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


Donna F.
Donna F5 years ago

ty. great comments

judith sanders
judith sanders5 years ago

I second Christine K's comments. SNL was not making fun of a race of people, it's was making fun of media stereotypes which are already fairly silly. For pity's sake, don't ever go to an anime convention, or your head will explode.

BTW, I've seen enough Asian portrayals of Americans and Europeans while travelling overseas to know that they can be pretty heavy-handed and derogatory with their portrayals, too. And then there's the ganguro subculture- go ahead, do am image search!

Susan W.
Susan White5 years ago

I should have clarified which "Rice, Rice Baby" I was talking about. I didn't know Weird Al had one, or that there were so many on Youtube. The one I meant is by slantyeyedmama which is a music group consisting of comedian Kate Rigg and violinist Lyris Hung. They sing about the stereotypes they face.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L5 years ago

I have never watch SNL, when I have seen parts it is because of ads or news about something stupid they have done; nor have I ever watch HIMYM. I find both shows rude, crude and not funny at all. Would like to see them both removed from the air and something more intelligent in their place.

Berny p.
berny p5 years ago

stop with the over sensitive I am offended by everything bs. .......seriously

Susan T.
Susan T5 years ago

stop with the over sensitive I am offended by everything bs. seriously

Anne Moran
Anne M5 years ago

It's a 'parody' of their culture...

SNL has been doing comedy about everything and everyone, since it started in the 70s....

Lighten up, and enjoy the show, or if it's too much for you, change the channel.....

Christine K.
Christine K5 years ago

Unlike some people commenting, I DID see both questionable shows. They're making fun of the media we get from Asia, not Asians themselves.

HIMYM was making fun of kung-fu flicks, and the SNL skit was making fun of kung-fu flicks and Iron Chef's over-the-top host. These things have been part of OUR media culture, too, for the last 40 years (Iron Chef for less, obviously, but still for at least a decade by now), and the skit and episode were made by people who grew up watching them, and still watch them when new ones come out, because they love them. Kung fu flicks and Iron Chef's host are outrageous to the point of silliness at times. We should be able to make fun of THAT at least.

Dianne Turner
Dianne Turner5 years ago

I detest the show How I Met Your Mother and now I know why? When do we learn to all accept each other merely for who we are-HUMANS? Sometimes I wish color didn't exist and that would help solve a lot of racial issues! My parents taught me WE ALL HAVE RED BLOOD, skin is only the outer shell! LOVE MAKES A PERSON'S SKIN COLOR IRRELEVANT.