The Evolution of Asian Eyebrows: A (Dia)critical Contemplation

After watching “Cloud Atlas” and reading the many comments posted on Roger Ebert’s Facebook page, I found myself reflecting on circumflexion and the evolution of the yellowface East Asian eyebrows in cinema, particularly in regards to men. As a former copy editor, I developed this into a diacritical reflection on circumflexion.

I don’t know about you, but I’m have so little body hair that I don’t need to shave my legs, I never worry about waxing my moustache and my eyebrows are so thin I pencil them in. If I didn’t my eyebrows would be little more than en dashes over my eyes. Diacritically speaking, my eyebrows and eyes could be represented as a inverted semi-colon.

I know many East Asian guys who can’t grow more than a dirty-lip look facial hair and should wax and tweeze instead of shave. Their eyebrows might be more like an em dash. This isn’t how East Asian male eyebrows are drawn in for yellowface.

To have eyebrows that go upward, stretching halfway up your forehead requires a certain degree of hairiness. Generally, the heaviest hair on eyebrows is near the center and it can even bridge over the nose like the  monobrow of Frida Kahlo. Being less hairy than most races, East Asian eyebrows border the edge of the forehead just above the eye socket. They simply circumflex the eye socket and scarcely hide the skin beneath. Sure, I’ve seen eyebrows that look like hairy caterpillars or handsome moustaches in the making, but not usually on East Asians.

I know that Caucasian male actors have often tweezed their brows.  Heck, in Hollywood, I know (and seen proof) that men have full body waxes. That’s not just for the new breed of male, the metrosexual, but also for bodybuilders, swimmers and actors. Yet how many of these men would tweeze their eyebrows into high fashion statements? I will admit to admiring a few fine eyebrows, particularly the late Gregory Peck who coupled his two with a melodic voice.  I digress, however. Hollywood is determined to give character to the East Asian eyebrow in yellowface, particularly to make a character seem more evil or more alien.

220px-MysteriousfumanchuWarner Oland was the 1929 Fu Manchu in “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu.” Check out the eyebrows on this guy. In this movie, the British regiment kills Fu Manchu’s wife and child. Like something out of “Great Expectations,” Fu Manchu raises a white girl to help him get revenge. Oland was born in Sweden and didn’t need much make up in order to play East Asians. He would later go on to play Charlie Chan as well as an Arab (Prince Ahmed in the 1934  Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back ). You can file that under all Orientals (meaning North Africa to East Asia) look alike. The eyebrows, however, only get raised when he’s East Asian. Check out those Fu Manchu eyebrows; they look like circumflexes.

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Boris Karloff would take on the Fu Manchu character in the 1932 “The Mask of Fu Manchu” with Myrna Loy as his daughter. In this movie Fu Manchu is looking for the sword and mask of Genghis Khan. This suggests just why Captain Kirk found Genghis Khan as the opposite of Abraham Lincoln. Karloff was English by nationality but his paternal grandparents were Anglo-Indian. Indian would be central Asian and not considered yellow, but, at least according to “Passage through India,” black and not white. We do find out later that eyebrows help make the transition from evil Asiatic to Lincoln.

Check out the eyebrows here. Those eyebrows are like  elongated em-dashes. Karloff’s normal eyebrows compared to the “Asian” eyebrow look. He looks like he was also using guyliner long before Boy George. In the above picture, he looks like an evil elf or a Romulan (Star Trek TOS) in silent films.

If you transported Fu Manchu to the future and sent him into outer space, you’d come up with someone like Ming the Merciless.

Although Ming the Merciless was created in 1934 as part of the Flash Gordon comic strip, this despotic evil emperor (not king or czar, but emperor) first appeared in the

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1930s serials played by Charles B. Middleton. Middleton was born in Kentucky and worked in the circus and eventually moved into vaudeville and finally the movie business.  He played Abraham

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Lincoln in a public service short and then later played an actor who was typecast as Lincoln. He would play Lincoln’s father in the 1940 “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” But between 1935 to 1947, he was Ming the Merciless. Those eyebrows are more the softened circumflex, melted by the heat of the studio lights on his bald head. Do you think Abe Lincoln or his father had eyebrows like Ming? Should we put down Daniel Day-Lewis as the next candidate for Ming?

After the yellow perilism had mostly died down, Christopher Lee began his run as Fu Manchu in 1965 in “The Face of Fu Manchu.” Lee was born in Britain, but his maternal great grandfather was Italian. His eyebrows looked like something between the elongated em-dash and the melted circumflex.

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Star Trek (TOS) ran for only three seasons from 1966-1969 and gave us Spock, a Vulcan, and the Romulans. As far as eyebrows go, I’d say the eyebrows of Spock and all Vulcans owe a great debt to Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless.

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Of course, the Vulcans had pointed ears and were close to being asexual (except during mating season). And Star Trek TOS did have an Asian American guy (George Takei) playing an Asian American, Hikaru Sulu.  Check out what a normal person playing a normal Asian American looks like with his own eyebrows. Takei’s eyebrows look more like the right side of the parenthesis that’s fallen down being unable to find something to hold it up or an em dash that has gently curled up for a snooze. A Vulcan’s eyebrows are like accents aigu and grave.

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Ming appears again, post-Star Trek, but this time in the guise of Max von Sydow who is Swedish. The 1980 feature film release of “Flash Gordon” featured Sam J. Jones (who had appeared in the 1979 movie “10”) as Flash and Melody Anderson (who was also a “sweathog” in the TV series “Welcome Back, Kotter” and Marilyn Monroe in a 1993 biopic) as Dale Arden. Von Sydow would also play a villain in the 1983 James Bond movie “Never Say Never.” In 1965, he had played Jesus Christ in “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Jesus Christ is from what was considered the Orient, but he’s rarely played by an Oriental, particularly of the East Asian sort. I don’t believe that despite Oland and von Sydow’s ability to portray East Asians that East Asians could easily pass for ethnic Swedes, even if they bleach their hair blond and change the shape of their eyebrows.

Check out those impressive eyebrows of Ming and the guyliner. Just the right 20-degree angle of a Vulcan, but with that extra down-turn. It’s the hyperbolic circumflex.

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Ming would later become a chameleon, okay, not really, but he was lizard-like in the “Flash Gordon” animated series in 1996. For the Sci Fi Channel TV series, the 2007-2008 Ming became white. That’s right. Not just played by someone white, but really white. He was blond and Caucasian and knew how to handle the media. Reportedly this incarnation of the character was based on a West Asian, Saddam Hussein. Not so much the yellow peril any more, but the fearful Muslim Arabs who controlled the oil that U.K. and the U.S. dearly needed.

In “Cloud Atlas,” we had the high Ming the Merciless eyebrows in more subtle variations in the men. My question is why with actual Asian men (and women) have the makeup artists of “Cloud Atlas” reverted to Warner Oland’s Fu Manchu eyebrows?article-2223473-15B25392000005DC-827_634x318

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Even the crazy yellowface doctor has those circumflex eyebrows. But  not the Asian women. If you need a reminder of what real Asian eyebrows look like check back with George Takei as Mr. Sulu or see the video below (which is for women). I also looked at Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat and found their eyebrows less like a diacritical circumflex and more like half of a parenthesis fallen down with curved side up.

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In the evolution of the East Asian eyebrow in yellowface, the diacritical mark called the circumflex (^) seems to be the model, and East Asian male eyebrows have a different evolutionary trajectory than the East Asian female eyebrows for the perspective of makeup artists.  As anyone who has studied French will tell you, an accent mark in the wrong place makes a big difference–between a culinary delight (soufflé) and a breath of air (souffle), and in the case of yellowface, the circumflex eyebrow is the difference between Lincoln or Jesus Christ and Ming and brings us a visual reminder of the continued alienation of the East Asian male by makeup artists and movies.

Contrary to what some people wrote, I do know what hapas look like from my own personal experience (see Kip Fulbeck’s “Hapa Project“) and they don’t look like Star Trek TOS aliens. The comparison between “Cloud Atlas” faux East Asians and Vulcans (or Romulans) is what began my reflections on circumflexions because it is the most obvious physical visual mistake that we are asked to allow to pass as a credible representation of East Asians in this new high tech era of yellowface.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lao Ha
    Jan 04, 2013 @ 03:04:08

    Your commentary on Asian eyebrows rendered me helpless with laughter. I’m sure you wanted to want to expose a real social problem. However, your talent for comedy detracts from the true seriousness of your mission. Goodspeed.

    Reply

    • Jana J. Monji
      Jan 04, 2013 @ 04:25:30

      I wrote a serious essay earlier, but thought a little humor couldn’t hurt. Glad you laughed.

      Reply

  2. Ryohei Noda
    Jan 04, 2013 @ 13:54:32

    Reblogged this on - Yota -.

    Reply

  3. Phillip Lozano
    Jan 05, 2013 @ 19:31:41

    This is ten kinds of awesome.

    Reply

  4. Trackback: Korean Gender Reader, Dec. 29 – Jan. 4 | The Grand Narrative

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