How does one make sense of a role like Allison Ng from the movie Aloha (2015)? The role, played by white actress Emma Stone, is one of the most recent cases of yellowface to come out of Hollywood. But such cases are in no way a diversion from the ordinary; the practice of yellowface in Hollywood is nearly as old as film itself. Masses of social activists, film critics, and university discourses have attempted, in decades past, to conclusively define and dispel existing social institutions that allow phenomena like yellowface to pervade and persist even in an ever-growing racially sensitive society. Aloha provides a resource by which we can discuss the prevalence of yellowface in film, and studying the philosophy of Karl Marx teaches us the systematic basis by which Asians are discriminated against.
In the film, Aloha, we meet Brian, an ex-soldier looking to begin a new life as a military contractor in Hawaii. He is tasked with negotiating a deal with the island’s native Hawaiians to purchase land in order to build a satellite launch pad. Along with him is Major Allison Ng, who is a quarter-Hawaiian. The two strike a relationship, and they cooperate to convince the island’s king to sell the land that Brian needs. They succeed, but when Brian reveals that the base will be used for nuclear purposes, Allison approaches him in tears for lying to her people, which reveals her deep sense of identification with her Hawaiian people. Brian proceeds, against his superiors’ will, to destroy the satellite and the nuclear weapon contained within it by launching it to space, and he mends his relationship with Allison.
The main issue with this film is that Emma Stone, a woman with no Hawaiian or Asian/Pacific-Islander background, represents a woman who, according to the movie, feels an obligation to call the king “sir” while insisting that Brian has no such obligations, shares in the Hawaiian spiritual belief in the sanctity of the sky and stars, and weeps over the Hawaiian people because she feels that her people have been betrayed. In essence, Stone is consciously participating in yellowface by playing a role by, as a white woman, taking on the role of someone with an Asian/Pacific-Islander background while an equally qualified woman of actual Asian/Pacific-Islander background could have been cast.
We can learn much by studying Marx’s stance on art (thus translated to a modern Marxist theory of Aloha). But first, it is imperative that we understand his philosophy on work. Marx believed that, under a capitalist economic system, all people could essentially be classified into two categories: the dominant bourgeois class (capitalists), and the subordinate proletariat class (workers). Workers were “free” to sell their labor to anyone they wished, and therefore the term “free labor” was born. But Marx argued that free labor coerced workers under the guise of choice, because without selling their labor, workers and their families would essentially perish from starvation and homelessness. Therefore capitalists were essentially free to dictate working conditions, in addition to what was produced and how it was produced.
All that to say, that in Marx’s view of a hegemonic class relationship, all production of goods, including art, is controlled and maintained by those of the dominant class. In his article on popular culture, Henry Jenkins argues that in Marx’s world-view, “present-day popular culture is tainted by the domination of the capitalist production of culture and its enslaving ideology. There is then no truly popular culture of the people” (Jenkins, 31). Essentially, at the heart of the yellowface issue in Aloha is the fact that the dominant class of Hollywood, those who control film plot, casting, budgeting, and all final decisions, see a profit to be made in casting those who will attract the most people to theaters. By deciding to resort to yellowface than to cast an actual Asian/Pacific-Islander, it is sending a message that white actors, are in many ways, more valuable to Hollywood than actors of minority
groups, especially Asian/Americans. Hollywood allows no room for a “truly popular culture” for Asian/Americans; they will always be racialized, categorized, and limited in their ability to produce as long as they function under the current capitalist system that subdues them as the hegemonically subordinate group.
So what does this mean for Asian-Americans? That they should all strive for a socialist society? On the one hand, maybe so, because with the absence of class there is also an absence of hegemony. But on the other hand, the more realistic approach to combat issues like yellowface must be framed within the current system in which we live. Asian/American movements do not have the numbers that feminist movements do, nor the long American history that African-American movements do, nor the emotional or diversity-driven power that the LGBT movement does. Asian/Americans are framed as the model minority, free of problems, which immobilizes people from taking action for the Asian/American community. Therefore change will only come in the film industry when people speak out against issues like yellowface and bring the general population to an understanding of how and why this is a problem. Perhaps when people can move to make more movies like Aloha lose $26 million at the box office, it will send a signal to the dominant class that the old way of representing Asian/Americans is no longer acceptable.
Jenkins, Henry, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc. Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print.