Let's Talk About Michelle Yeoh And Merle Oberon
Last night, Michelle Yeoh made history when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once, which also won Best Picture.
Reporting on this, several outlets put in their headlines that Yeoh is the first woman who identifies as Asian to be nominated for the Best Actress award. Unsurprisingly, people reacted to this as though these outlets had suggested that Yeoh was Rachel Dolezaling or that she wasn't really Asian or that ... well, a variety of things. "She is Asian" is still trending on Twitter as I write this.
However, as many people have pointed out, this is not because there is any question as to Yeoh's ethnicity or because anyone besides right-wing kooks and the aforementioned Rachel Dolezal is out here trying to claim that "transracialism" is a thing, but because, while much of the press running up to the Academy Awards had put it out there that Yeoh was the first Asian actress nominated for an Academy Award, she actually wasn't. She's just the first Asian actress who wasn't passing as white to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Merle Oberon, an Indian woman from Bombay, was technically the first Asian woman to be nominated for her performance in The Dark Angel. However, Oberon passed as white for her entire life, claiming to be from Australia, and no one actually found out about her real heritage until after she died. Oberon lost the award to Bette Davis for her performance in Dangerous, which I have to say was the correct choice and one of my all-time favorites. Personally, I liked Oberon better in Wuthering Heights, but that is neither here nor there.
We can hardly blame Oberon for choosing to pass at that time, given the way things were for actors of color in the United States. Like, there's a reason Josephine Baker and Anna May Wong booked it out of here in order to have big careers in Europe. The roles just weren't there, and when they were, they were played by white people.
Awkwardly, Yeoh is not the first actress to win an Academy Award for playing an Asian woman. That honor went to German-born actress Luise Rainer, when she played O-Lan in the 1937 cinematic adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. Rainer was also the first actor to win Best Actress back to back, having won the previous year for her portrayal of Polish-French actress Anna Held in The Ziegfeld Follies. (Oberon's nomination was the year before that. And the year before that, I feel compelled to mention, one of the movies nominated for Best Film was Imitation of Life, a movie about a young black woman who passes as white.)
This was the casting decision that sent poor Anna May Wong over the edge.
File:Anna May Wong by Eugene Robert Richee, 1937.jpg - Wikimedia ...commons.wikimedia.org
Wong was the first Chinese-American movie star — and she was a brilliant actress. Unfortunately, because of anti-miscegenation laws and the Hays Code (a set of self-imposed "morality" guidelines for the movie industry established in 1927 but not enforced until 1934), Wong could not play the romantic lead in a movie opposite a white guy. Though, really, even before the Hays Code came out, Hollywood simply did not cast actors of color to play romantic leads opposite white actors. Not a lot of people in those days needed a code to tell them to be racist.
Wong had first had her fill of this in 1928, when she moved to Europe and started making films there, to great acclaim (check out Shanghai Express starring Wong and Marlene Dietrich). She came back to the US hoping that her success overseas would help her get better roles, ideally roles in which she would not have to play "Dragon Lady"-esque stereotypes. She had her heart set on playing O-Lan in The Good Earth, but was rejected in favor of Rainer because they didn't want a Chinese-American woman playing a romantic lead opposite a white guy. (There was also the fact that the Chinese government had called up the studio and demanded that they not cast Wong, believing that she was a poor representation of Chinese women, but who knows how much of a factor that was.)
Now those of you familiar with The Good Earth may be thinking, "But it takes place in China. Everyone in the story is Chinese!" and you would be correct. But Paul Muni, a white actor, had been cast to play Wang, the male lead, and so therefore they had to get a white lady to play O-Lan, the female lead.
Wong said, "Fuck it, I'm out" and went to her ancestral home in China where she started making her own documentary-style films.
It's fairly ironic that many of those flipping out over this "identifies as Asian" thing are right-wingers who would probably love to bring back the Hays Code (and probably the anti-miscegenation laws, as well).
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. [...]
I. Sex: The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.
Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.
Scenes of Passion,They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.
Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.
In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.
Seduction or Rape, They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method. They are never the proper subject for comedy.
Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.
White slavery shall not be treated.
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.
Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.
Scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.
It's everything they whine about!
I would love to be able to say that the practice of casting white people as people of color in Hollywood films didn't last very long, but that would be a lie. It continued well after the Hays Code ended and well after the Civil Rights Movement began. It has continued well into this century. Perhaps someday we will get to the point where we can say, "But of course, that was a long time ago," but we're not quite there yet.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse