THE TRUTH SNAKE – Yellowface in Green: Science Fiction Orientalism

When I was a kid, I fell in love with Lego. That’s a common story, really, but it’s where this needs to begin. Because one of the many Lego lines at the time was a thing called “Orient Expedition.” It was, basically, knockoff Indiana Jones. An adventurer with a cool hat exploring faraway lands in search of discovering lost treasure, making allies and enemies in each new location.

The title of that line should be a clue at where the problem is: Orient Expedition. The “Orient” is a term with perhaps a bit less circulation in the present day than it once had, but is tremendously loaded all the same. It is, in essence, a term for the general region of Asia, particularly east Asia. Indeed, that’s what the Lego line focused on: an expedition through magical, cool spaces in India, the Himalayas, and China. But how this story is told is key. Because the story of western explorer voyaging into the exotic east is a tremendously problematic one. It is the problem of orientalism. And that’s one that spreads well beyond Lego, impacting our culture on a deep level and even seeping into Doctor Who.

For those less versed in critical theory, orientalism is a sort of racist exoticism of the so-called east. The “Orient” is defined in contrast to the “Occident,” or Western world, as an exotic other contrary to western values. As Edward Said explains in his foundational text on the subject,

“the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.”

The key problem is in how the positioning of west and east as antithetical leads to a widespread number of harmful impacts. It’s more insidious than typical racism. It is bound up in discourses of intellectual study, which makes it look credible and positive, and disguised as something harmless or even positive, the exoticism hidden under a veneer of appreciation.

But it is, all the same, very very racist. Just take a look at the caricature villains from Orient Expedition, squinty eyes and all.

racist legos

“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” is probably the archetypal example of an orientalist narrative. Take, for example, the dinner sequence, luxuriating in the horror of outlandish meals it purports that people in India eat and how that disturbs the palate of sexy, civilized singer Willie Scott. The sequence, frankly, adds very little to the plot, but it connects perfectly with what the film is about: a fascination with India as an exotic “other” space. A place with weird customs and untold magic, a source of danger but also riches and adventure to the good western people. Real people in India, of course, don’t go around pulling out still-beating hearts and eating live snakes. Indiana Jones is built on a basic colonialist pleasure, finding joy and adventure in a cycle of ransacking regional cultures and oppressing native peoples. And it works, the movies are some of my absolute favorites despite the basic horror at their core. But they exemplify a basic narrative and basic social dynamic that is insidious and vital to understand.

It’s a pattern repeating a lot in media. “Doctor Strange” came under fire recently for perpetuating it. So did “Iron Fist.” There was a lot of justified outrage, and a lot of very interesting fan campaigns with potential solutions, such as suggesting casting an Asian-American lead to make it a story about connecting with heritage rather than appropriating it.  We are in an era of more dialogue about race and representation in media, and that is a wonderful thing. But while I think it’s safe to say we all understand the racism of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” critically even while we enjoy it, there is remarkably little discussion of how that same orientalism is used in science fiction. 

Take Turn Left,” for example. Brilliant episode. Perhaps my favorite thing Russell T Davies has ever written, truly a phenomenal showcase for Donna Noble that also connects with a moment of social and economic disillusionment in a poignant way. It is also orientalist. It is also racist. As discussed before, the key force of orientalism is in defining the west as a “self” against an Asian “other.” This dichotomy fuels the entirety of orientalist thought. And just like in adventure stories like Indiana Jones, where the other is used as an exotic place for adventure, in science fiction, an Asia-inspired other is extrapolated as an alien culture. The racial and cultural alien becomes a space alien. And so we get the planet of “Turn Left,” a world that’s exotic and exciting because it’s vaguely Asia inspired, complete with evil Asian fortune teller woman.

shan

This is not a trend just limited to Doctor Who, but indeed a concerningly common one in genre fiction as a whole. The Phantom Menace rightly came under fire for racial charicatures in its alien species, building off of cultural others and exotifying them with bug eyes or snouts. This is not a new thing. Indeed, as has been noted by other writers, “George Lucas has drawn on a wide variety of popular culture sources, particularly old Saturday morning adventure serials.” The Trade Federation’s place as an orientalist charicature, for example, is “clearly a throwback to the Yellow Peril characters popular in Flash Gordon and other series.” Orientalism as exotic character design is a recurring pattern in media (lovely rant about it in a video game here), and this exemplifies it. Star Wars, as an amalgamation of storytelling traditions re-concentrated into a new iconic narrative, bears the weight of loaded orientalist iconography which it fails to engage with critically. There are just long-standing traditions of racism held in thin obscuring lenses of nostalgia and science fiction. They need to be recognized, no matter how beloved and influential, and countered.

But, unfortunately, these orientalist issues flow deeper within the DNA of series like Star Wars, with far less recognition than the alien stereotypes. The Force itself, the mystical life energy and power that fuels the spirituality of the series, is rooted in the other space of eastern spirituality. It carries hints of Buddhist thought, and even the imagery of the Jedi Knights is borrowed from the likes of the samurai, as noted by this rather interesting analysis of Star Wars spirituality. This showcases, really, just how complicated and insidious orientalism gets. It is absolutely orientalist. The Force is the core exotic draw that makes the Star Wars universe seem so exciting and different. The biggest moment of triumph in “The Force Awakens,” for example, comes in Rey finally channeling the force to claim Luke’s lightsaber and kick Sith ass. It presents the things it exoticizes in a positive light rather than a negative one, a marked contrast to the likes of the Trade Federation. But it is still built in the exoticism and the flawed ways of thinking inherent to orientalism. Indeed, it’s rather depressing that it’s taken until “Rogue One” to finally have some Asian Force-users, given the whole concept of the Force is taken from various lines of Asian spirtual thought.

It’s not just Star Wars in which so-called eastern spirituality is used to create a sense of the exotic and mystical, either. This is a key feature in the development of a core idea of Doctor Who, that of regeneration. The first serial in which that word was used to describe that process, “Planet of the Spiders,” is tremendously orientalist, complete with white actor in literal yellowface playing a Time Lord monk advising in the process. Or, as TARDIS Data Core concerningly puts it

YELLOWFACE IS ETHNICITY CHANGE AND I HATE TARDIS WIKI

Race and orientalism hang heavy over the regeneration, so much that even the fairly conservative box ticking community that is TARDIS Data Core can’t deny its presence completely, even while they cheerfully suggest that a white man in yellowface genuinely counts as another ethnicity, the only term for which I can provide is “truly horrific.” Regeneration itself is a concept mired in western distortions of eastern spirituality to create a sense of exotic in the Time Lords. That’s not the entirety of regeneration, obviously. The concept functions fine on its own, and every regeneration story has its own take on the concept. The two previous, of course, functioned entirely independent of such notions. But in one of the most foundational regenerational storylines, the baseline is taking Buddhist ideas and applying them to exotic aliens in the Time Lords. Yes, it must be noted, Barry Letts was a Buddhist. That makes these messages a bit different from something like the use of the Force, as there is a truly sincere and well-meaning basis in its inclusion, inputting his own beliefs onto the show. But it is ultimately still used in an exoticist light within the serial, complete with yellowface and an alien other, regardless of intentions. It is still orientalist and still racist in the end.

And it is this more insidious form of orientalism I wish to focus on, particularly in how it lingers on in the Big Finish audios. Because in quite recent years, there have still been some rather horifically orientalist audios produced, with next to no dialogue about the issues involved. None, I suspect, were meant in a hurtful way, just as “Planet of the Spiders” was more likely trying to celebrate rather than stereotype Buddhism and Tibetian people. But that doesn’t make such works any less problematic.

For one thing, within the Doctor Who extended universe, there is an unfortunate tendency to often recreate nostalgic pleasures uncritically. That is at many times Big Finish’s basic market strategy. But that means that, in modern times, Big Finish is still putting out content that is deeply orientalist just by repeating racism from the classic series. The Draconians, for example, are a Japanese charicature. They have been celebrated by Doctor Who fans for being a unique attempt to create an alien species with a distinct culture and that is not evil. But not only is the culture they are provided trite, it’s a ripped off distortion. It’s no secret that they are based on feudal Japan. The empire, the monarchy, the focus on honor, none of it is subtle. None of it even tries to be. Malcolm Hulke and the rest of the classic Doctor Who crew straightforwardly decided that, as outlined above, extrapolating the other of Asia to space aliens would make for a believable-feeling exotic culture. And so we get a new form of yellowface, now green and in scales. This is how Doctor Who portrays Japanese people on one of its darkest days: as sexist, classist lizards played by white actors.

paper cuts doctor who

And Big Finish, ever in the impulse to appease fan nostalgia, not only uncritically recreates this kind of force, but amplify it. A look at the cover of 2009’s “Paper Cuts reveals a wealth of orientalist imagery, taken to its furthest point. We’ve got the yellowface lizard. We’ve got exotic pagodas made even more exotic by dropping them in space. We’ve got what’s not just a samurai, but one made of origami, just to get all the cliches in. And the writer, director, and all the cast are white. I cannot stress enough how horrific it is that things like this are still being made. Not with malice, not with hate, just with a genuine nostalgic love causing people to recreate things that should have died out of our culture long before their childhood. And still, nobody says anything.

Also by Marc Platt comes “Planet of the Rani, unsubtle in its extrapolation of India into a space culture. So you get characters with names like “Raj Kahnu” played by white Big Finish staples like James Joyce. The reasoning? Rani is, more or less, a word for queen” in India. So the audio goes out of its way to make its alien world vaguely resemble India, just to fit that little touch. In this way, the fan impulse to recreate old joys of the past of Doctor Who results in intensifying the issues. Just calling her the Rani is one thing, but making her the imperialist ruler of an India-inspired space colony inhabited by white people greatly increaces the unfortunate aspects of implicit issues. Yet again, it’s science fiction yellowface and exoticism.

Worse yet, this process is still going in new forms. Take 2016’s “UNIT: Shutdown,” starring modern beloved Doctor Who heroines Kate Stewart and Petronella Osgood. As declares one review quoted on the Big Finish website, “How could you not enjoy a conspiracy story involving Alien Ninja Warriors?” Quite easily, really: because it’s orientalist. The story stars an alien species called the Kamishi, with infinite power and vaguely eastern, Force-like wisdom. Their society is divided into castes like the “Tengobushi” ninja assassins. It’s basically just an alien mishmash of orientalist tropes. Pull a caste system from India, or ninjas from Japan, mush them all together, and you get something that seems all exotic and cool because of the orientalist othering implicit in it. This general disregard for distinct real cultures even shows up in the casting. In Shutdown, the villains are played by two primary actors: Dan Li, a British-Chinese actor, and Akira Koieyama, a Japanese actor. Throwing distinct Asian cultures in a blender to produce an alien species, that’s this orientalist force at its purest.

And it’s horrifying. It’s extremely uncomfortable to see Doctor Who, which I love for being extremely progressive at its best, making storytelling choices like this so mired in problematic attitudes that should be left in the past. It’s even more uncomfortable that they are faced by modern, progressive characters like Kate Stewart, River Song (who faces the Kamishi in her first Big Finish box set), and Osgood, who are generally triumphs of improved representation of women in modern Doctor Who. Orientalism should be left in the past. But it’s not just left in old and obvious examples like “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” It’s here, now, still being made, still being accepted. And we just can’t do that.

I must stress, I do not hate the people involved in making these stories for what they have done. Hell, many of the people making these stories I consider personal inspirations! It can happen to anyone, no matter how beloved: Russell T Davies, George Lucas, some of the most successful creators out there have fallen into this trap. I still love their stories, and aspire to follow in their footsteps, but that doesn’t stop me from taking a stand against recreating these problems again and again. The sad fact is that this is an insidious cultural process that we white westerners all are too prone to falling prey to. But it needs to stop. We need to talk about the issues of Orientalism. We need to stop exoticizing the so-called “east” and treating it as a special, fascinating and terrifying other space, whether on earth or otherwise. Because as long as it is perpetuated without critical discourse, racism slips through the cracks.

9 thoughts on “THE TRUTH SNAKE – Yellowface in Green: Science Fiction Orientalism

  1. I may be wrong but I believe the Tardis Wiki is both trying to remain objective and focus on what the story wants to mean rather than what happens in the real world. So they are not, as you put it, “cheerfully suggesting that a white man in yellowface genuinely counts as another ethnicity”, they are saying that from within the story, this is not a white man in yellowface, it really is an Asian man
    They don’t wish to engage with controversy, they want to report what happens in the story

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    • Objectivity, when it comes to the interpretation of fiction, is kind of an impossible dream, really. I mean, you can strive to it, which the TARDIS wiki does, sometimes to ridiculous extent, but you will be forced to take decisions at some point, and those decisions have meaning. To provide an in-universe justification for yellowface is, in a certain way, saying that there’s a “good reason” for it to be there.

      When the TARDIS wiki refuses to have a page listing LGBT+ characters but accepts such entries as “semen” or “rape”, it’s not being neutral or objective, those are deliberate choices as well.

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    • I will just add that attempting not to be political is itself a very political choice, and it really shouldn’t be controversial to say yellowface is not okay.

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      • Actually, this is setting my brain to something else, so I’m going to expand on that. TARDIS wiki fears real world context, and that is the most prominent threat to them being a useful source of information. For example, productions that exist prominently within and are influential to the history of Doctor Who, like BBV audios or Vienna, they do not cover. Or they try to define stuff like rape in universe, or can only accept jelly babies have certain flavors because it’s mentioned in an obscure expanded universe story.

        TARDIS Data Core is pathologically afraid of engaging with reality, and this drives it to make some bizarre and horrifying choices. The other day, I was watching Zygon: When Being You Just Isn’t Enough, and, of course, that features full frontal male nudity. One of the people on a Doctor Who chat group I participate in suggested that, within TARDIS wiki guidelines, a picture of the man’s penis would be acceptable as a visual illustration for the penis page. And, believe it or not, one of the most prominent moderators of the site supported it, until it was revealed the broader guidelines of wikis as a whole prohibited it. This is some bizarre, bizarre ideology driving the site, and it leads to some very funky choices that are ineffective for anything remotely regarding an information source on Doctor Who.

        And the simple fact is, Doctor Who’s history isn’t perfect. It gets sexist. It gets racist. And you can’t just pretend the problems don’t exist. If you do, you just enable it to be uncritically replicated, such as in the audio Paper Cuts mentioned above, which is totally true to the history of Doctor Who with the Draconians but also a horrifically racist story to be putting out in modern times.

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  2. Pingback: ASSESSING STRESS #11: “World Enough and Time” | DoWntime

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