As you may know, Emma Stone plays a character named “Allison Ng” in the new Cameron Crowe movie Aloha. Her character, who’s supposed to be a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese, is meaningfully non-white within the framework of the story; according to Entertainment Weekly, she’s a “Hula dancing expert with a functional knowledge of Hawaiian folk guitar who rhapsodizes about the islander spiritual energy mana when she isn’t attempting to save the archipelago from a creeping military-industrial complex.”
Isn’t it so cool when a former white savior character gets to show her range by being a mystically exotic non-white savior character too?
Before we get any further, let’s recap some facts about Hawaii, natively known as Hawai’i:
- It’s an archipelago
- settled by Polynesians and other Pacific Islanders
- whose destruction at the hands of white people began in the late eighteenth century, when Captain Cook’s crew decimated the native population with tuberculosis and STDs
- whose native monarchy was later overthrown at gunpoint by the British in 1843
- which was later illegally annexed by the United States with the help of the economically oppressive white minority
- which remains U.S. territory despite the fact that Bill Clinton signed a resolution in 1993 “apologizing” to the Native Hawaiians for the “deprivation of their rights to self-determination”
- in which white people remain a decided minority at around 25 percent.
Now, let’s recap some facts about Aloha, which was also originally called Hawaii:
- It’s a movie
- directed by a white man
- about Hawaii
- called Aloha
- starring a 100 percent white cast
- in which one of these white cast members plays a woman named “Allison Ng.”
As it happens, the embarrassing contrast between these two lists did not trigger any meaningful change during the long process of the movie’s making. For example, Amy Pascal’s emails on the subject of Aloha included cogent messages such as “I LIKSE HAWAII THE BEST ACTUALLY BETTER THAN ALOHA” and “TOOMANY BONES IN THIS MOVIE” and “if he is alive what is the point of the funeral”—but none about known Asian, Emma Stone.
In other words, many, many people must have observed this casting without raising meaningful issue about it—a group that includes Emma Stone, Emma Stone’s close friends, and the executives who presumably were all, “Emma Stone for Allison Ng? Perfect. Very tight. Subversive, and I just love that the character’s Asian.”
Like every case of big-budget whitewashing, the problem is not so much what this means in the specific instance: if all non-white people in America are dead accustomed to identifying with white characters and inhabiting white narratives, surely (kill me) it is technically allowable to admit the possibility of identification going the other way around. I also will not admit visual plausibility as a viable issue: American history is a history of wildly surprising race-passing, and people of many races and racial combinations are “believable” as any number of the same.
The problem, more, may be visible in the aggregate: the number of people who thought it was fine to make an all-white movie called ~*~ Aloha ~*~ about the only state with an Asian majority population; the fact that—as Fusion pointed out—Asian characters comprise a highly stereotypical 6.6 percent of characters on network TV, despite many of those shows being set in New York City, which is 12 percent Asian, or California, whose percentage bumps up to 15.
But I think the real problem, for me, is that I’m finding this super fucking boring instead of upsetting. The problem for me is I’m that used to it. Asian erasure is so normalized (and much worse, codified in patterns of professional advancement) that I can’t even get my blood up about the idiocy that allowed these castings: Emma Stone as Allison Ng, but also Josh Hartnett as an Inuit sheriff, Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia, Carey Mulligan as the “Latina” love interest in Drive, Scarlett Johannson as the Asian lead of Ghost in the Shell—all the while audiences happily flip their shit about, say, Cinna and Rue in the Hunger Games being black.
The real problem is that I long ago figured out I’d just have to rustle up my own disproportionately high self-confidence without ever seeing people who look “like me” onscreen—because it was the only option, and continues to be.
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Image via Sony