Posted on March 13, 2020

HBO’s Possible ‘Parasite’ Spinoff with Mark Ruffalo Raises Whitewashing Concerns

Marian Liu, Washington Post, March 12, 2020

When the South Korean movie “Parasite” won not one but four Oscars, the Asian and Asian American communities finally felt recognized for their talent.

But when news followed that the HBO spinoff series will possibly star Mark Ruffalo, many expressed disappointment.


“‘Parasite’ just felt like such an affirmation of Asian talent, both behind the scenes and in front of the scenes,” said Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.” “I think to have the U.S. version be white feels like a downer compared to the uproar that we experienced as a community.”

In her study of broadcast, cable and digital platform television shows, Yuen found premium cable was the worst offender, with 74 percent of its shows having no Asian representation, as compared with the other platforms, with around 60 percent of shows having no representation in the 2015-2016 season. Out of all the shows that included Asian actors, 87 percent were on-screen for less than half an episode. Over one-third of these Asian actors appeared in only 11 shows, and by the time her report was published in 2017, over half of those shows were canceled or not renewed, cutting overall Asian representation by 21 percent.


American adaptations of popular Korean movies have featured all-white casts, like “Oldboy” and “My Sassy Girl.” Characters have also been whitewashed, like Emma Stone as a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian character in 2015’s “Aloha,” Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi in 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell,” plus Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One, which was supposed to be a mystical old Asian man in Tibet, for 2016’s “Doctor Strange.”

Asian directors can be just as culpable, like Zhang Yimou’s casting of Matt Damon as the lead in the 2017 movie “The Great Wall.” Actually, “Parasite” director Bong Joon-Ho is involved in this HBO series, teaming up with Adam McKay, executive producer and director of HBO’s “Succession.” {snip}


“The knock on Asian American actors is they have never carried something before, so how can they be trusted to carry a new project,” said Yu, a Los Angeles screenwriter. “With ‘Parasite,’ the entire world just witnessed a foreign language film with actors and a cast that had no discernible Hollywood star in it, set in a non-Western society come and sweep the Oscars. I think there’s a lot of hope that … movies like this with faces like these can translate on a global level and can connect with an audience that doesn’t necessarily look like them.”

But Yu said word that HBO was considering Ruffalo to star in its spinoff suggests “maybe we’re not quite there yet.”


The percentage of top roles starring Asians in Hollywood has grown from 3.1 percent in 2016 to 5 percent in 2019, according to the Hollywood Diversity Report by the University of California at Los Angeles. While Asians are still underrepresented, the percentage is slowly inching up to their share of the U.S. population — 5.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


By contrast, the number of Asians in decision-making roles continues to lag: Directors made up 3.4 percent and writers 2.8 percent.


“Diversity sells,” said Ana-Christina Ramón, co-author of the study and the director of research and civic engagement at UCLA. “There’s a lot more enthusiasm for people of color. And that’s where I think it’s untapped in terms of Asian and Latino representation on screen and behind the scenes because the industry is probably leaving money on the table, you know, and they’re taking them for granted.”