can hope that yellowface does not ever happen again. Or, in the very least, hope that television networks, producers, actors, and viewers understand why yellowface is not so funny after all.
Photo Credit: NBC