Friday, August 3, 2012

‘Miss’-ing the Point

My last two blogposts about controversies over casting in the entertainment industry bring to mind Miss Saigon.  The furor that erupted in 1990 over casting a white actor in the Broadway musical’s Asian male lead remains, to me, the mother of all casting controversies.  It sticks in my mind because the press and public discourse at the time barely recognized Asian American performers as a group that did not have equal opportunities in the entertainment industry — and the reason they didn’t have those opportunities was because of their race.  For this post, I have reprinted a slightly modified version of an article that I wrote about the controversy in 2000, marking the dispute’s tenth anniversary:

Ten years have now passed since the tumultuous casting controversy over the musical Miss Saigon.  Back in August 1990, many Asian Americans exploded with anger when the powerful British theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Phantom of the Opera) cast a white British actor, Jonathan Pryce, as the Asian male lead, the Engineer, in the Broadway transplant of the original London production.  (Pryce had originated the role on London’s West End wearing eye prosthetics to make him look more Asian.)  The Asian American actors took their grievance to their union, Actors’ Equity, saying that they were not seriously considered for a rare Asian male lead on Broadway.  Equity agreed and denied the British actor approval to obtain an H-1B visa and play the role in the U.S., saying that Mackintosh hadn’t cast his net wide enough and that a white actor in a lead Asian role was “an affront to the Asian community.”  Mackintosh then indignantly claimed that Equity had denied Pryce a visa “on the basis of his race” and announced the cancellation the Broadway production.  (Mackintosh had the option of taking Equity’s decision to arbitration but chose not to.)  By then, Miss Saigon had already racked up a then-record $25 million in advance ticket sales, and New York City was hoping that the musical would bolster a financially lackluster season on Broadway.  Here is how I describe the events elsewhere:

The response by the press and the Broadway elites [to Mackintosh’s cancellation] was swift and severe: Equity was being “racist” against Pryce. Little mention was made of Asian American actors routinely denied the opportunities to star on the mainstream stage. All the punditocracy could see was a white man victimized by “reverse discrimination.” Equity eventually backed down. Pryce opened the Engineer on Broadway in 1991 sans prosthetics, and he was awarded the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, perhaps as an apology by the Broadway establishment.

Jonathan Pryce wearing eye prosthetics as the Engineer in
the 1989 London production of ‘Miss Saigon’.  Pryce discarded
the prosthetics when the musical moved to Broadway in 1991.

The Miss Saigon controversy erupted in an effort to raise awareness about the paucity of opportunities for Asian American performers.  A decade later, it may be said that Asian actors have a somewhat higher profile in the American entertainment industry, and producers appear to be more conscientious about casting Asian roles with ethnically Asian thespians.  Still, outside the Asian American community, the Miss Saigon dispute is widely remembered as a clear-cut case of “anti-white racism.”  Meanwhile, within very vocal parts of Asian America, it’s considered to be either a “war” that was won or a “battle” not worth fighting in the first place. 

To some, the musical’s most important issue isn’t its casting, but its stereotypical characters, for Miss Saigon is merely an uncritical re-telling of the opera Madame Butterfly with the setting transposed from early-1900s Japan to wartime Vietnam.  The musical’s title character, Kim, is a Vietnamese prostitute who falls in love with a (white) American G.I., bears his child, and kills herself when she realizes that she and her love can never be together.  

The history of the Miss Saigon controversy is covered in Helen Zia’s book Asian American Dreams (2000; no longer in print), and her excellent chapter on the contentious dispute deserves a wide readership.  In her book, Zia quotes actor B.D. Wong, one of the prime movers behind the grievance against Pryce’s casting, as saying,  “We may have lost the battle, but we won the war.”   Apparently, Wong is referring to the fact that after Pryce stepped down from playing the Engineer in 1992, the role has been filled only by ethnically Asian actors.

But in an article for (the now-defunct website) aOnlineOliver Wang writes: “Miss Saigon’s very plot — regardless of who is cast in the roles — is already problematic, forcing Asian characters into the role of either victim (Kim) or villain (The Engineer).  One wants to ask B.D. Wong, what war are we winning when our actors and actresses are only afforded these kind of roles to play?”  Implying that Asian American performers should avoid playing characters like those in Miss Saigon, Wang concludes by saying: “[N]ow that Asian America is in its third decade as a political entity, isn’t it time we stopped capitulating to simple economics? Asian American actors deserve to find work, but Asian Americans as a whole deserve to have cultural productions that are free of racism and stereotypes.”

However, this exchange raises two important questions: First, was the “war" over Miss Saigon, in fact, “won” by the Asian American community?  Second, how will not “capitulating to simple economics” guarantee “cultural productions that are free of racism and stereotypes”? 

Asian Americans protest ‘Miss Saigon’s’ racial stereotypes on the opening
night of the musical’s Broadway premiere in 1991.  Photo by Corky Lee.

Was Miss Saigon a victory for Asian Americans, as B.D. Wong says?  Although Pryce has been succeeded on Broadway exclusively by Asian actors, he was largely viewed by the press and the public in 1990 as the victim of “reverse discrimination.”  Coverage of the casting controversy seemed to assume that Asian American performers have just as many opportunities as white performers to open lead roles on Broadway.  Therefore, it was implied, any objection to a white actor in Miss Saigon’s Asian male lead was unreasonable.  (The Miss Saigon creative team called the Engineer “Eurasian,” I believe, solely to accommodate a white actor in an otherwise full-blooded Asian lead role, because nowhere in the musical’s original lyrics is any reference made to his European ancestry.)  However, the Engineer was, in actuality, Broadway's first Asian male lead (non-supporting) role in 15 years (since Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures in 1976).  And Asian American actors decried Pryce's casting not so much because he was white, but because no other actor was seriously considered for this rare Asian male lead on Broadway.  Still, as Zia succinctly summarizes: “The news story became focused on ‘less qualified’ Asian actors who were insisting that they should get the part held by a white male star, solely because they were Asian and he was white.”  Meanwhile, Mackintosh was portrayed “as a besieged white male who did not cave in to racist demands by Asians.” 

Editorials were overwhelmingly against Equity and the Asian American performers, and some opinion pieces used the issue to argue against affirmative action in general.  But their obloquy obscured more subtle aspects of the controversy.  “Remember this name: Cameron Mackintosh,” opined conservative columnist George F. Will.  “He is the British producer who, by standing up for artistic freedom and against today's trendy racism [i.e., affirmative action], told some American liberals that he will not be party to their traducing of this American...principle: It is wicked to allocate opportunity on the basis of race.”  Given this rhetoric, one wonders what role Miss Saigon played in other rollbacks against affirmative action, such as the passage of Proposition 209 in California in 1996. 

But it’s hard for a critical reader not to detect some hypocrisy in championing Mackintosh as the defender of a “colorblind” world.  To the contrary, the producer had indeed used race as a criterion in casting the role of Kim.  After all, only ethnically Asian actresses were considered eligible to audition for the part.  The musical's official coffee-table book, The Story of Miss Saigon, openly says that the show’s creative team “were determined to have as many real-life Asians in the cast as possible; Madame Butterfly-type make-up, though suitable enough for opera, would, they knew, be inadequate, especially for the female members of the cast.  Also, the physical demands made on performers in Miss Saigon required an authentic Asian litheness and grace.” 

The book, however, never says exactly what an “authentic Asian litheness and grace” is, or why Asian makeup was “inadequate” for the female performers but adequate enough for Pryce, who opened the role of the Engineer in London wearing prosthetics to give his eyes an epicanthic almond shape, a kind of make-up that critics call “yellowface.”  Yellowface is viewed very negatively among Asian Americans because the make-up has historically been used to allow white performers to play Asian roles, thus diminishing opportunities for ethnically Asian actors, while no commensurate tradition has allowed Asian actors in the West to play roles of another race.  The controversy’s coverage in the press obscured this important question: Why is it acceptable to have a racial criterion for casting an Asian female lead, but “racist” to have one for casting an Asian male lead?  Why the double standard?  No one in the press bothered to ask because they were too busy attacking the “ethnic separatism” of the Asian American community. 

‘Miss Saigon’ producer Cameron Mackintosh in a recent photo

In fact, Mackintosh and Equity’s official position is that Pryce “never wore ‘yellowface’” for his role as the Engineer — even though photos and films of the actor in the London production clearly show him in Asian make-up.  After the union reversed its decision barring Pryce, Mackintosh and Equity met behind closed doors to hammer out a “Statement of Mutual Understanding” regarding Miss Saigon’s casting.  Asian American representatives were actively excluded from the negotiations.  The resulting statement acknowledged that Pryce had indeed worn eye prosthetics, but it asserted that such make-up did not constitute “yellowface.”  To most Asian Americans, a white actor portraying an Asian is considered to be yellowface whether make-up is used or not.  But in this situation, it was Mackintosh who had the power to define just what the word “yellowface” meant. 

The ten years since Miss Saigon have marked a noticeably higher profile for Asian American actors, but one which could be higher still.  Subsequent years have seen the emergence of performers such as Lucy Liu, Russell Wong, Jason Scott Lee, Margaret Cho, the women of The Joy Luck Club, and a few other Asian American thespians to near-star status.  And in the wake of Miss Saigon, producers and casting directors seem more conscientious about casting ethnically Asian actors in Asian parts.  For example, one wonders if Disney would have made such a concerted effort to cast Asian voice actors — performers who aren't even seen by the audience — in most of the animated feature Mulan’s Chinese roles if it hadn't been for the casting controversy.  So, to a certain extent, something may very well have been gained from the imbroglio over a maudlin Madame Butterfly knock-off.  If the role of the Engineer needed to be sacrificed in order to ensure that Asian American actors could play characters who are less stereotypical, then the sacrifice was well worth making. 

But despite Miss Saigon’s high profile ten years ago, the U.S. entertainment industry has still not acknowledged any binding responsibility to cast minority roles with minority actors, who are usually underemployed compared to their white colleagues.  Whether a non-white character is played by a non-white actor is still seen as a decision solely at the creative team’s discretion.  In fact, in 1992, two years after the Miss Saigon dispute, a Hollywood production company cast a white actress as Frida Kahlo in a biopic of the revered Mexican painter.  When Latina actresses — deprived of yet another rare opportunity to play a Latina lead — protested the casting, the production was canceled, and the aggrieved Latinas were castigated in the industry press as “reverse racists.”  To many, the studio’s intransigence suggested a replay of Mackintosh’s tactics in Miss Saigon.  Clearly, if the industry can keep non-white actors out of “bad” non-white leads, like the Engineer, it can keep them out of good ones, like Frida Kahlo, as well.

Granted, as an art, the freedom for a producer to cast a role with the performer of his or her choice should be protected under the First Amendment, and no legislation should interfere with this freedom.  But as a business, the entertainment industry has the responsibility to make sure that arbitrary obstacles do not artificially restrict the advancement of an entire racial group.  Indeed, the question that the Miss Saigon controversy ought to have posed to the public is this: How do we reconcile free-speech rights with equal-opportunity rights when the two come into conflict?  Unfortunately, the press's focus on Mackintosh’s side of the dispute and the presumption of “reverse racism” against Pryce prevented the question from being asked in any meaningful way.     

For there to be a real “victory” in the casting dispute, the entertainment industry will need to stop using yellowface as a means to exclude Asian American talent from the spotlight.  In an article for A. Magazine in 1996 (which has since ceased publication), Hugh Son wrote of the Miss Saigon controversy: “To many, this public outcry served as yellowface's obituary — a declaration that the practice wasn't acceptable, period.”  But even as he wrote, Son acknowledged that the revived Kung Fu television series (Kung Fu: The Legend Continues), starring David Carradine, was perpetuating the exclusionary tradition. 

Alex Borstein as Ms. Swan on ‘Mad TV’

Today (2000), on the Fox comedy series Mad TV, non-Asian comedian Alex Borstein may occasionally be seen as the recurring character Ms. Swan, a nail-salon owner whose sketches all revolve around her inability to speak and understand English in a competent manner.  There are no Asian American actors in Mad TV’s regular cast.  To play Ms. Swan (originally named “Ms. Kwan” but mysteriously rechristened after her first sketch), Borstein dons a black wig, and while she doesn’t wear heavy prosthetics, she still makes up her eyes to look more almond-shaped.  Responding to complaints from Asian American viewers, Mad TV’s producer Dick Blasucci said of Borstein: “She's not in ‘yellowface.’  We do not do that.  They keep telling us we do, but we don’t.  She does not get into yellow makeup.”  Although Borstein is clearly altering her appearance to look more Asian, the meaning of “yellowface” is once again being decided by producers outside the Asian American community. 

Blasucci doesn't deny that the Ms. Swan character is supposed to be Asian, but he says: “[W]e’ve never come out and said it.”  This seems to be the lesson of Miss Saigon to entertainment producers: keep practicing yellowface, just don’t be up-front about it.  So, by these measures, it’s doubtful that the “war” over Miss Saigon was really won at all.  Reports of “yellowface’s obituary” are evidently exaggerated.  

However, some Asian American media critics — those who think that the “war” over Miss Saigon wasn't worth waging — would simply say that they wouldn't want to see an Asian American actress playing Ms. Swan any more than they’d want to see an Asian American actor playing the Engineer.  Both characters, to these critics, are mere stereotypes.  But this is missing the point.  As long as yellowface is passively accepted by American audiences as just another theatrical convention — while blackface, by contrast, has fallen into disrepute — few will question the racial politics of such an exclusionary practice.  And as long as white actors continue to play prominent Asian roles while Asian American actors are not extended commensurate opportunities to play leads of any race, the Asian presence in American culture will remain marginal.  More importantly, if white actors are unquestioningly accepted in Asian roles, this will only make stereotyping more pervasive: Asian American actors will not have the opportunity to bring their first-hand understanding of Asian culture to an Asian character. 

For all of these reasons, the barring of Asian American actors from playing Asian roles in the U.S. must be challenged whenever it arises, regardless of how “one-dimensional” a role might seem.  Also, the misrepresentation of equal-opportunity rights for Asian Americans as “anti-white racism” must always be exposed as the fraud that it is.  This isn’t to say that the issue of stereotyping is unimportant — quite the contrary — but the routine exclusion of Asian American actors from the spotlight won’t increase an audience's awareness of Asian people.  And Asian American indifference to the racial politics of casting won’t make Asian stereotypes go away. 

*          *          *

So, what do I think now, 12 years on?  Opportunities for Asian American actors have gotten markedly better, but they could be better still.  Thanks in part, I think, to the economic power of the Asian American demographic market, Asian faces are now much more conspicuous in American advertising — especially being shown as average, everyday U.S. citizens — and I think that this has done much to blunt the once-pervasive perception that Asian people are perpetual, unassimilable foreigners in America.  Similarly, Asian faces are now widespread on U.S. network television, with many (but not enough) primetime TV series including at least one Asian character among its ensemble — epitomized by Korean Canadian actress Sandra Oh’s scene-stealing supporting character in the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy (2005- ).  Oh, yes, and the character of Ms. Swan is no longer on the air.

However, most of these Asian parts are still supporting characters, or secondary co-starring roles at best.  We haven’t yet seen a breakthrough that would put an Asian American performer on par with his or her white colleagues.

One positive development has been the appearance of Asian action stars from abroad in Hollywood productions: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat, and Michelle Yeoh.  But this phenomenon was largely restricted to the action genre (especially kung-fu) and relatively short-lived.  Plus, the Hollywood productions starring these overseas celebrities were of varying quality.  For example, if one compares the excellence of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong movies to the usually execrable quality of most of his Hollywood starring vehicles, it appears that Tinseltown’s investment in the star was only halfhearted.  And the current fading of these personalities from the U.S. media spotlight confirms that their Hollywood careers were a mere flash in the pan.  It’s a bit sardonic that the single most enduring overseas action star of this generation — who owes his Hollywood career in part to the Asian influence on the U.S. entertainment industry — is the English actor Jason Statham.  But more important, from my perspective, is that the brief trend of Asian-national action stars in Hollywood didn’t enable the emergence of any Asian American stars.  

Lucy Liu

The one big exception to all of this is the career of New York-born Lucy Liu, who, since my article was written in 2000, became the unexpected breakout star of the TV dramedy Ally McBeal (1997-2002).  This enabled her to receive above-the-title co-starring roles in the Hollywood action movies Shanghai Noon (2000), Charlie’s Angeles (2000), and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002), as well as a number of supporting roles in high-profile films like Chicago (2002).  But when her 2003 Charlie’s Angeles sequel disappointed industry executives and her one solo starring vehicle for the big screen, Rise: Blood Hunter (2007), vanished as soon as it appeared, Hollywood seemed to lose interest in her.  She has since returned to TV but hasn’t yet repeated her initial success in that medium.

And a semi-exception to this are the careers of John Cho and Kal Penn with their Harold and Kumar trilogy.  But outside of this comedy series about two Asian American stoners — a series that only came about due to the persistence of its white creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg — both Cho and Penn have had trouble playing anything other than supporting roles in Hollywood.  Also, while the many independent Asian American films have facilitated the careers of some behind-the-camera talent, such as director Justin Lin, they haven’t done the same for their in-front-of-the-camera talent.  

But perhaps the Asian American presence is greatest in the new media of the twenty-first century.  Such phenomena as YouTube and computer-streaming video are redefining exactly what is meant by “entertainment industry” now that audiences can easily produce videos on their mobile phones and upload their images onto the Internet.  YouTube has allowed the emergence of such high-profile Asian American video creators as KevJumba, HappySlip, and Wong Fu Productions.  And this has considerably increased the visibility of Asian Americans in audiovisual media.

So, in short, the Asian American presence in the U.S. entertainment industry is a mixed bag.  But it’s currently much more conspicuous than it was back in 1990, during the Miss Saigon controversy.  And despite what appears to be resistance from the front offices, there’s every reason to hope that this presence will be even more conspicuous in another 12 years.  Perhaps we will finally see the emergence of the first A-list Asian American Hollywood star to stand alongside the Brad Pitts and the Sandra Bullocks.  But I believe that this will take longer to come about without public outcry whenever the industry — however unintentionally — snubs its Asian American talent and relegates them beneath a racial glass ceiling, as it did during Miss Saigon.

A Wong Fu Productions video on YouTube

Update, September 26, 2013: Lucy Liu is back on series television in the successful Sherlock Holmes update Elementary, which begins its second season tonight, with the actress as Dr. Joan Watson.  Is this the first time that Dr. Watson has been portrayed as a woman?  As far as I can tell, Liu is the first to play the doctor him-/herself as female.  However, a Watson figure opposite a character who mistakenly believes himself to be Holmes has been played by actresses twice: Joanne Woodward as Dr. Mildred Watson in the feature film They Might Be Giants (1971) and Jenny O’Hara also as Dr. Joan Watson in the TV movie The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective (1976).  Both characters were psychiatrists to the deluded men whose belief that they were Holmes (George C. Scott in the former and Larry Hagman in the latter) endowed them with superior sleuthing skills.  (Incidentally, movies that updated the character of Holmes from the Victorian and Edwardian eras to contemporary times had been the norm until the 1939 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.)  However, Liu’s performance appears to be the first time that Watson has been portrayed as Asian to a Western audience.  (But she is not the first ethnically Asian performer in the West to play the role in a mainstream production: a white-passing Ben Kingsley [born Krishna Bhanji] played Dr. Watson in the 1988 Holmes comedy Without a Clue.)  I don’t think that mainstream U.S. media creators would have cast such a character as ethnically Asian back in the days of Miss Saigon.