Cosmopolitan Pleasures and Affects; Or Why Are We Still Talking about Yellowface in Twenty-First-Century Cinema?
Abstract: It is now widely acknowledged that the postracial fantasies ushered in by Barack Obama’s two-term election success are now in tatters. Yet debates on yellowface casting practices in contemporary Hollywood (also said to have evolved into “whitewashing” practices), in such films as The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan, 2010), Aloha (Cameron Crowe, 2015), Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016), Birth of the Dragon (George Nolfi, 2016), and Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017), have resurfaced in recent times. These press controversies seem almost anachronistic after a generation of “intercultural” artistic theory and practice, “diversity” management training, and numerous academic discourses on otherness and difference, including those on cosmopolitan theory and practice. This article reviews yellowface practices and debates in contemporary times and puts them in dialogue with cosmopolitan aspirations of being “open to difference”, and argues that the latter cannot be taken as self-evident. It offers a way of thinking about yellowface practice via cosmopolitan pleasures evoked largely through modes of consumption, which “hollow out” the subjectivity of the character being depicted. On the site of the intersection between representation and subjectivity is where the identity politics occurs, yet, rather than universalising the issue, the article argues that a cosmopolitan approach should take on board localised conditions and contexts of production and reception in ways that acknowledge the multilayered complexity of the issues at hand.