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The First Hollywood Male Sex Symbol was Actually Asian?!

Hollywood, Whitewashing, and Regress through the History of Sessue Hayakawa

Written for an academic paper.

[ Note: There are images involved with this essay, for the full essay, please see here on ]

In recent news, Netflix released the teaser trailer for a fan favorite, live action tv-show called Death Note. However, instead of widespread acclaim - the 2017 series was instead received with extensive backlash due to the whitewashing of both the show and its characters (France, “Netflix's 'Death Note' accused of 'whitewashing’”). How so? In this specific case, Netflix adapted Death Note from the popular Japanese manga of the same title while completely erasing its Japanese context, and influences (France, “Netflix's 'Death Note' accused of 'whitewashing’”). In other words, the show’s creators relocated an entire story of Japanese characters (in Japan) to a show that revolved around white characters in modern day Seattle. However, for me, the ‘whitewashing’ of Death Note was unfortunately not a surprise (France, “Netflix's 'Death Note' accused of 'whitewashing’”). But yet, as an Asian-American who has been desensitized to this common practice, a few questions still probed my mind: why does Hollywood whitewash both written roles and cinematic stories? More specifically, why does Hollywood choose to whitewash Asian roles when the first male Hollywood sex symbol was in fact, Asian? In our contemporary cinematic reality, such treatment of Asian stories and actors are commonplace - where it seems impossible to have a leading Asian actor in Hollywood. In justifying this feeling of impossibility, we are assuming that whitewashing has always been a reality. We are pushing against what we assume to be a factual historical narrative in the hopes of moving towards a more progressive industry. Unfortunately, history and contemporary reality are not always in sync. Shockingly so, white Hollywood was once lit on the fire of Sessue Hayakawa - an Asian man that held the entertainment industry by its knees in the silent film era.

Thus, whilst it is assumed that whitewashing was worse in the past - on the contrary, Asian actors not only existed in Hollywood a century ago, but one in particular dominated his contemporary box office in both earnings and popularity. In the year of 1915 alone, Sessue Hayakawa was Hollywood’s “Sexiest Man Alive” (King, “One of the First Hollywood Heartthrobs Was a Smoldering Japanese Actor. What Happened?”). Coming fresh off the heat of “Cecil B. DeMille’s silent 1915 blockbuster The Cheat”, Sessue became an “international star” in both the homes of “America[n] teenage girls [and] housewives” as well as through the praises of “French intellectual Colette and Polish-born filmmaker Jean Epstein” (King, “One of the First Hollywood Heartthrobs Was a Smoldering Japanese Actor. What Happened?”). Hence, the 1910’s became known as the peak years of Hayakawa’s American career - he was never any director’s second choice. It was said by both past art critics such as photographer Miyatake Toyo that Hayakawa was “the greatest movie star in this century”, to contemporary film magazine Dazed noting that he was indeed “Hollywood’s first male sex symbol” (King, “One of the First Hollywood Heartthrobs Was a Smoldering Japanese Actor. What Happened?”). From IMDb (The Internet Movie Database with over 7.8 million classified media personalities) to notable film critic Evelyn Wang, it is said that “the popularity of Hayakawa rivaled that of Caucasian male movie stars” (IMDb, "Sessue Hayakawa Biography”. And more specifically, Hayakawa was “often name-dropped in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks” at the height of his popularity (Wang, “The Japanese male sex symbol who took over Hollywood”).

But Sessue Hayakawa was not only merely popular with fans, as extensive financial records indicate, he was also “one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood” (IMDb, "Sessue Hayakawa Biography”). Hence, whilst modern moviegoers complain against whitewashing - which at its core depletes roles from Asian actors, an Asian man was once highly paid for roles created specifically for him. In 1914’s film, The Typhoon, Hayakawa was being paid the monstrous amount of $500 a week (according to DollarTime’s inflation calculator, an equivalent of $12,071.60 today) for his premiere lead role in a blockbuster by renowned director Thomas Ince (IMDb, "Sessue Hayakawa Biography”). However, Hayakawa’s paycheck in The Typhoon is miniscule in comparison to his salary for William Worthington’s 1919 film, The Tong Man in which he was paid $200,000 for his performance which when adjusted for inflation, equates to $4,828,640.00 today (IMDb, "Sessue Hayakawa Biography”). Hence, through Hayakawa’s payroll - it is evident that Hollywood would not have given the Asian actor such a large sum if they did not believe Hayakawa was either deserving of the salary, and/or he was a financial asset in terms of net gains at the box office. Whether or not these movies profited Hollywood (which they did) is not important because the crucial point is that Hollywood not only chose to put Hayakawa as their leading man, but also openly gave Hayakawa a large compensation to do so (IMDb, "Sessue Hayakawa Biography”). Yet, if such was the case of Hayakawa whose fandom in 1915 was described by Toyo as such “female fans [would throw] their fur coats at the star’s feet [to prevent] him from stepping in a puddle” - what can we make of the wave of whitewashing that has ensued in the following decades in American media (King, “One of the First Hollywood Heartthrobs Was a Smoldering Japanese Actor. What Happened)? What marked the turning point that made Asians like Hayakawa, shift from being a financial asset to a financial risk?

In Hayakawa’s case, despite the wild success of Ince and Worthington’s films, Hayakawa wanted to take the racial tensions, that both positively and negatively affected his career, into his own hands. Most notably, due to anti-miscegenation laws that prevented a ‘colored’ actor in starring as the romantic lead opposite a white actor, the prejudiced law both helped booster Hayakawa’s sex appeal whilst simultaneously limiting his artistry (Lee 110). Consequently, as Hayakawa was not given the chance to play the romantic hero opposite a white actress, Hayakawa instead, played the exotic, satanic character that defiled the leading heroine (Pulvers, “Was Japan’s first Western screen star shameful to his homeland?”). Thus, the effects of these roles (as analyzed by film professor Stephen Gong) perfected Hayakawa as the combination of “the idea of the rape fantasy, forbidden fruit, [and] all those taboos of race and sex” (Venutolo, “Cinema can't keep up with Hayakawa's strides”). Hence, apart from his titillating good looks, it was this visceral visual concoction that established Hayakawa as the ultimate sex symbol of the time.

However, this niche of written characters also greatly typecasted Hayakawa. Therefore as unexpected as it was for “an Asian man to dominat[e] Western box offices the way he did”, Hayakawa launched his own production company in order to “remedy the stereotyping of Asians” (Wang, “The Japanese male sex symbol who took over Hollywood”). Hayakawa put himself forth into the national spotlight and in doing so, emulated his sex appeal “to his Asianness [instead of] whiteness” (Wang, “The Japanese male sex symbol who took over Hollywood”). Nevertheless beginning with the 1920’s, film historian Daisuke Miyao stated that despite his popularity, and acting mastery, even Hayakawa himself began to “[fall] victim to a growing tide of anti-Japanese sentiment in the wake of the more-militant Japan that emerged after World War I” (Miyao 213). Subsequently, the first record of Hayakawa’s decline was in 1921 when his celebrity popularity rank on the Motion Picture Story Magazine “dropped [suddenly] to 124” from 44 just two years prior. Historians and film analyst alike accredited the decline to the “socio political discourse in the early 1920’s” where “the rise of strong American nationalism or nativism” came to be in the “aftermath of World War I” (Miyao 215). Thus, as Hayakawa began to witnessed the growing aforementioned anti-Japanese sentiments and ‘yellow peril’ - the industry began to deem him unmarketable to an audience that had begun to hate people of Hayakawa’s own ethnicity (King, “One of the First Hollywood Heartthrobs Was a Smoldering Japanese Actor. What Happened?”). The risks directors had taken with the Japanese actor just a few years prior began to stop and although “bad business deals” would catalyze Hayakawa's departure from Hollywood in 1921, the real reason for Hayakawa’s departure would be the escalated result of a media industry that had shifted out of his favor due to racial prejudice (Miyao 217).

Hence, after the departure of Hayakawa, growing Asian resentment would continue to translate onto the silver screen and thus, a direct result of such racially fueled tension would be the aforementioned phenomenon ‘whitewashing’ (France, “Netflix's 'Death Note' accused of 'whitewashing’”). With examples stemming from the 1937 movie The Good Earth to the 2016 blockbuster The Great Wall, whitewashing has been prevalent for the majority of the past century within Hollywood (Brucculieri, “Constance Wu Says Matt Damon’s Casting In ‘The Great Wall’ Perpetuates ‘Racist Myth’”). In The Good Earth, an entire white main ensemble was cast as Asian characters performing in “yellowface makeup” in a book to film adaptation portraying Chinese people in ancient China (Metro Gold-Meyer Studios “Still from The Good Earth”).

Yet 80 years forwards, whitewashing is still widespread in Hollywood. Exemplified in The Great Wall worldwide release in 2016 - in lieu of Asian heroes, and Asian actors - Caucasian actor Matt Damon was chosen to play “an European mercenary in China during the Song dynasty” (Brucculieri, “Constance Wu Says Matt Damon’s Casting In ‘The Great Wall’ Perpetuates ‘Racist Myth’”). Both the casting and writing choice of Damon immediately sparked yet another controversy of whitewashing. In other words, instead of having realistic Asian ‘heroes’ in ancient Asian countries, the movie placed a Caucasian character, and actor as the movie’s titular protagonist. Thus, following the film’s release, the movie’s creators were immediately questioned as to whether The Great Wall would be a “white savior film, where it’s up to a white character to save non-whites from their inability to solve their own problems? [or] be yet another case of “whitewashing….where a white actor is cast as a non-white character?” (Brucculieri, “Constance Wu Says Matt Damon’s Casting In ‘The Great Wall’ Perpetuates ‘Racist Myth’”).

In response, directors have continuously deferred their answers to the general theme of marketability. Likewise, in justifying the hiring of white actors in Exodus: Gods and Kings, director Ridley Scott responded to interviewers that “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” (Foundas, “Exodus: Gods and Kings’ Director Ridley Scott on Creating His Vision of Moses”). Similarly, producer Dana Brunetti stated that her reasoning behind the whitewashing of the main characters of 21 was due to the unavailability of “bankable [Asian American actors]” (Manaa, “Film could’ve been just as successful- and more accurate- with Asian American stars”). In essence, Caucasian actors were and are cast due to the theory that they would have an increased chance of being marketable to an American audience in comparison to Asian actors. Moreover, this hypothesis also dominoes towards the theory that if Caucasian actors are more marketable - their marketability would then translate into larger gross profits at the box office.

However, but what Scott and Brunetti have missed is that their enacted theory does not actually hold, and it is instead - an unwarranted fear. In other words, these producers and directors alike are stating that Asian actors are simply not worth the financial risk whilst ignoring contrary evidence such as the fact that Hayakawa once dominated the box office across Hollywood. Apart from Hayakawa’s aforementioned blockbuster success, The Cheat, Hayakawa “made his career in melodramas” in which his roles spawned from “playing romantic heroes [to] charismatic heavies” (IMDb, "Sessue Hayakawa Biography”). Moreover, even films that starred two Asian leads, with Hayakawa himself and his wife Tsuru Aoki as the main characters “proved very popular” with the contemporary audience of the time (IMDb, "Sessue Hayakawa Biography”). Therefore, what does this say about Hollywood? Hayakawa’s success blatantly debunks Hollywood’s racially fueled box office theories but more importantly, it appears that cinematic history has seemingly forgotten or, more troublingly, wants to forget that an Asian man once ruled Hollywood.

Proof of such forgetfulness is found very-much-alive in the modern fame of the other male sex symbols during Hayakawa’s prime. While white actors such as Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks are renowned today, Hayakawa is vastly unknown to the general American public (Wang, “The Japanese male sex symbol who took over Hollywood”). Thus, while all three actors were highly sought after, unlike Chaplin, and Fairbanks, Hayakawa’s success “had never happened before” (Wang, “The Japanese male sex symbol who took over Hollywood”). And as evaluated by modern film critics, such success “[would] not happen again for a very long time, [and] Hollywood had made sure of that” (Wang, “The Japanese male sex symbol who took over Hollywood”). Thus, the issue has never truly lied within an Asian actor’s ability to make a profit as exhibited through Hayakawa but rather the issue becomes whether Asian actors are given the chance to be profitable across our screens.

Directly addressing this issue, Asian-American actress Constance Wu made news headlines worldwide in 2016 in regard to her response to Matt Damon’s aforementioned titular role in The Great Wall. As one of many that publicly outcried against the movie’s whitewashing, Wu tweeted that Hollywood should “stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world [as] our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon [and instead] they look like Malala. Ghandi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time” (Brucculieri, “Constance Wu Says Matt Damon’s Casting In ‘The Great Wall’ Perpetuates ‘Racist Myth’”). However, apart from simply recreating the over-repetitive arguments against whitewashing, Wu further delineates a crucial point, tweeting, “[you] think only a huge movie star can sell a movie? That has NEVER been guaranteed... if white actors are forgiven for having a box office failure once in awhile, why can’t a POC sometimes have one? And HOW COOL would it be if you were the movie that took the ‘risk’ to make a POC your hero and you sold the shit out of it?!” (Brucculieri, “Constance Wu Says Matt Damon’s Casting In ‘The Great Wall’ Perpetuates ‘Racist Myth’”). In this tweet, Wu clearly states the pivotal aforementioned issue that whitewashing is not simply just wrong, nor is it just that Scott and Brunetti-like minded arguments are flawed, but that Hollywood needs to give ethnic actors (or as Wu abbreviated “People of Color”) the same chance as their white peers to headline blockbuster movies.

Therefore in the specified attention to the lack of chances given to Asian actors, Constance Wu is not only accurate, but actually quite precise in highlighting the underlying issue. However, what Wu does miss - and what cinematic history has missed - is that Hollywood has given Asian actors such a chance as exemplified in the history of Sessue Hayakawa. Moreover, past directors like Thomas Ince had taken the ‘risk’ with Hayakawa, and made major blockbusters as well as historic successes with their films. But despite Ince’s and Worthington’s financial gamble with Asian actors like Hayakawa as their leading stars - they did so in a fashion that typecasted Hayakawa in accordance with the anti-miscegenation laws of the time. In contrast, with the invalidation of anti-miscegenation laws since 1967 (Loving v. Virginia) - there is nothing stopping directors in 2017 from casting Asian actors aside from their own outdated, flawed ‘economical’ arguments, and racial biases. Once more, it is not about whether or not we should give Asian Americans a chance, but instead, it is rather that we should return to and continue to give Asian actors the same chance they had nearly a century ago. And in a manner that does not force their talent to fall prey to the stifling typecasting and racial ridicule that Hayakawa himself faced.

Consequently, it is due to such implicit racial biases that it may seem impossible to have a leading Asian actor in Hollywood today, but this ‘sense of impossibility’ is actually a direct result of our own ignorance of film history. We have assumed that whitewashing has always been a reality but when we push against this assumed piece of historical narrative, what is actually brought forth is a more alarming fact. And that is, Hollywood is not merely unprogressive, but rather quite shockingly - regressive in its advocacy of ethnic talent.

Work Cited:

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