Benedict Cumberbatch, Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson (Paramount Pictures/Columbia Pictures/AP/Jordan Strauss)
Benedict Cumberbatch, Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson (Paramount Pictures/Columbia Pictures/AP/Jordan Strauss)

Like Cumberbatch as Khan and ScarJo in “Ghost in the Shell,” Emma Stone isn’t Asian, just playing one on film

(Salon) – During the ‘00s – the aughts — it used to be that blockbuster summer films popped an Asian guy into its cast (“we ought to have an Asian guy”) and made sure he was dead before the final credits. (“We ought to have a Meaningful Death here. Let’s kill him off!”) I called this guy the Expendable Asian Crewmember, in reference to the security officer in the ‘60s television version of “Star Trek,” the red-shirted extra fans referred to as the “Expendable Crewmember” because he was sure to get phasered into oblivion after beaming down onto the hostile planet. Now that we’re halfway through the teen years of our 21st century, Hollywood has developed a kinder, gentler way of making sure that only white heroes are left standing by the end: it tells you the character is Asian, but casts a blindingly white actor to play him/her/them.

Apparently, when film producers are presented with the problem of casting a bankable Asian male, the first actor that springs to mind is Benedict Cumberbatch. When he is unavailable, the next best option is … Tilda Swinton? A woman who did a very good job playing an archangel named Gabriel and even better job playing a vampire  is now in talks to play a male Tibetan mystic to round out her “androgynous immortal” portfolio.

This latest batch of white actors playing Asian characters is different from the (formerly heinous, insultingly clumsy) attempts at yellowface, blackface, and redface that used to plague Hollywood, because no attempt has been made to change the appearance of their features. The history of the most racist yellowface castings is well-trodden ground: Mickey Rooney as a Japanese neighbor, Marlon Brando as a Japanese interpreter, John Wayne as Genghis Khan — that kind of obvious yellowface makes Millennial eyeballs burn from the cinematic Sriracha being squirted into them. Nowadays, pancake makeup and cheap prosthetics are far too crude. Today’s sophisticated viewers are postmodern, and the burn is far more subtle. Polite people are not supposed to notice that the radiant white actor playing a person of color is, in fact, not a person of color. And if you do notice? Well, making a big deal out that actor’s blonde whiteness means you’re bigot. (Heck, you might even be a thug.) If Tilda tells you earnestly that she is playing an Asian male and you respond in confusion, “You don’t look Tibetan,” then you’re the troll unable to accept all forms of identity, race and gender included, as a cri de coeur of self-determination.


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