At the age of 93, actor Mickey Rooneyhas passed away. As his many lengthy eulogies have made abundantly clear, his was a life of stratospheric highs and humiliating lows. He was one of the biggest stars in the world as a teen; he fell into bankruptcy and irrelevancy as an adult. He reinvented himself and rebounded. He crashed and burned. Few lives have had as many epic twists and turns, making his obituaries obsessively engrossing reading.
But there’s one thing the newspapers have generally danced past, and it happens to be the role that has cast the longest shadow out of a career of thousands: His performance as Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi in the classic 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
In the decades since the film was released, Rooney’s portrayal of Yunioshi — taped eyelids, buck teeth, sibilant accent and all — has become one of the persistent icons of ethnic stereotype, brought up whenever conversation turns to the topic of Hollywood racism. The depiction has prompted widespread protests whenever the film is screened; Paramount, the studio behind “Breakfast” has now acknowledged Yunioshi as such a toxic caricature that its canonical “Centennial Collection” DVD release of the film includes a companion documentary, “Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective,” which features Asian American performers and advocates in conversation about the role’s lasting cultural impact and the broader context of Asian and other racial stereotypes in entertainment.
Six years ago, after four decades of stolidly defending the role, even Rooney himself finally expressed some regrets, stating in an interview that if he’d known so many people would be offended, “I wouldn’t have done it.”
Would that he hadn’t. The spectre of Yunioshi continues to haunt Hollywood and Asian America today. Rooney’s broadly comic performance, repurposed from his early vaudeville days into the brave new world of the cinema, is the godfather of the “Ching-Chong” stereotype that continues to rear its yellow head today — as the recent “Colbert Report” flap underscores. Though I wasn’t a supporter of the tactics or stated objectives of the#CancelColbertcampaign, the point made by the activists behind it is a valid one: Racially stereotypical images are problematic even when presented as progressive satire, because many who see them won’t understand the context and will laugh for the “wrong reasons.”
And even when laughed at for the right reasons, they’re problematic. As many have pointed out in the wake of that campaign, the mainstreaming of these images has the unfortunate side effect of making them seem safe for public consumption…so long as their intent isn’t to “harm.” The danger of allowing intent to be the sole arbiter of whether something is acceptable can be seen most obviously in the depictions of another marginalized American population — ironically, the one whose interests were drowned out in the wildfire aftermath of the #CancelColbert campaign: Native Americans.
The Cleveland Indians confrontation.Sam Allard, ClevelandScene (used with permission)
Last Friday, an image of anincredibly awkward encounterbetween a Cleveland Indians fan and a Native American protester went viral. The photo, taken by Cleveland Scene staff writer Sam Allard, shows the fan in a plastic feather headdress and grotesque “Chief Wahoo” makeup, face to face with an expressionless demonstrator, a member of the Apache Nation.
Allard quotes the unrepentant Clevelandite as proclaiming that his costume wasn’t racist: “It’s Cleveland pride, that’s all it’s about.” But the fact that he and hundreds of thousands of other sports fans still shamelessly refuse to acknowledge the offensiveness of such depictions, even when staring a real, live Native American in the face, shows that that isn’t all it’s about.
Racial mascots like the Indians’ Chief Wahoo aren’t something to be proud of; they’re a lingering disgrace. They serve to dehumanize a people who’ve been subjected over the span of America’s existence and beyond to an innumerable series of abuses and betrayals. They bury some of the worst aspects of our nation’s history under piles of printed polyester and plastic gimcrackery. They encourage new generations of young Americans to believe that racialized imagery is acceptable and appropriate, just so long as it’s being used for fun, for laughs, for entertainment….even when the subject of that imagery is not the one having fun, laughing or being entertained.
It took Mickey Rooney 40 years to regret his role in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but he had little leverage to redress it even if he’d wanted to. He couldn’t change his filmed performance or ban its distribution. As an entertainer, it is a permanent part of his legacy. Maybe the biggest part: Most of his movies, from the Andy Hardy series to his partnerships with Judy Garland, have largely passed into the category of quaint, half-remembered nostalgia. But “Breakfast,” with the luminous Audrey Hepburn at its center, has not. And even those who decry the PC police can’t deny that Rooney’s performance, the one that has likely been seen by more people than any other, is the most unpleasant and uncomfortable part of an otherwise classic film.
Sports teams like the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins have a luxury that Rooney didn’t have as an entertainer. They control how they’re depicted; they own their brands. Which means it’s fully within their power to eliminate the ugly trappings of racial mascotry from their corporate identities and merchandising.
And while they may pay a short-term price for doing so, the long term benefits more than outweigh it: They will have removed a set of cancerous growths from the face of our popular culture, and established new legacies for their franchises, marked by goodwill, grace, humility and sensitivity. That would be something to truly make their fans proud. That’s what it’s “all about.”