Yellowface and Purple Hearts: Racializing Torture in American Culture
Sylvia Shin Huey Chong
Associate Professor of English and American Studies
University of Virginia
This talk will focus on the controversies surrounding the production of the WWII film “The Purple Heart” (1944), which depicted the trial and torture of American pilots in Japan as war criminals following the Doolittle Raids on Tokyo. Many journalists welcomed such portrayals of “Jap atrocities” as exposing the true nature of the enemy, although others, including government officials, were wary of arousing such vitriolic public sentiments. I will discuss what it meant for Hollywood studios to racialize torture by attributing it to the Japanese national character, when in fact such films complicated the performance of Japaneseness through their use of yellowface actors. These issues expose the unstable mapping of “culture” onto “race” during this era, and also cast light on the choices made by white, Chinese, and Korean American actors used to portray the enemy. I will also touch briefly upon similar instabilities from the Vietnam War era, during which torture was embodied by both our South Vietnamese allies and North Vietnamese enemies, as well as the from the war on terror, where torture is no longer the privileged tool of the enemy but also an element of our own national security policy.
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