"Yellowface" is funny, according to a bevy of non-east Asians

No matter the degree, racism hurts, regresses and divides, but it needn't conquer.

There is a seminal scene in the 1993 movie Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, where the title character sits stone-faced in a cinema while his date and the audience laugh enthusiastically at a yellowfaced Mickey Rooney who plays a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's. After realising the severity of this transgression, Lee's date suggests they hightail it out of there. 2013 was the 40th anniversary of Bruce Lee's death, the film was released 20 years ago, and not two weeks ago I experienced a mirror of the exact situation in an Edinburgh Fringe play by Yale graduates.

The play, Beijing Cake, opens with two Caucasian and two African-American actors dressed in traditional Chinese garb, doing what can best be described as a 'chinky-chonky' dance. The black actors spoke in broken English as well as a made up 'Chinese' language. Then there was the ghost of tyrant Mao Zedong, responsible for the deaths of 50 million Chinese, portrayed as a friendly paternal figure. When the black actor (Gabriel Christian) threw money towards white American (Sarah Rosen) to buy her baby, myself and two other British East Asian actresses Julie Cheung-Inhin and Siu-see Hung, left the theatre.

“Would it be acceptable to call it 'Lagos Cake' and have people black up and talk made up 'African'?” asks London-based actor Daniel York. “I don't think so.” York spearheaded the protest against the Royal Shakespeare Company's predominantly white casting of Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao in late 2012. As a result, Equity, Arts Council and SOLT/TMA are now working to increase opportunities for East Asian artists. It's long overdue considering the acceptability of blackface ended in America in the 1960s with the civil rights movement, with a last major appearance in primetime TV in the UK in 1981.

Perhaps worse than the play itself and its failure at being an absurd satire – which requires relevancy – are the reactions to our reaction. The producer of the play dismissed our concerns, stating that white actors should be able to play any colour role as the industry would otherwise be very limiting. Playwright Rachel Kauder Nalebuff explained that she did not want to pinpoint China particularly, hence the made up language. She wanted audiences to ruminate on stereotypes in general. Um. The play is called Beijing Cake, the actors wear Chinese costumes and Mao Zedong is on the poster. The play also skewers Americans, but given Kauder Nalebuff's background, this is not so off-piste.

Complaints were filed with the Fringe Society and the venue The SpaceUK. In response, the show added a disclaimer and a post-show Q & A to explain the context of the piece. Fringe Society venue and companies officer Kevin Kimber responded with a padded and not unexpected statement: the Fringe Society does not have jurisdiction over the content of shows and is unable to modify or otherwise influence the work of companies participating in the Fringe.

I spoke to Charles Pamment at The SpaceUK to alert him of our offense and that media had been contacted (full-disclosure, my own play, a contemporary Chinese fairy tale, was also hosted at The SpaceUK). He summarily tried to ignore, patronise, silence, and when I wrote this blog post about the situation  that caused a Twitter storm amongst British East Asian artists, urged me to edit my “Twitter page accordingly.” I checked my Twitter for defamatory statements. None. My editor and I re-read the blog post for instances of unfair or irresponsible reporting. Covered. Then came the following text message: I just have no idea why you want to cause so much upset Anna. We are simply trying to look after shows. This is when the irony of the situation hit me. My name is not Anna. But there is a London writer, performer and broadcaster who had written a piece based on our experience.

Her name is Anna Chen.

I guess we do all look the same after all.

The exploitation of any culture by those outside it is not new. I get it. Look no further than cultural imperialism to see the roots of appropriation's current fixture in modern commerce. The nuances are found in the approach. Is a culture glorified or villified? Has it been thoroughly researched or glossed over? Is the representation or commentary skillfully done or just plain derogatory? One moment it's the RSC, next time it's a Fringe production, then a seemingly benign joke from a friend. No matter the degree, racism hurts, regresses and divides, but it needn't conquer. It mustn't continue to be glorified in culture and the arts. Another culture shouldn't be exploited and co-opted by those outside the culture they seek to represent. This is just my opinion, but I think Bruce Lee would agree.

Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Anh Chu is a TV editor/producer, journalist, food critic and communications specialist, turned actress and playwright. Her plays Something There That’s Missing, Bonk! (co-writer) premiered at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She has written sustainability and lifestyle pieces for Canada’s The Globe & Mail, Avenue magazine, Metro, and Writers of Colour. Tweet her @AnhChuWriter.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA