[Kagami Explains] YellowFace: How Is This Still a Thing?

In the past year, the cosplay netizens have been up in arms about BlackFacing among their peers. At least once a month, there would be some controversy that shows up on my feed. While the topic of changing one skintone has been mention in many an opinion editorial and a Facebook post shares, one related topic passes scrutiny – YellowFacing. YellowFacing is the practice of changing appearance and attitude to reflect eastern caricatures from a Western perspective. However, while BlackFace is extremely frowned upon and banned from discussion on Facebook forms in the past year or so, the topic of YellowFacing does not come up often or face as much scrutiny as BlackFace.

YellowFacing was most notably utilized in early Hollywood cinema. The first instance I’ve seen of this was in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Mickey Rooney’s character. Mickey Rooney played Holly’s obnoxious Japanese neighbor complete with the buck teeth, facial prosthetics, and stereotypical accent. While my roommates in college were all about the Holly Golightly life (as much as a state college student could afford), I really could not get passed through the movie my (basically white) roommates worshiped.

While the practice of YellowFacing has slowed down considerably, it was still present in comedy. MadTV’s Alex Borstein played a character by the name of Miss Swan, a old eastern Asian woman running a nail salon. She speaks broken English in a stereotypical accent. She only has a few phrases in English. Additionally, the white Alex Borstein changes her outward appearance to look more Asian. While Miss Swan was quoted many a time by friends and colleagues during it’s time, MadTV eventually retired Miss Swan. I found Miss Swan to be off putting back then, but as a 10 year old staying up late, I couldn’t articulate why. MadTV would replace the Miss Swan character with Bobby Lee’s Average Asian Guy and fake Korean drama acts. Hence, I saw it as a way for MadTV to let an Asian American comedian take control and be the subject of the humor.

Just yesterday, a well known cosplayer who has been posting cosplay positivity messages, posted video of herself cosplaying as Miss Swan singing “Belle” in Miss Swan fashion. While I have respected this cosplayer for wanting to spread a message, it was disappointing that a non-Asian person was practicing YellowFacing in their cosplay. Miss Swan should have been a character that should have stayed in it’s time and should not be resurrected in the 2010’s. It also disheartening that venues and cosplay events allow this cosplayer to use this act for their show.

Even in diverse states like California, event organizers cashing in on cosplay / geek culture will perpetuate outdated stereotypes.

Asian Americans are typically seen as the “model minority.” In other words, when controversy like this arises, we keep our head down and stay silent. I’ve been involved in the anime cosplay scene for 15+ years. Many who cosplay as anime characters of Japanese descent do not go as far as utilizing prosthetics and changing attitudes to reflect stereotypes of eastern Asians. Non-Japanese fans of anime have also respectfully worn Japanese traditional outfits to local matsuri’s and community events. They are worn to be a part of the celebration and not to mock it. While the anime side of cosplay does have some issues with looking at Japanese culture from a narrow pop culture lens, from personal experience, the anime cosplay community has done a decent job frowning upon what is offensive to eastern Asian culture.

Otakon 2015. Love Live cosplayers rockin’ kimono’s at the LLSIF meet up.

My (Latina American) colleague rockin’ a kimono at Fanime. She always tells the story about how Giles Poitras had to kindly correct her on wearing a kimono properly.

In short, if BlackFace is wrong, so is YellowFace. I would encourage cosplayers who love all sorts of media to be respectful of cultures and recognize what stereotypes should stay in the past. Get educated. While the cosplayer mentioned here may or may not have known what they were doing is wrong, I want to give them a benefit of a doubt considering they have gone on record to promote cosplay positivity, however, the message becomes awry when stereotypes of eastern Asians are perpetuated, particularly from the salon industry that has raised health concerns among Asian American employees. I certainly hope we can be better people and discourage this type of behavior all together – as fans and as event organizers. It’s 2017.

Eri Kagami, EoC

scarlet.rhapsody @ ymail.com

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