Where’s Wang: Ed Skrein, Daniel Dae Kim, Chloé Bennet and the Hellboy Whitewashing Debate

Hellboy has become an outstanding example of whitewashing but also the slow progress Hollywood (or at least some of its actors) are making in realising that casting white people to play minority roles is really not cool.

The discussion around whitewashing of particularly Asian male characters has finally been gathering momentum (and with our Where’s Wang column we do hope to be contributing at least a little bit to that discussion). Probably one of the most horrific examples of casting white actors to play Asian roles is the character of I. Y. Yunioshi portrayed by Mickey Rooney in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That being said, the stomach-turning racism that was acceptable on screens and in real life at the time, makes me think few Asian actors would have been proud to play such a role anyway. Yet, even today, in our “much more enlightened” era (notice the sarcasm), it is still very common for Asian men to be played by white actors, including Cloud Atlas’ Brit Jim Sturgess (what was that?!) in 2012, and last year’s Dr. Strange, where they replaced an Asian comic book character with Tilda Swinton. I mean, yes, I am absolutely in favour of gender-blind casting – believe me I am euphoric about our new Dr. Who – but it feels just a little bit like the producers thought: “Well, they get upset if we cast a white male, so let’s cast a white female, everyone’s so into this feminism thing anyway right now, and at least they’re still white.”

WWAM AMWF media review
Where’s Wang explores media through a WWAM lens

The both depressing and hilarious argument by film producers is they want to bill big actors’ names in order to sell more movie tickets, and there simply aren’t any big Asian actors out there. Yes, I do believe that a big part of the racism is financially driven – bigger actor, more money – but this completely fails to take into account that the system is rigged to never allow Asians (males even more so) to become lead actors in the first place. See the discussion around Scarlett Johansson and Ghost in the Shell:

“The industry’s usual response it that there are simply no Asian-American actors with the kind of marquee value needed to promote a major release. While the internet offered up the names of several Asian or Asian-American actresses who could credibly portray Ghost in the Shell’s Major Motoko Kusanagi, none of them come close to Johansson in terms of star wattage.”

So, that really isn’t a good enough reason at all – at least for those people who would like to see a fairer, more colourful world with representation. For little money-hungry leeches, sure, they’ll take it any time of day.

The Ed Skrein Situation

The positive aspect of this whole situation is that people are really starting to speak out about this, and Hellboy’s Major Ben Daimio has become a signifier for the long-awaited change. Ed Skrein turned out to be an impressive ally to the cause, as he was cast to play the Asian American Major but in the end decided to turn down the role and a probably handsome pay check as once again criticism emerged around the choice of actor. He announced in August on Twitter he was stepping down to bring positive change to Hollywood. Whether his motivation was genuine or more inspired by the potential PR disaster, it is a step in the right direction.

The Chloé Bennet/Wang Situation

In the wake of his announcement, there was another minor kerfuffle as Chloé Bennet, a half-Chinese actress who has made a name for herself playing Daisy Johnson/Skye in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” stepped in to express appreciation for Ed’s move only to be slammed by the angry internet for daring to open her mouth on this topic. The reason? Bennet changed her surname from Wang, and as some say thereby betrayed her heritage. Her reasoning was the fact that the surname was holding her back from building an acting career, as casting agents expected an Asian face and were confused into which box to stuff Bennet once she turned up. She couldn’t’ play the lead role as she wasn’t white enough, but she couldn’t play the cutesy best Asian friend either. To those accusing her of betraying her heritage, she responded by saying she speaks fluent Chinese, has lived in China, absolutely loves her culture, and it was racist Hollywood that forced her to do this. Your view on this will probably vary depending on whether you believe that a name is proof of your cultural heritage or whether by playing the system and now speaking out about it, she can change things for later generations. It’s the principle, idealistic and fiercely patriotic versus the pragmatic in the end.

The Daniel Dae Kim Resolution

The good news is we have finally seen the Hellboy question come to a close as absolute dream boy Daniel Dae Kim, who many of us know either from Lost or the Hawaii 5-0 reboot, was announced as the new choice for the Major. Kim, who we at WWAM Bam! still want to see as Asian James Bond, was embroiled in his own little Hollywood racism narrative, as he and his female Asian colleague reportedly quit 5-0 due to the fact that they were being paid much less than their white counterparts. The attempted justification? They were “mere supporting actors”, nothing to do with their skin colour. Sure, sure.

But dreamy Daniel has certainly bounced back with this new role, and we at WWAM BAM! for one cannot wait to watch him making a Major difference.

“For the most part, what we see of Asian male sexuality is the assertion of a stronger Western virility at the expense of Asian masculinity. In short, the imagery takes Asian men lightly, as less-serious competitors for women, and less-competent fighters.” Sheridan Prasso, The Asian Mystique

The “Where’s Wang” tag allows us at WWAM BAM! to review how present this bias is within sitcoms and other tv shows having come out of the Hollywood machine (and other media) over the past few years, and review any media through an AMWF lens. 

Laura Nutchey-Feng

Laura Nutchey-Feng has been living in China for the past four years. Her love affair with the language and country started in 2006 and she met her future husband, a hunky Inner Mongolian, 5 years later. She blogs about her crazy wedding experience at Our Chinese Wedding.

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