When I first read the EW article criticizing Cameron Crowe’s decision to cast Emma Stone as a half-Asian character in Aloha, I was disappointed — in Crowe for selecting a Caucasian actor to portray an ethnic experience, in Stone for accepting this wildly inappropriate role (and with it, all the advantages of her white privilege) and in Hollywood as a whole, for using its undeniable power and influence to make audiences around the world believe that this was all okay. The media storm that followed this article demonstrates that I was not the only one.
After reading his personal apology and explanation, however, I am disappointed with society and, admittedly, myself. Crowe explains on his website:
As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one. A half-Chinese father was meant to show the surprising mix of cultures often prevalent in Hawaii. Extremely proud of her unlikely heritage, she feels personally compelled to over-explain every chance she gets. The character was based on a real-life, red-headed local who did just that.
While I am heartened to see that our society has jumped to advocate for the awareness and acceptance of racial diversity, what this media storm demonstrates to me is how far we still are from understanding the multiracial experience. I don’t know what Allison Ng looks like (believe me, I looked), but Crowe’s essay indicates that she “looked nothing like” a half-Asian. He even goes on to describe that Ng “feels personally compelled to over-explain [her heritage] every chance she gets.”
As a person who identifies as multiracial, I am all too familiar with the degrading experience of justifying my heritage. I am half-Mexican American and half-African American, though my physical appearance almost completely discounts my “blackness”. I can’t count the number of times I have been in a situation where I have had to respond to offensive questions and comments like, “Why don’t you talk Black?” or “Well you’re not reallllly Black…” and even “Don’t worry, you don’t look Black!” Similarly, I have several relatives whose pale skin separates them from that of their siblings, leaving intrusive strangers to pose questions like, “Where’d you come from, the milk man?”
Why do people feel the need to question and/or attack another person’s identity? If someone tells you who or what they are, that is who or what they are. It is not for you to approve, analyze or deny. This statement can also be applied to religious creed, gender identity, sexual preference and any other labels that society assigns in desperate attempt to categorize our existence.
This is why I am so moved by the controversy surrounding Emma Stone being casted as a half-Asian character. If Ng is, as Crowe describes, a redhead that looks nothing like a half-Asian, that is what she is. And that is the description of the actress who should portray her. If Crowe were to have emphasized her “otherness” and selected an obviously half-Asian actress with almond eyes and jet black hair to portray Ng (like Olivia Munn or Janell Parrish, like many of the angry articles suggest), he would have been blatantly denying Ng of her struggles and experiences as a multiracial person. Struggles and experiences that, according to the 2010 U.S. census, 9 million Americans share. Yes, many Hollywood films have inappropriately depicted white actors portraying ethnic roles, but, as is made clear in Crowe’s description of Ng’s physical appearance, this is not one of them.
Should Crowe have sacrificed the complexity of Ng’s multiracial identity to make this story more easily digestible for Hollywood? Are we as a society not yet ready to witness and accept the age-old truth that appearances can be deceiving? My answers to those questions are 1) Probably and 2) Most definitely. And I am saddened to admit it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think about Cameron Crowe’s decision to cast Emma Stone as a half-Asian character?