Yellowface: traditional art and colonial racism

To what extent should traditional Western artworks be altered in order to excise the racism (or sexism, etc) in them? What do you think?

From Colorlines:

“Yellowface is nothing new. But people seem unable to leave it behind as an embarrassment of the past. The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year with a production of the operetta duo’s classic “The Mikado.” Except, writes Jeff Yang over at CNN:

It is the most frequently staged of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas and a perennial favorite of the Society. Every time, they have done it the same way: As a photocopy of the Victorian original, with Caucasian actors wearing garish facepaint and outfits that cartoonishly approximate traditional Japanese garb.

[T]hese “traditional” productions — yellowface productions — of “The Mikado” have to end.

They are the deep-drilled root of the yellowface weed: the place from which the scourge keeps springing back, even when its surface expressions are plucked. There are older examples of yellowface in entertainment than “The Mikado,” but none so popular, and certainly none that have been as popular among mass audiences for as long — 129 years and counting.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying that “The Mikado” shouldn’t be performed at all.

Its biting satire and splendidly silly stage play make it quite possibly Gilbert and Sullivan’s greatest work. But when it is performed by an all-white troupe of actors dressed and made up as Asians, it shifts from a brilliant comedy of manners to, as Asian-American actress and blogger Erin Quill says, a “racist piece of crap.””

16 thoughts on “Yellowface: traditional art and colonial racism

  1. And things get more complicated when it’s not just about white people pretending to be non-write people, but when the artwork itself is marred by racist stereotypes. Take for instance Rameau’s Indes Galantes (The gallant indies) – by which he did not mean India but any then exotic location like Turkey, Persia, Peru and North America. In this 18th century opera, native Americans are portrayed according to the “noble savage” trope, people unspoiled by modernism and because of that, somehow more authentic. In this way, Rameau wanted to incite the French audience of his day to some critical self-reflection. The native Americans pictured in Les Indes Galantes are not devoid of psychological depth – they are portrayed with sympathy and sensitivity (e.g., The Inca priest Huascar’s unsuccessful attempts to win Princess Phani’s love back, who has fallen in love with a Spaniard). But still, the 4 sections of this piece are driven by a stereotype of non-westerners.

  2. I’m not familiar with the work, and this excerpt doesn’t illuminate much, but in answer to the initial question, others’ art should NEVER be altered to suit the whims of any era’s happenstance sentiments. If anything, such art should be appreciated in its original form, and where moral concerns arise, such can serve as a catalyst for educating people as to certain cultural nuances which may happen to have differed from present ones. Furthermore, why not rewrite all history? Remove the “n” word from every text ever–not just Dickens’–and whitewash every historic failing such that all humanity can be seen in the untainted and brimming splendor of its glorious behaviors? Too often learned folk (especially) tend to harbor resentment towards antiquated norms, failing to realize their progressive nature by condemning missteps along the path towards cultural betterment.

  3. Forgetful Philosopher, I think many will agree with you that older texts should not be significantly altered in modern editions. But where the arts in question are performing arts, and there is no general cultural prescription that performances should attempt to mimic original performances, is there not a real question about what modern productions should be like?

  4. Simon, I’m with you on the difference, though I am not sure about some examples, and this one in particular. The work is also choreographed and I’m not sure that the movements and the costumes together don’t count as much as text as far as adding content. I really am not sure; my question was genuine. I should think you could find some of the Mikado on youtube

    Forgetful philosopher: none of the stuff about the Mikado comes from academic sources and, in my experience, academics are not fond of altering past texts to get political purity.

  5. Eleanor, I was worried that there was something racist about posing the question. I hope that putting “Western” in the question the first paragraph, like “colonial” in the title helps a bit to broaden the perspective from which the discussion can proceed.

    Many, many writers outside the tradition that produced the Mikado have talked about the colonial point of view, and I hope we can do so realizing that one response might be “junk the whole thing.”

    Still, I expect I haven’t gotten it right yet. If you could suggest how to discuss this, I’d be very grateful.

  6. Let both original and whitewashed productions coincide, and let people choose which to attend.

    It makes sense to me that someone might choose not to attend a performance that they felt was racist or sexist or ablist or whateverist. They might even be justifiably offended by it. I would have a problem with someone who thought that those types of performances ought to be banned so that nobody gets to see them.

    The last thing we need is a Committee on Acceptable Art.

  7. I don’t see any calls for the formation of Committees on Acceptable Art. Jeff Yang’s piece at CNN mentions a mockumentary, “The Mikado Project,” which “follows an Asian-American theater troupe forced to put on a production of ‘The Mikado’ in order to stave off bankruptcy.” Again, not seeing a call to “ban” anything here (and indeed it’s unclear what a “ban” could amount to in this context). On the contrary, really, given “The Mikado Project” and the suggestions for future performances that Yang makes.

    On another note, I’m having some trouble figuring out the meaning of “cisracist.” A Google search doesn’t help much.

  8. CM, I think Colorlines and I were trying to raise a more general question, though I’m glad you clarified what Yang has in mind.”

    I took the word just to combine cis=heterosexual and racist. I expect that the Mikado does play with gender stereotypes, but I don’t see that to make it heterosexual or hetero-normative. Perhaps someone will explain.

  9. Speaking as someone in the arts, there are HUGE ongoing conversations in theatre about how to engage with older works that are problematic by contemporary standards, along with related discussions about race/gender/representation, race-bending and gender-bending casting, whose voices and perspectives are privileged in theatre, etc.

    I get the impression, which may or may not be fair or accurate, that these conversations take place in silos, and that the academic philosophy world and the in-the-trenches theatre world aren’t engaging in a lot of cross-talk on the topic (or at least, perhaps, not enough). If that’s the case, it’s a shame, because there’s much to learn from both sides. is a nexus for these kinds of comversations in the American theatre community and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a theatre-based perspective on these topics. There are also important discussions going on in Canada, the UK, and across the anglophone theatre world; perhaps other commenters will be able to suggest good regional resources.

  10. I would love to hear more thoughts on this from theater folks, because I am a costume designer with an academic background in women studies and philosophy and I don’t know anyone else with this particular skill set combo. Sometimes, though, it’s pretty simple; I recently did costumes for a community threatre production of Gypsy, and for a few child vaudeville acts that weren’t specified by the script, I *didn’t* choose stereotyped Native Americans or Jews, even though those would have been perfectly historically accurate. (Nothing I could do about the title, unfortunately – ’tis all based on the memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee.)

  11. I had never heard the term “cisracist” before, so I looked it up. Apparently it’s a label applied to white people who claim to be “transethnic” (another term that seems to be rather marginal).

    Is that what you mean, Eleanor? If so, it might help to elaborate on what you mean by calling the discussion “cisracist”, since this seems to be a term used only be a few people on tumblr.

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