In 2001, Sarah Silverman told a joke on Late Night With Conan O'Brien that incurred the wrath of Asian American activists and, in a perverse way, also became her breakout moment. The bit involved trying to get out of jury duty, with Silverman recounting a friend's suggestion that she write something "really inappropriate" on the form — something like "I hate chinks." But, Silverman said, she didn't want to cast herself in such an ugly light, so she opted to instead write "I love chinks. Who doesn't?"
The network that aired the show, NBC, apologized for the slur a few days later. But Silverman refused to, opting instead to fight it out with Guy Aoki, the cofounder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, on Politically Incorrect. The comedian, who in more recent years has shifted her perspective on — and moved away from — the sort of meta-bigot comedy that marked her rise, insisted at the time that Aoki was a humorless scold who'd missed the point: "It’s not a racist joke," she said on Politically Incorrect, "it’s a joke about racism."
She never seemed to hear Aoki's own point that a slur is still a slur, and that the reason Silverman settled on the one she did was because it was seen as permissible and more acceptable as the stuff of humor. Looking back at this particular sorry-not-sorry moment, and how little the conversation has progressed since, what really rankles is not just the implication that racism against Asians is less serious and less real. It's the familiar proprietary ease of it all, the sense that it could be gotten away with because Asianness is colonizable enough as an identity that anyone can gain in-group joke privileges. Silverman didn't intend her chipper punchline (“Who doesn’t?”) to also work as an orientalist slogan, but it did, and still does — a handy summation of the fact that a lot of anti-Asian racism gets presented through a lens of warped, acquisitive affection, and then denied or defended on the basis of it.
When Edward Said wrote the book Orientalism in 1978, he focused on the long arc of Europe's paternalistic conceptions of the Middle East. The term has since been expanded in scope into a broadly useful one for the West's selective seeing of the East — especially, for the purposes of this piece of writing, East Asia — with many sins included under its umbrella: exotification, condescension, appropriation, othering, and general treatment of Asianness as a cultural buffet from which people feel welcome to help themselves to whatever they're inclined to take and reject what they aren't interested in.
Orientalism surfaces in the New Age commodification of Eastern spirituality, in the predilection to glom separate cultures into a blurry whole, in the freedom that still seems to be felt in making open declarations about having a fetish for Asian women or dismissing the sexuality of Asian men. And orientalism shows up onscreen — in films, on television, in music videos — with so much more regularity than good faith representations do that pushing back against it has been a steady drumbeat in Asian American activism for decades now. It's a thread that runs through the history of American movies, especially, from the early studio days when trailblazing star Anna May Wong’s career was curtailed by stereotypes up through the present, when the likes of Wes Anderson, Jared Leto, Anna Wintour, and Scarlett Johansson are still providing plenty to fight about.
On one level, the fact that this regular stream of distorted images persists speaks to how unaware creators seem to be about what they're doing, but on another, it shows how little they seem to care. It's not news that orientalism exists, but it still seems like news to many that there's anything wrong with it, or that there is, indeed, a difference between, say, objectifying homage and legitimate cultural exchange. Which might be why it's been so hard to push back.
When racism — in the minds of many — still means open hatred, the idea that it can also come couched in the guise of fandom or fondness is a reality people really don't want to acknowledge. Orientalism is ultimately about power, which may be why it has taken the rise of international markets, and of China in particular, to force Hollywood to try to see the continent through something other than a scrim of Western assumptions.
The most telling thing about the conversations that have followed the release of Wes Anderson's latest film, Isle of Dogs — a movie that, whatever you think of it, is inarguably about Western assumptions about Japan — is the gap between the thoughtful and measured criticism (much of it from Asian American writers) and the outraged, outsized response to that criticism online. It's as if the very implication of racial insensitivity is worse than any offense itself could ever be. These commenters were an odd alliance of Anderson devotees and the usual internet complainers who love to call out "identity politics" and "snowflakes," but most, judging from their Twitter avatars, were white men or sentient anime characters.
But Anderson himself, a filmmaker who has always been clumsy with anything to do with race, has functionally described his own feature as orientalist. At the film’s debut at the Berlin Film Festival in February, he explained that he and his regular collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman had wanted to make a movie about a pack of dogs, and also "something in Japan," and the two ideas were then just combined: "The story could've taken place anywhere, but it came together when we realized it should take place in a fantasy version of Japan."
And it does, in a near-future Japan that's also decidedly analog, and home to a dual-species adventure that takes some of its cues from the work of Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki. Most of the acting talent is from the US — the dogs, voiced by the likes of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, and Scarlett Johansson, speak English, while the humans speak Japanese, which frequently goes untranslated. Most of Anderson's movies take place in overtly imaginary renditions of actual places, from the outsider's dream of New York (as drawn from J.D. Salinger and back issues of the New Yorker) in The Royal Tenenbaums to the invented Eastern Europe republic of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a Stefan Zweig–inspired wonderland where real historical horrors lurk behind whimsical imagery. In that sense, the similarly fictional city of Megasaki in Isle of Dogs, along with its adjoining trash- and canine-dump island, is no different.
What is different is the real-world cultural context: the tradition of Western othering of Japan that Anderson seems blithely indifferent toward, even as he participates in it. Because it's stop-motion, the film uses scaled-down puppets to represent its characters onscreen, but it also diminishes them in more figurative ways, with a gaze that's detached and dispassionate when it comes to most of the humans, aside from 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) and foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig). Tracy, who leads the resistance against Megasaki's oppressive anti-dog leadership, is the human who gets the bulk of the English-language lines and, with them, the big shows of emotion. She's the American girl brave enough to take initiative when no native Japanese resident dares — a regrettable foil for stereotypes about Asian compliance.
There's no overt malicious intent to Isle of Dogs' cultural tourism, but it's marked by a hodgepodge of references that an American like Anderson might cough up if pressed to free associate about Japan — taiko drummers, anime, Hokusai, sumo, kabuki, haiku, cherry blossoms, and a mushroom cloud (!). There's a plot development in which poisoned wasabi is hidden away in sushi, and a scientist character named Yoko-ono, who is voiced by Yoko Ono. This all has more to do with the (no doubt intricately designed and decorated) insides of Anderson's brain than it does any actual place. It’s Japan purely as an aesthetic — and another piece of art that treats the East not as a living, breathing half of the planet but as a mirror for the Western imagination.
In the wake of Isle of Dogs' opening weekend, there were multiple headlines wondering whether the film was an act of appropriation or homage. But the question is rhetorical — the two aren't mutually exclusive, and the former is not automatically off the table just because the creator’s intent was the latter. More importantly, it's possible for Isle of Dogs to be both a charming story about humanity's rapport with canines (try saying the title out loud) and an act of erasure; it can showcase both what its director has traditionally done well and how he's opted to lean directly into one of his most evident blind spots.
The online reaction to criticism of the film has been filled with blind spots, too, with people unfairly painting the discussion as a call for cultural purity, insisting that "actual Asians" aren't bothered by any of this, and brandishing cowriter Kunichi Nomura — whom Anderson brought on to advise on cultural specifics as well as provide the voice of his villain — as some kind of human shield against this entire topic. In the space between these two sides of the conversation, you can see how threatening some people find the suggestion that their intent might not matter as much as the reaction of those seeing themselves onscreen. It's not the idea of creating a fantasy Japan that's Anderson's problem — it's the underlying sense that he wouldn't be able to conceive of a real one.
Of course, it's very possible for a film to be imbued with fantasy even when it attempts to put a real version of Japan onscreen. The new period drama The Outsider, in which Jared Leto plays an American GI who joins the yakuza in post–World War II Japan, received less attention than Isle of Dogs when it premiered on Netflix earlier in March, but is even more entrenched in the idea of the ownable East. Over years in development, The Outsider tumbled from a potential prestige project — with a Black-Listed script, a perch at Warner Bros., and Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy bandied around as possible stars — to streaming's equivalent of direct-to-video. You could interpret that as Hollywood reluctantly waking up to what, exactly, they would be peddling. But that didn't stop the movie from getting made, with slick production values and an Oscar-winning star.
The relative lack of coverage of The Outsider is partially a function of it being a Netflix original, but it also hints at exhaustion that films like this still get made without any deeper consideration. The premise is one that stretches from Lawrence of Arabia to Avatar: A white man gets dropped into a community alien to him, becomes a part of it, then becomes a better embodiment of the culture than those born into it. It's an assertion of supremacy The Outsider makes no move to subvert or diverge from as it fits the yakuza genre around its foreign expat, who's welcomed into an Osaka clan after coming to the aid of a high-ranking member (played by Tadanobu Asano) while they're both behind bars. Everything else goes pretty much exactly as you'd guess, especially if you've seen and remember the beats of The Last Samurai, right up to an ending that affirms Nick as a truer manifestation of yakuza honor than the resentful rival who's been a lifelong part of the family.
Projects like The Outsider tend to get labeled as acts of whitewashing, but the term doesn't quite fit; whitewashing is meant to describe white actors getting cast to play nonwhite characters or in place of characters originally written as nonwhite. There was never an Asian lead at the center of The Outsider — it was always, as the title affirms, about a foreigner, and that foreigner was always (given the reported casting efforts) white.
The Outsider would be better described as the latest iteration of an unabashed orientalist fantasy that's not just about trying on a particular idea of Asianness like an outfit, but establishing dominance over it as well (filmmaker Aaron Stewart-Ahn claimed that in an earlier version of the script he read, "Page 2 actually mentions Caucasians having bigger penises"). Maybe that's why Leto plays Nick with uncharacteristic reserve, as if he's not a character so much as the audience’s avatar. It is not the Japanese characters the film expects its audience to relate to, but Leto, a beautiful blank onto which viewers can project themselves.
In 2015, for its annual spring show, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute presented an exhibit that was, literally, about Asianness as an outfit. "China: Through the Looking Glass" was a sprawling exhibit about Eastern-inflected fashion from Western designers that attracted record crowds, one of Rihanna's most iconic red carpet moments, and a few murmurs of controversy. Work from the back catalogs of designers like Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent was matched with corresponding selections from the museum's Asian art collection or projections from films made or set in China.
It was an extravagant ode to orientalism, something the exhibit acknowledged in its introductory text, which explained that the aim of the show was "to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity." The statement grandly suggested that orientalism could be a conversation — "As if by magic, the distance between East and West, spanning perspectives that are often perceived as monolithic and diametrically opposed, diminishes."
And yet the behind-the-scenes of the exhibit had none of the ease that "magic" implies, and was instead filled with tense negotiations on display in The First Monday in May, Andrew Rossi's 2016 documentary about the eight-month ramp-up to the exhibit opening and the accompanying Met Gala. The film shows Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute's curator, and Anna Wintour, who chairs the Met Gala and whose Vogue reign has encompassed other missteps when it comes to Asian representation, repeatedly being challenged about the maybe impossible tightrope their show attempts to walk.
The head of the Met’s Department of Asian Art expresses fears about how actual Chinese work is being turned into a backdrop for displays mainly showcasing Western fashion. Filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, brought on to be the exhibition's artistic director, gently proposes that juxtaposing Mao Zedong-related work against Buddhas would offend both Chinese nationals and Buddhists. A Beijing journalist asks why the exhibit's idea of China is filled with clichéd iconography like dragons and Ming vases and a focus on the past, saying, "we all will love to embrace fantasy in fashion, but fantasy is very likely to also entail misinterpretations or misconceptions." After she leaves, Wintour sniffs dismissively and says, "She just wants everything to start in 1949."
If orientalism is, as Bolton insists, an "ongoing dialogue," the reality of what we see suggests that only one side feels any obligation to choose their words carefully. The Western designers seem perfectly comfortable with a one-way exchange, conjuring up work based openly on a fantasy. "It's good even not to go to the country," Jean-Paul Gaultier laughs when he talks about his own Chinese-inspired collection, saying that he preferred to think of China by way of how he's seen it presented in movies and books: "It's better, I think." John Galliano stresses the "sense of mystery and danger" he got "through portrayals from Hollywood," and how he didn't attempt to recreate an actual country in work that pays homage to Chinese opera, geisha, and the Queen mother.
When Rihanna finally arrives at the base of the Met Gala stairs, wearing that yellow gown made by Guo Pei, one of the few Chinese designers featured in the exhibit, it's striking not just for its loveliness but because it feels like an untrammeled moment of cultural intersection in a way that so much of the discussion that's had in the film does not. In contrast, much of the rest of the exhibit, while sumptuous, feels like it's being presented in a thematically fraudulent way, pretending that something inherently political can be neutralized in order to make everyone involved more comfortable. Even a show that explicitly acknowledged orientalism couldn't figure out how to really talk about it.
The future, when it's onscreen, is frequently Asian-inflected. This has been true since at least the dawn of the cyberpunk era, when writers like William Gibson extrapolated gritty future megalopolises that reflected Japan's booming '80s, and movies like Blade Runner rendered those imagined cities in unforgettably vivid dystopian noir detail that draws inspiration from real cities like Tokyo and Shanghai. Rick Deckard in Blade Runner and Korben Dallas in The Fifth Element grab their quick meals of choice at noodle bars, and the characters in Firefly curse in Mandarin. Everything in the Alien franchise exists in the shadow of the far-reaching and ruthless British Japanese Weyland-Yutani Corporation. This techno-orientalism reflects both a sense of inevitability about an Asia-forward future, and a fear of it, which is maybe why its primary characters are almost never Asian.
It's as if the trade-off for considering a future in which the West is no longer dominant is that the non-Westerners who would come along with this shift must be rendered invisible. That’s maybe never more evident than in Blade Runner 2049, whose future LA has somehow become even more devoid of Asian faces than the one rendered onscreen 35 years ago, while still being gorgeously marked by signage and skyscraper-high advertising in various Asian languages, and featuring characters in different Asian-influenced fashions.
Even in visions of the future in which Asian characters exist onscreen, they're generally not in the center of the story, or they get transmuted into white bodies. The unnamed setting of last year’s Ghost in the Shell adaptation is part Hong Kong, where some of the sequences were shot, and part Japan, with Takeshi Kitano giving orders in Japanese that his English-speaking underlings have no trouble understanding. Ghost in the Shell received heavy criticism for casting Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, turning the character into one whose Japanese consciousness has been emptied into a white woman's form. February’s body-hopping Netflix series Altered Carbon does the same thing, in a more thoughtful and canonical fashion, with its biracial antihero Takeshi Kovacs (played, mostly, by Joel Kinnaman). But the optics of both, as well as the makeup of the replicant populations in the Blade Runners, suggest a limit to Hollywood’s imagination — that even in a culturally kaleidoscopic landscape in which physicality is malleable, whiteness remains the default.
The real world, as it tilts toward a future in which the West is no longer dominant, is not hemmed in by such limitations. One of the most interesting things about Hollywood's increased dependence on international markets has been that the industry has had to slowly but seriously reconsider its audience, no longer able to depend on old assumptions that the world, and the massive viewership of China in particular, will line up to buy the same stuff it has always been hawking.
The success of the Fast and Furious franchise and Black Panther abroad just serves as more evidence that the long-held myth that whiteness is all that viewers abroad want is simply that — a myth. But Hollywood has also made more direct, if still clumsy and pandering, attempts to woo Chinese audiences. Chinese star Jing Tian, for instance, has started turning up in American blockbusters with something approaching the frequency with which Scarlett Johansson gets cast in films set in Asia. And while Jing's role in Kong: Skull Island was unremarkable, the pride of place she gets in Pacific Rim: Uprising, as a formidable tech CEO whose aims are uncertain, is both entertaining and a tacit admission that the film's primary audience is not domestic.
It's not as though Pacific Rim: Uprising, or the new Tomb Raider — which at least attempts to contend with its franchise's orientalist premise, and casts the dashing Daniel Wu as the closest thing to a love interest — are set to revolutionize the world, or be destined to have anything like the artistic legacy of Wes Anderson’s work. But they're still signs, if clunky ones, of a commercial industry being forced to relinquish its ingrained and troubling tendencies — because it can't afford to keep them.
Market forces demand that Hollywood give actual thought to what ticket-buyers in Asia might like (or, at least, not be offended by), that executives and directors acknowledge them not as abstract concepts or tradition-bound communities, but as modern, messy markets. These tossed-off blockbusters may not be the prettiest indication of change, but they are an indication, and also a reminder of the power dynamic at the root of orientalism — that it is about a viewer being able to look at a group of people and see only what they want to see.
To watch an action movie contort itself in hopes of accommodating international audiences is to see Hollywood peer across the ocean and attempt a real understanding of people who are no longer some abstract other, but rather the only ones who can keep the industry alive. Seventeen years after Sarah Silverman went on television and told her joke, we're still terrible at talking about orientalism and anti-Asian racism. The yuan, on the other hand, is apparently plenty eloquent. ●
Alison Willmore is a critic and culture writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Willmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.