Criticizing an Actor’s Ethnicity — How Not To Be a Critic

Porter Robinson lead Zoe Flood

I recently joked about 50 Shades of Grey being the whitest movie in history. I stand by the joke, because I did my research before making it. That may seem like overkill just to make a one-off joke, but please don’t be mistaken. First off, I live, eat, & breathe research, and it’s as much a critique as a joke. Secondly, there’s at least another six months before 50 Shades comes out, and I plan on milking that joke at least a dozen more times.

There’s a lot of responsibility that goes into being a critic…Scratch that – there’s a lot of responsibility that SHOULD go into being a critic, but doesn’t always. Anyone can make a mistake – the best critics will make analytical mistakes because they’re regularly breaking new ground. Any critic, good or bad, will make a factual error from time-to-time because of the amount of information he or she has to deal with.

Making ethnic claims to which you don’t possess the information, however, doesn’t belong in the business. Period. An acquaintance of mine, cosplayer, costume designer, and model Zoe Flood (aka Miss Macross), was recently criticized in this Magnetic Mag article for her appearance in a Porter Robinson music video. What do they say is wrong with her? They separate her from the four Asian actresses in the video by criticizing the inclusion of “four Asian girls and one white girl (in Asian face).”

There are two problems with this critique. One: this is a music video, so let’s refer to them as actresses, not “girls.” Two: that white actress who’s so insultingly made up to look Asian? Just so happens to be Asian.

While I somewhat agree with the article’s broader message (particularly as it applies to Avril Lavigne’s music video debacle earlier this year), you can’t make baseless assertions about actors’ ethnic lineage without having the information at hand. This is only the most recent example on my own personal radar of this kind of lax criticism.

One of our writers, actress S.L. Fevre, consistently runs into challenges regarding her Brazilian heritage. She’s viewed as “acting too American” and has been told she was “more of a Mexican shade” by a producer who later revealed he didn’t even know where Brazil is.

I joke about an ex-girlfriend once telling me, “You’re the whitest Mexican I know,” but I’ve had employers insist I’m lying about my ancestry simply because I’m tall and white and “don’t act Mexican.” Instead of – what? – wearing a poncho and hurling tacos your way while eying up your daughters with a hand on my six-shooter? First, go talk to a psychiatrist. That’s way too Freudian and you need to get out more. (Totally flattered though.) Second, and more to the point, we’ve developed a nasty habit of criticizing the ethnic backgrounds of actors based on gross visual stereotypes before we have the information.

Porter Robinson article int

In the last year, criticisms that an American like Keanu Reeves shouldn’t be playing an Asian in (the somewhat underrated) 47 Ronin had me burying my head in my hands. First off, he’s Canadian, not American. Secondly, the guy’s half Pacific Islander, which connotes a mishmash of mainland ancestries that you’d need genetic testing to pick apart. Besides, complaints like these ignore the really scary lesson in all this: Canadian Shakespeare’s two most lasting exports are Reeves and William Shatner. What the hell are they doing to the Bard up there?

Johnny Depp was criticized for playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger. His ethnic claim to playing a Comanche character was questioned, even though he was cited as having Cherokee lineage and was adopted by the Comanche, who supported the film’s biting critique of the genocides on which our country was founded. Critics of all different ethnic backgrounds claimed it was a disgrace to original Tonto actor Jay Silverheels. Here’s the rub: Silverheels was Mohawk, an Ontario nation that lived as far from the southwestern Comanche as you could without leaving the continent. The two nations likely never dealt with each other. You know what’s insulting? Conflating hundreds of different cultures and ancestries into a single equivalency. It’s the critic’s version of saying, “They all look the same to me.”

Screw that.

Might a fully Japanese actor or a Comanche actor have been more appropriate for those roles? Perhaps. But that hardly justifies critics so lazy in their research that they’ll misrepresent actors and entire cultures in order to pretend they know something they don’t.

At least Reeves, Depp, and actors like them are largely immune to critical ignorance. Actors starting out, however, are not. Angry claims of inappropriate misrepresentation can carry weight when you’re just starting out. So unless Magnetic Mag‘s writer Yosh had specific information, and had spoken with the actors themselves about their ethnicity, there is no place in criticism to make a claim like he did.

When you’re a critic, there’s a temptation to act like you know everything that relates to the movie industry. It’s easy to fall into – the people around you expect this. The easiest way to shoot yourself in the foot, however, is to buy into that. What’s my own opinion in relation to Yosh’s argument about Porter Robinson’s misuse of Japanese fashion? Frankly, I don’t know enough about Porter Robinson, and I don’t know enough about the cultural themes in Japanese fashion. Perhaps the music video’s costume and wardrobe stylist, Elleanor Yamaguchi, could have shed some light on this had Yosh bothered to interview her. (See what I did there? Research.)

Admit what you don’t know, research what you can. Don’t write articles based on information you don’t have, and if you call out a specific creative talent on something factual, make damn sure you’ve actually bothered to glance at those facts.

Before I hand you over to our resident East Asian media expert, Vanessa Tottle, for an educated analysis on the fashion in “Lionhearted,” let me encourage you to check out Zoe’s website. She is one of the better cosplayers out there – she featured as a costume designer on Call to Cosplay, an enjoyably lo-fi series from Myx TV that actually gets into the design and fabrication processes. She’s also appeared in SyFy’s Heroes of Cosplay.

Here’s Vanessa:

The same way military surplus, leather jackets, mohawks, and even flannel became exaggerated fashion statements of rebellion, kawaii (a very broad term that loosely translates as “cute” or “lolita”) fashion has been co-opted for counter-culture use across Eastern Asia. “Lionhearted” uses kawaii elements to criticize American ‘sameness’ and the pressure to constrain your behavior, image, and worldview to other people’s expectations.

My favorite recent twist in re-purposing kawaii is in Korean band F(x)’s wonderful “Red Light” – it combines steampunk, riot gear and cute aegyo fashion to rally their fan base against the bureaucratic policies, corporate lobbying, and corruption that have neutered South Korea’s government from being responsive to suffering and tragedy among its own people.

Turning mainstream fashion into a counter-culture message is nothing new. David Fincher did it to the power dynamic between business suits and lingerie in Madonna videos. Mike Nichols did it with event dress – suits, evening wear, and famously a bridal gown – as far back as The Graduate.

Just about the time when the West successfully figured out how to assimilate punk and grunge into lifestyle elements it could sell, the East took the fashion that already sold well and turned it into a punk-styled movement of its own.

I dislike Yosh’s idea of ‘misappropriating’ such a post-modern fashion. ‘Kawaii’ is the broadest term to use, but its Japanese origins shouldn’t confuse: kawaii belongs to online communities more than a single nation or culture. Kawaii crosses borders between countries that don’t even speak the same language: South Korea and China have contributed much, while kawaii’s origins lie as much in the American goth movement and stylized, Victorian-era fashions as they do in anything Japanese. Over the years, it’s adopted cyberpunk, steampunk, and most recently post-apocalyptic elements from the United States as well.

Yosh’s article belies an inaccurate belief that kawaii has spread solely as an immutably mainstream, culturally Japanese movement to which Western artists have no input or creative right. This is false – kawaii’s popularity is driven by grassroots, online, and DIY communities both Asian and American. It’s clear as day “Lionhearted” itself is firmly rooted in the fashion’s counter-culture themes.

Porter Robinson Lionhearted

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