Margaret Cho has made a name for herself in Hollywood by being funny. But the comedian and actress doesn't see anything funny about the injustice of whitewashing in movie casting. Specifically, Cho is calling out the industry for marginalizing Asians and Asian-Americans by casting white actors to play Asian characters. The issue, seldom talked about in the past, has been gaining attention recently due to two high-profile instances of Asian characters being reimagined as white. Ghost in the Shell, a manga adaptation due out in 2017, stars Scarlett Johansson as Japanese heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi. The general consensus? A dye job and an angular haircut do not a Japanese woman make. And in November, we'll see Tilda Swinton play a Tibetan mystic called the Ancient One in the Doctor Strange movie. This weekend, actor George Takei called bullshit on the studio's excuse, which essentially blamed inter-Asian politics and Chinese audiences. "So let me get this straight. You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales…in Asia? This backpedaling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots," he wrote. "They cast Tilda because they believe white audiences want to see white faces."
On Tuesday, Cho capitalized on this indignation by launching a much-needed conversation about the issue on Twitter — using the hashtag #whitewashedOUT — in concert with Ellen Oh and Keith Chow, fellow advocates for accurate representations of Asian-Americans in the media. As someone with decades in the business, Cho is able to rhapsodize about her firsthand encounters with the problem in a barrage of posts. She didn't hold back on sharing her polarizing opinions ("Those who say racism doesn't exist anymore are the biggest perpetuators of it"), and she did the possibly more important work of engaging Asian-Americans who feel the personal and cultural impacts of whitewashing on the big screen.
The conversation Cho generated brought out candid messages from a number of users, who shared their experiences facing racism and struggling with their own identities. "#WhitewashedOUT is making me rethink my internalized racism and self-hatred for being Asian. TY all for having this important discussion," tweeted one follower. "In high school when people asked who I wanted to play me in my life story, I only ever had 2 choices: Ming Na or Lucy Liu. #whitewashedOUT" shared another. "#whitewashedOUT means nobody taking our voices seriously. means it is okay to say racist shit to us because who cares? It's just Asians," said another.
It's heartening to see Cho's initiative getting so much traction, along with Takei's. But Hollywood — and our culture at large — still has a lot of work to do, as illustrated by this observation. "There are white people who are very disturbed that @margaretcho wants adequate representation of Asian women in film." Very disturbing, indeed.