Yellowface is a Problem, But It’s Not THE Problem

Background: for those of you who haven’t heard yet, porn company Burning Angel recently made a porn parody of The Walking Dead. Burning Angel specializes in parodying horror movies (see: Fuckenstein), so the zombie show is right up their alley. They tried to get all the people they cast in their film to look as much like the cast members on the real show as they could, and they decided to put white actor Danny Wylde in yellowish makeup and tape his eyes back to make him look more like Korean actor Steven Yeun, who plays one of the main characters in the show, Glenn. Pictures were posted a while ago, and in the past week word has gotten around. Jezebel posted a piece taking Burning Angel headmistress Joanna Angel to task for her choice, and blogs, Twitter, and Facebook have been ablaze with controversy about it since. Danny wrote a sort-of apology, followed by a more real apology, on his blog, Joanna offered a “calm the fuck down”-style message on her site, and basically everyone is up in arms about this display of racism in pornography.

Now here’s what I think about all of this: Ok, on the one hand… Uhhh yeah, the yellowface was totally racially insensitive and unnecessary. It’s not as if Glenn’s character on the show is super-Asian. Glenn is Asian-American, born and raised here. His character has pretty much nothing to do with his ethnicity, he just happens to be of Korean decent. So while Joanna’s explanation that she was just trying to make Danny look more like Glenn makes sense, I don’t think it was necessary to go so overboard with it. They could have just dyed his hair black and put him in Glenn’s clothes and anyone who knows the show would have known he was supposed to be Glenn. I don’t think there would have been a problem.

On the other hand, Danny and Joanna have both said that they weren’t trying to upset anyone and didn’t think of it as racist at the time, and I do believe them. I know them both, and particularly Danny is smart, sensitive, and thoughtful, particularly for someone in the porn industry. This seems to me like a case of insensitive stupidity that everyone should have known better than to take part in, but they weren’t thinking. That’s not an excuse or a “get over it” from me, but an observation. I think this whole yellowface incident is an instance of someone not realizing it could be a big deal to other people because it doesn’t affect them; it’s a classic case of the privileged not realizing that not everyone is like them. It’s not that they were trying to be bigoted about Asian people, it’s that they didn’t think about the impact of what they were doing on Asian people who would see it, and what it would mean to everyone else who might then think that yellowface is ok because Burnign Angel did it. The people involved definitely should have thought more about it and decided against it, but it didn’t occur to them to because they’re the ones with the privilege to not even consider it an issue.

But here’s the REAL hand that needs to get talked about: This whole thing is a perfect opportunity for people in the mainstream who are offended, and for people in the porn industry who make material often considered offensive, to start up a real discussion about racism in pornography. Racism (and sexism and homophobia) is a HUGE problem in pornography. It’s not just Burning Angel, not by a long shot. Actually, Burning Angel is something of a darling to the indie mainstream media: it’s owned and run by a Jewish woman from the Northeast, it uses a lot of “alt” talent with piercings and tattoos, it’s hip and fun and funny, and it’s usually pretty PC insofar as porn can be PC, while being irreverent and fun. So of course a feminist and fierce and indie site like Jezebel would noticed this instance of un-PC-ness and call it out. As far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. Gotta start somewhere. But if Jezebel kept up with, oh, say, the rest of the porn industry, fingers wouldn’t all be pointing straight at Joanna and Danny right now. Everyone should be taking deep breaths, turning around, and pointing at the huge issue of blatant fucking racism in the porn industry.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a complicated issue. Porn is in the business of constructing and acting out sexual fantasies for the rest of us to jerk off to, and probably the only true and immutable law of human sexual fantasy is that it is not PC and it is wholly un-policable. You cannot tell people what’s ok to fantasize about, and if you do, you get a whole lotta Freudian nightmare cases (like we see every day in the world we live in). You cannot say it’s not ok for someone to have sexual fantasies that include elements of racism, sexism, violence, homophobia, elitism, classism… whatever. It’s sex. It’s fantasy. It’s open for business from every corner. And given that porn caters to lots of un-PC fantasy, and is an industry that’s almost universally looked down upon as “the bottom of the barrel” by everyone else and even by the people who work in it… porn doesn’t work very hard at taking responsibility for its problems with race, gender, class, and so on. It thrives on political incorrectness in the form of racist titles and acts. Several people have pointed to titles like Fortune Cookie Pussy and Sushi Sluts to illustrate how porn is just porn and people shouldn’t get mad at Burning Angel for what was, at its base, a much less demeaning act than others that take place every day in Van Nuys.

But that’s missing the point. It’s not just that “other people make stuff that’s not PC, so calm down about this one thing”–it’s that the entire industry has a massive problem with race that goes unspoken. Behind the movie titles and box covers, there’s much deeper racism in porn. Whereas there’s a whole host of things wrong with filming a movie deserving of a title like the ones above, there’s a whole host of other things wrong with the fact that the term “interracial” in porn refers almost exclusively to black/white pairings, and mostly to black men with white women. You could have a scene where an Inuit was having sex with a Peruvian, and that would not be called “interracial.” It would just be a scene. Maybe an “ethnic” scene. There’s a problem where, as Nyomi Banxxx once told me in an interview, there are only three “big” black female actresses in the industry at any given time (she was referring specifically to herself, Skin Diamond, and Misty Stone). There are plenty of black actresses, but only three at a time ever get box covers and major exposure, and that’s a big problem. There’s a problem when, at awards shows in the porn industry, there are separate awards given for “ethnic” releases in three categories: Asian, Black, and Latin, and the other award categories are assumed to be “White.” There’s a problem when every movie featuring Asian women needs to have some gross stereotype in the title. There’s a problem when every movie featuring a black man has to have some disgusting racial epithet in its title. There’s a problem when, at awards ceremonies, there seems to be an endless parade of white people on the stage, punctuated by one token member of each other race. There’s a major problem in the fact that there are so few male Asian porn actors that Burning Angel couldn’t even find one to play the part of Glenn.

What I mean here is that it’s not just what’s shown in the movies, it’s the base assumption that all of that is ok because the entire industry is built on a tacit foundation of racism and various other nefarious -isms. There are still titles like Fortune Cookie Pussy and Mandingo Massacre, but those titles are just the tip of the iceberg. For me, it’s one thing to cater to a fantasy that someone out there wants to see fulfilled: if people want to see someone of whatever race of their choice pairing up with someone of another race of their choice, that’s one thing. But specifically filming scenes that not only cater to that preference, but also go above and beyond the call of duty by choosing to act out and perpetuate disgusting stereotypes, and then capitalize on them, is just gross and silly. Obviously there’s a marketing aspect here: a person with a fantasy fulfilled only by Asian women may be more likely to buy Dim Sum Pussy than another title, but he can damn well go out and find himself a movie with Asian women in it without having to resort to the lowest common denominator of damaging stereotype-laden drivel. Porn will still sell if the titles, and acting, and costumes, and makeup, and everything, stop being demeaning. It’s antiquated and it’s silly to assume that consumers won’t buy anything if it doesn’t have the word “Brotha” in it and they like watching African American guys have sex. That’s ridiculous.

And that’s where this whole thing gets to me. People like Danny and Joanna might be a good place to start a discussion about the endemic racism within the porn industry, because they are intelligent and sensitive and usually willing to discuss these things (though Johanna has been reticent so far). And a discussion desperately needs to be had. But in this whole screaming debacle I see something of a “good employee syndrome” happening, in which we expect more out of certain people because we think they’re “better than that” instead of looking at why we don’t expect more out of everyone else in the industry. Yeah, true, it is “just porn.” But if we’re going to get upset about a problem in porn, let’s look at the whole picture and demand better out of everyone involved, not just two people who followed a trend. Witch hunts are only worthwhile insofar as they lead to calls for bigger changes where they’re needed, and they are definitely needed if porn wants to stay relevant and appeal to the intelligent and savvy consumers of the 21st century.



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