We should watch movies despite Asian stereotypes

March 11, 2021 1:23 PM

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Still from a black and white film with a non-Asian actor depicting an Asian character. Image courtesy of author.

Still from a black and white film with a non-Asian actor depicting an Asian character. Image courtesy of author.

While absent-mindedly scrolling through the Internet one day, I fell upon a post from Common Sense Media titled “Watch Out! Classic Movies with Racial Stereotypes.” My curiosity piqued, I clicked on it and saw names that I expected, like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), but my brow furrowed when I saw "Lady and the Tramp” (1955). What could be harmful about a sweet story of opposites attracting over a plate of spaghetti?

“The Siamese Cat Song” had slipped my mind, in which two buck-toothed, slanted-eyed Siamese cats wreck the downstairs of Lady’s home — and then blame the mess on Lady. Jessie Baek, in her first year at law school, had also forgotten this scene.

“I guess the message that the movie was trying to portray was that [Asians] are very cunning and manipulative and untrustworthy,” she said after watching a clip on YouTube. “I thought it was a very classic trope, using the cats, and I think it was something very common, especially back in that time period.”

Reading the comments section of the original blog post, I saw that readers were divided. Many thanked the article for its list of films, while others believed that these movies were harmless.

As an Asian American, I feel that I should only comment on the depictions of those of the same race as me. Although there are potentially negative depictions of Asians in movies like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Lady and the Tramp,” and “Broken Blossoms” — a 1919 film that was not mentioned in the post but uses yellowface — we must look past these portrayals to see why they are classics. Many people say that one should not watch something because it has not “aged well.” This is a harmful mentality that can prevent people from learning. I love movies, and I hate to see them neglected because people focus on everything a film should have done better. These movies are so much more than just outdated ideas, and we should not overlook their positive aspects.

In “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Audrey Hepburn plays a socialite living in New York City who shares an apartment with Japanese photographer Mr. Yunioshi, performed by white actor Mickey Rooney. Rooney wildly exaggerates Mr. Yunioshi, tripping over furniture in his bedroom, speaking with a heavy accent, and yelling with every syllable. Even if a Japanese man had played Mr. Yunioshi, his character would have been too over-the-top for me. So are there any redeeming qualities in this film? This answer is yes.

It was traditional for “good girls” to wear color in the fifties, especially in the daytime, a trend the silver screen reflected. Think Angela Vickers in “A Place in the Sun” (1951) and Anna Leonowens in “The King and I” (1956). Black, more often worn by men, was for “bad girls,” suggesting experience as opposed to innocence. So when Hepburn, who had always been the “good girl,” wore black in the morning, “‘[She and Hubert de] Givenchy [...] gave us a very realistic, very accessible kind of class. All of a sudden, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, chic was no longer this faraway thing only for the wealthy,’” Sam Wasson writes in his book “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman”, quoting fashion designer Jeffrey Banks.

The little black dress was affordable and easy to make if one so wished. “What’s more,” Wasson continues, “its simplicity wasn’t just pragmatic, it was an assertion of self. Pure understatement radiates confidence — individual personality as opposed to a prefab femininity.”

In addition to the revolutionary fashion in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” its music is also exceptional. Henry Mancini composed the song “Moon River,” to which Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics. At the 34th Academy Awards, the two won Best Song, and Mancini went on to win the Oscar for Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for his work in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” More than four decades later, the American Film Institute ranked “Moon River” as the fourth-greatest song in American cinema. Personally, “Moon River” has a special place in my heart, as I listen to it whenever I get the “mean reds,” as Holly would say.

“Lady and the Tramp,” as previously mentioned, includes a pair of Siamese cats that many refer to as a racist caricature. But we should not judge this movie based on just one scene. Its gentle charm and careful animation are sure to win anyone over, even cat-lovers like Aunt Sarah. It is also an example of a film that stands the test of time. When it was initially released, it had mixed reviews. Bosley Crowther, a journalist for The New York Times, wrote, “Unfortunately and surprisingly, the artists' work is below par in this film.”

Upon reconsideration, however, it is now deemed a classic. As one of only two animated films in the American Film Institute’s list of great American love stories, it ranks 95. The institute even nominated it for its list of the greatest American movies, which contains only two animated films. Furthermore, Time included it in its article titled “The 25 All-TIME Best Animated Films.”

Not to be ignored is its spaghetti scene, in which Lady and the Tramp dine at Tony’s Restaurant and kiss after eating the opposite ends of the same strand of spaghetti. Although Walt Disney disliked it at first, it has become an iconic scene that has been reenacted countless times.

The music accompanying “Lady and the Tramp” seems to be less critically acclaimed, but it, too, is wonderful, and I often listen to it while studying or doing homework.

“Broken Blossoms” follows the kind-hearted Cheng Huan traveling from China to spread Buddhism to London. There, he falls in love with Lucy, who is a stranger to compassion and has no reason to smile, as her father regularly beats her. Its alternate title, “The Yellow Man and the Girl,” may cause some to raise eyebrows. Likewise, white actor Richard Barthelmess plays Chinese Cheng Huan.

When assessing a film like “Broken Blossoms,” one must remember that it was made over a century ago, and it broke boundaries by depicting one of the first interracial romances in film. Yes, Cheng Huan is arguably a stereotype: he is a Chinese immigrant who turns to opium for comfort, and for most of the movie, he is a peaceful Buddhist. But the director of “Broken Blossoms” intended it to counter the “Yellow Peril” outlook in America in the twentieth century.

“Films like this, naive as they seem today, helped nudge a xenophobic nation toward racial tolerance,” film critic Roger Ebert writes. “Broken Blossoms” is even in Ebert’s Great Movies series, a status that not many films hold.

Beyond its good intentions, “Broken Blossoms" is simply a good, emotionally stirring movie. Lillian Gish as Lucy delivers one of the most moving performances I have ever seen. It sheds light on the horrors of child abuse so effectively that Gish claims one viewer had to leave the room to vomit.

When one takes a closer look at movies like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Lady and the Tramp,” and “Broken Blossoms,” one can recognize that even these films are worth their time. No film is entirely bad nor entirely good; just because one might contain stereotypes or yellowface does not mean that qualities independent of them are also tainted. So the next time you have the chance to see a film that you might have heard to be controversial, don’t immediately say no. Instead, try to keep an open mind and see what the movie might be able to offer you.

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