Jennifer Tang on Woody Allen and Race

October 10, 2008

In this article, Tang says that Allen's recent streak of critical and commercial flops may be attributable to the fact that he doesn't represent Soon-Yi in any of his films. His wife is Asian but the heroines and love interests of his films are distinctly European-looking like Scarlett Johansson, who has starred in three of Allen's films since 2005. Asian muse at home + white muse on the screen = Muddled final film.

Tang suggests that Allen replace his white leading women with Asian American actresses.

I'm all for more diversity on screen, and I do think that Allen's white casting preferences are limiting the potential for his films' success. But perhaps Allen strays from that type of casting because thus far his association with Asian Americans has been...creepy.

If anything, he's trying to look like less of a perv with a penchant for young Asian women by consistently featuring white actresses in his films.

Allen has always been Eurocentric in his casting, even before Soon-Yi. She may be the love of his life, but I don't know how much that relationship — or her ethnicity — affects his desire to tell stories using non-whites. The only notable characters played by people of color in Allen's films that I can recall is Nigerian-English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor's role in 2004's Melinda and Melinda.

I think his flop-rate has more to do with his inability to be relevant in 21st century filmmaking. His older fans don't like that his current films fail to match up to his "Annie Hall" days and younger film-goers don't quite relate to his version of New York (though he's branched out to London and Barcelona in recent films) which is still kind of old, rich and white. His characters get younger, but that Woody Allen-ness is still there which, these days, is now a bit anachronistic. And it's not that he can't feature a diverse group of actors in his films; I just don't think he wants to, Asian wife or no Asian wife.

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Sylvie Kim

contributing editor & blogger

Sylvie Kim is a contributing editor at Hyphen. She previously served as Hyphen's blog coeditor with erin Khue Ninh, film editor, and blog columnist.

She writes about gender, race, class and privilege in pop culture and media (fun fun fun!) at and at SF Weekly's The Exhibitionist blog. Her work has also appeared on Racialicious and Salon.



Personally, I thought the nearly mute female love interest in Sweet and Lowdown paired with the chatty narcissistic artist figure in Sean Penn was inspired by Woody and Soonyi.
I have a big problem with Jennifer Tang's view that Woody Allen should somehow duplicate or pay homage to his relationship with his 22 year old stepdaughter/wife by mirroring his "at-home muse" on screen. This is definitely not what I want to see as a moviegoer, and I think it adds to the stereotype that its acceptable for creepy old white men to fetishize and couple with Asian pretty young thangs. Being desired and sexualized by white men on an equal level as white women- for me- is a poor definition of progress for Asian American women.
Not to nitpick because I think this was probably just an honest mistake/accident, but for clarification, Melinda and Melinda came out in '04, not '94. Also, as his films become less autobiographical, I don't know that it's "necessary" for him to represent this aspect of his real life (and even still, who cares?) and it shouldn't matter unless he were directly or indirectly being offensive in some way. Perhaps, despite his marriage to an Asian American, he's still hung up on the traditional shiksa goddess (though Scarlett Johansson is part Jewish, if I remember correctly). I ultimately agree with you, Sylvie, that his flop-rate has more to do with simply bad films and perhaps generally being out of touch. Though the recent one wasn't awful by any means.
Thanks for catching that. Yes, I meant 2004. As a near fanatic Chiwetel Eijifor fan, I should have seen that.I read that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was okay. I thought Match Point was pretty good; depressing, but good.