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Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie has faced criticism after casting a white actor for an Asian rolevia ainlaygsa.tumblr.com

Why getting a white actor to play an Asian role is bad

We speak to performer and comedian Veronica Thompson who auditioned for the role in the Ab Fab movie about why casting white actors in Asian roles is frustrating

American comedian Margaret Cho accused the makers of the new Ab Fab movie of “yellowface” after Scottish actor Janette Tough was cast as a new “Japanese fashion designer” character named Huki Muki. Cho said she was “very disappointed” that producers had not chosen an Asian actor to play the role. “I love AbFab but #YELLOWFACE is something I cannot watch – I just can’t,” she tweeted. “It’s sad when heroes are no longer heroic. Too bad. #racism.”

The response to Cho’s comments has been mixed and controversially, reasonably unsympathetic. The Guardian wondered whether "yellowface" was any worse than pantomime dames in drag and the Telegraph suggested that white actors taking Asian roles were merely acting.

Someone who spoke out against the casting decision, agreeing with Cho, was Korean London-based performance artist and comedian Veronica Thompson. We spoke to Thompson, who had originally auditioned for the role of the Japanese designer, and got her thoughts on the controversy and why "yellowface" in film actually matters.

You auditioned for the part. Tell us how that came about.

Veronica Thompson: I went to the casting with my friend Lily, she’s Thai. The ad called out for funny Asian people, under 5 foot 3 for Huki Muki. They made us huff it out to fucking west London – another bloody fucking other planet with incense that costs more than my fucking shoe collection and go and sit there and play this tiny tiny part. They chose a white person, Janette Tough aka Jimmy Krankie, so I don’t know if that casting was just lip service. They wasted a lot of people’s time and who knows if they cast that woman last minute because they were like 'oh my god, it would be hilarious to cast this old woman who is this has-been as a weird comedy character'. They didn’t think for a moment that she’s playing a Japanese fashion designer.

What is the issue with "yellowface" in this case specifically? 

Veronica Thompson: I mean let us make fun of ourselves, if we’re going to make fun of anyone. I mean I’ll stand up myself as an Asian person no problem but that’s my choice isn’t it? You wouldn’t see a white person playing an Arab oil baron and you definitely wouldn’t see blackface. 

You see a montage of people in the Ab Fab pictures and it’s all white people and Janet Cranky just looking like a fucking idiot. And all the other cameos are amazing. It just reeks of a lot of people celebrating each other and not having one single thought about the ethics of their choices.

There’s a difference between parody and casting a white person to play a Japanese person. In all that parody and all that satire and all that re-examining something and twisting it is great but sometimes people just aren’t thinking. They’re just doing it for laughs. It’s like okay, what’s being sacrificed here, what’s being overlooked?

Do you think a lack of minorities in casting teams and the wider film industry is what leads to these kinds of representations?

Veronica Thompson: Yeah. It’s like everybody needs to just sit down and have a think and just open their eyes a little bit wider. Don’t do a casting call for Asian people to play this role, don’t do it in the first place if you won’t use them. It’s a house of yes though when you get to this big budget point of how famous people involved are. It’s really a house of people saying “everything’s great, because we’re funny and we’re self-deprecating” and that doesn’t excuse all sins. That’s why famous artists come out with absolute shit because everyone who’s around them is like hired by them or a worshipper so you don’t hear any critical voices coming in saying that’s actually shit.

Do you support Margaret Cho for speaking out against the casting decision?

Veronica Thompson: People don’t give a shit about Asians regarding pop culture, we’re a very small voice and I think that it’s great that Margaret Cho made a big stink about it. That’s quite powerful and quite bold of her and it shouldn’t be seen as such and they should’ve just done it in the fucking first place. It’s such a tiny thing but it needs to be flagged up. It’s also interesting when a woman, a female comedian of colour criticises something, so much stupid shit comes out it’s just racist and sexist, it’s fucking ridiculous.

What would you like to see as a result of the criticism?

Veronica Thompson: Exposure. I guess just bigger awareness basically of it and like a fucking apology or just a response but I feel they probably won’t even respond to it. It’s humiliating. I mean these women, like Joanna Lumley freak out about political things. They probably are sat saying “I didn’t even think” so it will be very interesting to see what happens.

Dazed reached out to Ab Fab team for comment, but they declined to comment. What do you think? Should the role have gone to an Asian person?