Orientals in Hollywood: Asian American representation in early U.S. cinema
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Modern Asian American activists are shining a spotlight on the lack of diversity in media, and the root of this inequality traces back to the origins of cinema. Since Asians first immigrated to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. government and its citizens have repeatedly demeaned, misrepresented, and excluded Asian Americans from most facets of society, including the opportunity to appear on screen. This project explores how early cinema shaped negative perceptions of Asian immigrants, primarily by subscribing to popular stereotypes including the pollutant, coolie, deviant, and yellow peril, the first four of Robert G. Lee’s “Six Faces of the Oriental.” By analyzing a series of Hollywood films from the years 1894–1934, and providing the historical context surrounding Asian Americans’ slow and contested assimilation, this project maps the evolution of these four threatening identities and how they influenced exclusionary laws targeted towards Asian immigrants. It also explores yellowface, the branch of racial cosmetology wherein non-Asian (primarily white) actors are “made up” to appear of Asian heritage, and how this practice promoted the literal exclusion of Asians from the film industry. This project ultimately concludes that while modern cinema offers less bigoted representations, the invisibility of Asian Americans persists through the practice of whitewashing, the successor to yellowface.