The offensive practice of using makeup, costumes, movements, music, accents in an attempt to portray a stereotyped depiction of Asianness. This practice is typically performed by non-Asian actors and can take the form of performers wearing eye make-up/prostheses to give their eyes the appearance of being more slanted; using make-up to alter their skin tone, either to darken or whiten it using types of makeup such as Oshiroi to mimic traditional cultural performance (Japanese kabuki theatre, traditional Geisha makeup); and wearing a traditional cultural dress like a kimono as a costume. Yellowface performance frequently includes the non-Asian performer adopting an offensive, grossly exaggerated accent or speaking nonsense to mimic a stereotyped Asian vernacular. For more, please see Galella, Nakagawa.
A type of yellowface performance described by Dr. Esther Kim Lee as the use of clownish and exaggerated makeup, costumes, and prosthetics to portray a comical caricature of an East Asian person. Lee notes that white performers have historically done this on stage and screen to negatively mock East Asian men, and it has also been used in offensive Halloween costumes. While this practice can be traced back to stereotypical 19th-century stage characters, one of the most infamous examples of “clown yellowface” is Mickey Rooney’s offensive portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Coined by Dr. Esther Kim Lee, “cosmetic yellowface” is a type of yellowface performance that can be traced back to the original productions of Madame Butterfly. This concept differs in intention from Lee’s “clown yellowface” concept, defined above. “Cosmetic yellowface” describes white performers altering their appearance with makeup, props, gestures, and costumes like kimono to depict an “exotic” caricature of an East Asian woman. Lee suggests that “cosmetic yellowface” has been used to represent stereotypes of daintiness and purity while also portraying an “exotic” sex appeal that is often associated with female East Asian characters. Lee suggests that examples of “cosmetic yellowface” include white actor Blanche Bates’ portrayal of Cio-Cio-San in the first production of Madame Butterfly 1900 and, more recently, Katy Perry’s 2013 performance at the American Music Awards.
Sources and Further Reading:
“‘Dainty as Needs Be’: Madame Butterfly and Cosmetic Yellowface_Esther Km Lee, Duke University.” YouTube, uploaded by John Hope Franklin Centre at Duke University, 31 Jan. 2022, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMG6KWPE0kc.
Feeney, Nolan. “Katy Perry’s ‘Geisha-Style’ Performance Needs to Be Called Out.” The Atlantic, 25 Sep. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/katy-perrys-geisha-style-performance-needs-to-be-called-out/281805/
Galella, Donatella. “Artists of Color/Cross-Racial Casting.” Casting a Movement : The Welcome Table Initiative, edited by Claire Syler and Daniel Banks, Routledge, 2019, pp. 190-199, doi.org/10.4324/9780429488221.
Galella, Donatella. “Feeling Yellow: Responding to Contemporary Yellowface in Musical Performance.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, vol. 32 no. 2, 2018, p. 67-77. Project MUSE, doi.org/10.1353/dtc.2018.0005.
Hwang, David Henry. Yellowface. Theatre Communications Group, 2009.
Kwon, Renate. “Of Clowns and Cosmetics – ‘Yellowface’ in Early 20th-Century Stage and Screen.” Duke University, 31 Jan. 2021, www.igs.duke.edu/news/clowns-and-cosmetics-%E2%80%93-%E2%80%9Cyellowface%E2%80%9D-early-20th-century-stage-and-screen.
Morgan, Thad. “How Hollywood Cast White Actors in Caricatured Asian Roles.” History, 21 Oct. 2021, www.history.com/news/yellowface-whitewashing-in-film-america.
Nakagawa, Scot. “On Yellow Face, Racial Parody, and White Denial.” Race Files, 28 Jul. 2014, www.racefiles.com/2014/07/28/on-yellow-face-racial-parody-and-white-denial/.