The Long Problem of Yellowface

Or What I Mean by “Don’t Put on Awful ‘Geisha’ Make-up”

My most popular post, “Why I Won’t Tell You Where to Buy Yukata Anymore”, happens to be a controversial one.  It’s also easily misunderstood.  Two comments have misread one particular phrase that I added as an after-thought: “I can’t prevent anyone from wearing a yukata, but if you do, please don’t put on awful ‘geisha’ make-up (that’s the equivalent of blackface)”.  Note the quotations around “geisha”.  What I’m talking about is a form of yellowface.  Although I admit to being erroneous in equating it with blackface, as the history of oppression differs between Asians and blacks (and it is by no means equal), yellowface is still hurts Asians today.

Racebending has a great article on the history of yellowface in film.  Unfortunately the photos don’t appear, but Buzzfeed recently release a video that features some of the examples, along with reactions from East Asians. It pretty much sums up how the sight of yellowface makes us feel.

While we can all agree that Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s is terrible and Mickey Rooney has apologized for the role, the film remains a classic.  Furthermore, other instances of yellowface have been overlooked in actors’ careers and in some cases, have been awarded with Oscars.  The lack of discussion erases the struggles of Asians.

Even if the characters are not malicious stereotypes, the damage is still present.  First, not every Asian has upward slanted eyes, heavy monolids, and high cheekbones.  To lump us all into one group, one image makes us two-dimensional caricatures rather than fully developed characters who aren’t defined by physical traits.  Secondly, every non-Asian in make-up deprives an Asian actor of a job and decreases the amount of proper representation.  How many people remember the silent film star Sessue Hayakawa?  He actually was able to experience success in Hollywood and star opposite white actresses, but then anti-Japanese sentiments and the Motion Picture Production Code, which forbade the depiction of interracial relationships, caused his career to decline.  Even at the height of his popularity, he still struggled to be the romantic lead, something his white counterparts never experienced.
 photo fflw03q9odd7ddq_zps2rdc7aqx.jpg
Spoiler alert: Sessue Hayakawa doesn’t get the white girl. Also, it’s worth noting that he portrayed other races in his early career, but two wrongs do not make a right (hear that Cloud Atlas defenders?) and it definitely did not benefit him in the future. Photo from Mirelle Balin – Femme Fatale.

Hayakawa’s struggles reveal why movies like Sayonara and more recently Cloud Atlas should also be accountable despite having Asian actresses.  Neither cast Asian men in any of their roles, perpetuating the idea that real Asian men do not have the passion or machismo that it takes to be romantic leads (having an Asian male does not countreal world actions speak louder than words on a script) .  The inclusion of Asian actresses at the expense of their male counterparts highlights are another problem: fetishization.  Stereotypes have cast Asian women as either a Madame Butterfly or a Dragon Lady, and despite being polar opposites, they both serve as sexual objects.

This is where the bad “geisha” make-up comes in.  Even if it is an inspired make-up job rather than blatant yellowface, it still has the same harmful effects.  Madonna and Kylie Minogue have utilized it to re-invent themselves, which is often musical industry code for making themselves edgier and sexier.  Their fetishization of geisha is reinforced by their modified kimonos and suggestive imagery.  Minogue even goes so far as calling that segment “Naughty Manga Girl”.
 photo Kylie-Minogues-new-geisha-look-6013092_zpsnzxtdela.jpg From The Daily Telegraph

More recently, Katy Perry has come under fire for her randomly Orientalist performance at the AMAs.  Although she doesn’t do the make-up, her back-up dancers are made to appear more “Asian”.  This is another example of non-Asians taking away Asian roles.  In all these cases, the singers are using the image of a geisha for personal gain.

There’s also the implication that geisha are ubiquitous when the make-up is taken out of context.  That is what I was getting at in my original post.  It does not belong with an informal yukata, nor automatically express an “appreciation” for Japanese culture.  Instead, it promotes misunderstanding and disregards the years of training that geisha go through.  It also often looks more like what one would see in Chinese opera, which again lumps Asians together as this large foreign group rather than individual traditions.

I’m not saying non-Japanese people can never wear geisha make-up.  Liza Dalby was invited to become a geisha (note that she did not insist herself).  Visitors in Kyoto can purchase a service that allows them to dress up as maiko and take photos.  This directly benefits Japanese businesses.  Cosplaying a character who is a geisha may be a little contentious, but if you keep your natural features with the make-up, you’ll piss off fewer Asians who endured a lifetime of being mocked for their eye shape or called a geisha when they’re in a different traditional outfit.  Just think about whether you are contributing to negative stereotypes and remember that movies continue to feature yellowface and companies still sell “Asian eyelids”.

Listening to: “Busy Doing Nothing” by Crystal Kay

Leave a comment


  1. Raena

     /  August 15, 2015

    Also, before I take my exit on your page (I will do the right thing and apologize if I am clogging notifications with my irritated rambles), but that buzzfeed video IS talking about yellow face! But no one mis-read what you said in your other article. No one misinterpreted that sentence. That video is on yellow face. GEISHA. MAKE UP. IS. NOT. YELLOW. FACE. It is make up. No one is pretending to be Japanese in a derogatory or insulting manner. (Maybe some are, but it’s gross to assume everyone is, some people just really adore Geisha and wish to try wearing it maybe once or twice in their life.) You have the right to the opinion that geisha makeup is yellow face, but if you notice in the video you posted about yellow face, there is no geisha make up shown. Yellow face is just as disgusting and racist as black face and it makes me sick to think anyone would do something like that, however once again, I will say it is not right to compare something that Japanese natives aren’t even insulted about to black face; where in fact Japanese natives DO do geisha make up for foreigners in Japan with a smile in their faces and pure hearts.

    • The video did show Allison Hannigan in a qipao with a black wig, pale make-up, and pseudo Asian mannerisms, and I was trying to make a Japanese parallel to that. The video calls it “Orientalism”, which may be a better term, but it is present in the video for a reason. Westerners like to use the image of a geisha and the word itself on anything vaguely Japanese-inspired to evoke an exotic and sexy image (just look at Yandy’s Halloween costumes or a former line of Victoria’s Secret lingerie). I put quotes around the word in my original post to convey this modern-day example of Orientalism. It may be done out of love for another culture, but it’s still fetishistic. And trust me, plenty of Asian-American women and Asian women living in America (and I include other countries because we get lumped together) are sick of being thought of as these fantasy “geisha” depicted by the media.

    • Momo21

       /  August 16, 2015

      I agree with you completely. Raena. Yellow face and Geisha Are two Completely Different things. A Geisha is a Japanese hostess trained to entertain men with conversation, dance, and song. In other words a JOB in which the uniform calls,for you to wear certain clothing and makeup. Just because this JOB has been around for many many years. Do not change the fact that it was a JOB. Now YELLOW FACE is pretending to be Japanese or a Member of another Asia group. In which you are purposely insulting and show case this group in a racist bases manner. That to me is just as bad as Black Face. On top of all this almost every group is depicted in some exotic and sexy image way. Black people has always been depicted that way. And unlike other groups that one or two things like their eyes, hair clothing, or legs are depicted in this manner. We have to be depicted head to toe. Are lips, hip, beast, butt, full eyes and so on. But it’s a “compliment” .. is what we are told. You getting upset over something that only come to be because it’s an historic job. Japan is also knew for it’s fetishistic history it’s self. Your getting upset and saying “we” are wrong when the place your speaking on be half of; Is know for profiting from many fetishistic theme things such as. Anime, manga , filled with Hentai that includes incest, tentacle, rape, under age sex, and many many more. That ‘s not even add the love hotels, or vending machine that use to sale use underwear. But “we” are the ones that is creating this exotic and sexy image of Japanese people. If this is such a BIG deal then made have Japanese based companies stop profiting and promoting this Image first. I feel that the real problem is not that dressing up or show casing of Geisha is bad. It’s that ultimately you feel if you are not of Asia background /Japanese you should be able to wear these clothing or make up. And guess what that is Racist in it self. The fact that it is more simple a Job uniform. It is not a religious artifact or ceremonial thing outside of it’s history of being used while performing your work duties. Once again a Geisha is traditionally a Japanese female entertainer who act as hostesses and whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance, games and conversation, mainly to entertain male customers.
      Yellow face is a form of theatrical makeup used by performers to represent an East Asian person. Yellow face is another example of the racism prevalent in American culture. Yellow face means more than a white person wearing make-up to look Asian. It also describes the systematic bias against hiring real Asians to play Asian roles shown by white producers, directors, and others who control the depiction of Asians in popular culture through casting decisions and the propagation of racist Asian stereotypes and caricatures.

      • I’m very confused by what you have written because you’ve both agreed and disagreed with what I have said. I will point out that it’s disrespectful to portray any occupation incorrectly, and that’s what people do when they use Chinese opera make-up with “geisha” costuming or a poorly-tied yukata instead of a kimono.

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