[Editor’s Note – Always the overachiever, Molly Regan is back with a bonus column this week.]
This past St. Patrick’s day goes down in history as my lamest ever. After a day spent yelling about the appropriation of Irish culture into offensive stereotypes and glorified alcoholism, I ended up getting fairly intoxicated myself and spending $100 on an Ancestry.com DNA kit. The next morning was a bit rough as I nursed a wicked hangover and came to terms with the fact that I had drunkenly spent a hundred dollars in the stupidest way possible. Now, it’s important to note a few things here – I got drunk because I am 25 and an idiot, not because my last name is Regan. And I bought the DNA kit for two primary reasons – so that I could have quantified evidence of my Irish heritage to shove in people’s faces next year and to explore the origin of my mysterious eyes.
Nobody in my family has eyes like mine. Though many of us have deep blue eyes, mine are almond-shaped and slant upwards. They stand out as a rather exotic feature on a face that is otherwise generically European. I’ve been called everything from “faerie-faced” to “cat-eyed” to “vaguely Asian” (which I always thought was kind of reaching). Mostly I just look like an elf in Lord of the Rings. Theories have ranged from the deeply upsetting – that my Polish ancestors were brutally raped by Mongol invaders – to the delightfully fanciful – that I am actually a changeling baby.
After eight weeks the results were in and they weren’t exactly shocking – a mix of varying degrees of European heritage with a 30 percent concentration of Irish DNA (which I fully plan on yelling about next March) and a smattering of trace DNA from Russia and Greece and a miniscule percentage of Pacific Islander that barely registered, ranking at less than one percent. As excited as I was to discover some secret information regarding my eyes, whether they be Mongolian or elven in origin, the evidence was in – I’m just a white girl with a kind of exotic feature.
And so is Emma Stone.
The difference here is that a casting director didn’t see my exotic trait as a pass to portray a different race. In Cameron Crowe’s new movie Aloha, Stone plays the character Allison Ng, a woman of Hawaiian, Chinese and Swedish descent. Much of her character’s identity is based around the fact that, though she is strongly connected to and proud of her Hawaiian and Asian heritage, she doesn’t exactly look like a native Hawaiian.
It’s an issue that is prevalent for a lot of mixed race individuals. Rashida Jones has spoken about not feeling “black enough” due to her lighter skin. When a red carpet interviewer commented on her looking as if she just returned from a tropical island because she was so tan, Jones famously responded, “Well, I’m ethnic.” Keanu Reeves, a man who actually has Hawaiian and Chinese heritage, does not immediately read as such. Even one of my closest friends faces this issue, being a woman of both Mexican and Irish heritage whose Mexican identity gets erased because of her light skin and red hair. Obviously this is a real issue that real people face, both actors and regular folk alike.
So why is whitewashing in Hollywood movies still such a consistent issue? Why is the instinct to cast exotic-looking white people rather than to cast racially-ambiguous people of color? Clearly, the actors are out there. And clearly, directors want to tell stories that revolve around people of color (at least, a few of them do). So why are we consistently half-assing it when it comes to casting?
It’s by no means Emma Stone’s fault. She’s a working actress who should take whatever intriguing jobs come her way. And she’s far from the first actor to portray a whitewashed character – Jim Sturgess in 21, Johnny Depp as Tonto, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily and Benedict Cumberbatch as Kahn in Star Trek – just to name a few. There seems to be this idea that if a person can kind of pass as exotic, then casting them in a role that is written for a person of color is acceptable. But why not do the actual work of a casting director and find someone who is suited for the role?
In fifteen minutes, I found actresses of mixed Asian heritage who present as racially ambiguous and could have portrayed a character who has an identity crisis because of their mixed heritage. Did you know that Vanessa Hudgens is of Filipino descent? Yeah, me neither – perhaps because she doesn’t look Asian, just like the character in Aloha. Crazy, right? Alia Shawkat is of Iraqi descent, and while it’s far from the central and southeast Asian ancestry that is prevalent in Hawaii, it’s a hell of a lot closer than Emma Scotch-Irish Stone. For fuck’s sake, if you wanted an Oscar nominated actress, go for Hailee Steinfeld, who is Jewish, English, Filipino and German.
Voila! There’s three great actresses within Emma stone’s age range who actually have Asian heritage, but present as racially ambiguous. All of them could have portrayed the character of Allison Ng. I mean, I realize I have all of the Internet at my fingertips, but I imagine Cameron Crowe has some clout when it comes to casting calls. It seems to me that if the desire were there to find an actress with Asian heritage in order to portray the character authentically, well, they could’ve easily done it.
But the desire is rarely there. Yeah, there’s Lucy Liu, Mindy Kaling and John Cho. And thankfully there are shows like Fresh Off the Boat gaining popularity. But by and large, stories of people of color aren’t there and when they are, they are either relegated to supporting roles or stereotypes. When the opportunity to feature a person of color in a main role does present itself, time after time we see a white person cast in the role – whether or not their race is relevant to the plot line.
Look, Emma Stone is a wonderful actress who just took an opportunity, as any savvy actress would. It’s not her fault that a casting director saw a white girl with slanted eyes and thought “Thank god! She looks just vaguely Asian enough for the role!” I just hope we come to a day soon where we stop having to read apologetic letters from directors for their racially fucked up casting. Maybe they’ll just take the extra step and cast correctly in the first place.
It’s cool that some white girls like myself and Emma Stone have faerie faces and cat eyes, but that does not an Asian make.
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.