Racism in ‘Eleanor & Park’ Novel Not Stopping Film Adaptation

The YA novel Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell features a white girl and a biracial Korean boy falling in love in high school. While this sounds like just the kind of book I’d embrace and promote on this blog, Eleanor & Park is actually rather racist.

And now it’s getting made into a movie, which has renewed the criticism of racism in the book, as noted in an article about the movie on Vice:

Since the movie deal was announced, dissenters have taken to Twitter to denounce Rowell’s Cho-Chang–ass naming choices (Park is an extremely popular Korean surname, not first name, something Rowell acknowledged in an FAQ); the choice to hire a Japanese director to tell a Korean American story; her descriptions of Park as feminine; her description of another Asian boy’s “just barely almondy” eyes; dialogue between the two main characters where Park says “Asian girls are different. White guys think they’re exotic… Everything that makes Asian girls seem exotic makes Asian guys seem like girls”; descriptions of Park’s mother comparing her to a China doll that further solidify the misogynistic “exotic” stereotype; the fact that Park literally does kung fu against a bully at one point… the list goes on! And on! (Rowell and production company Picturestart did not respond to a request for comment.)

Just do a search for “Eleanor and Park racism” and you’ll find a multitude of articles that back this up, including a review in the Los Angeles Times titled ‘Eleanor & Park’: Where romance and racism seem to go hand-in-hand.

This novel dishes up awful representation of Asian characters, which will then get translated onto the big screen. And the thing is, such representation in the media does indeed matter.

A recent article titled The Psychology of Racism noted that media is one of the major areas that can amplify racism, as summarized in a post on Psychology Today:

The sixth factor the authors identify as contributing to racism in America is the media. The authors cite clear evidence that demonstrates people internalize what they watch on TV. A very early example of this research occurs in a 1963 study where preschool children witness aggression on TV and then imitate that aggression in their lives. The paper is the first in a large body of research that demonstrates how people internalize what they see in the media. The authors also cite clear evidence that the American media portrays idealized representations of White Americans and marginalizes and minimizes people who are not White.

So problematic portrayals, such as in Eleanor & Park, do have real-world consequences in terms of racism. In this case, the forthcoming film will further bolster negative stereotypes about Asians.

None of this has deterred the production of the movie — but then again, perhaps that shouldn’t surprise anyone about Hollywood, given even recent examples of yellowface and whitewashing of Asian characters in the movies.

Nevertheless, it’s just not right that Eleanor & Park became a best-seller and now will be made into a film, as noted in Vice:

…as books like Eleanor & Park continue to find success, the representation conversation will churn on with depressing regularity. It hurts to see that not only has a white author, catering to young people, has sailed along without reckoning with her racism, her fetishization and her lazy caricatures; she’s been rewarded with even more success. It’s hard to blame Asian Americans for focusing on the things that make us feel invisible, even if these debates may muffle the least visible among us.

What do you think about the outcry over racism in Eleanor and Park and the forthcoming film?

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11 Replies to “Racism in ‘Eleanor & Park’ Novel Not Stopping Film Adaptation”

  1. I do acknowledge that Eleanor and Park is racist, but I still enjoyed the book, hope its ok to say that, or will I be torn into shreds for saying that?

    Eleanors reflections and thoughts of Park often reminded me of when I first came to America from Russia. ( If representation is bad in America, imagine Russia where you rarely saw ANY people of color! I am also embarrassed to admit that as a child I asked an Asian guy about his eyes…)

    1. “hope its ok to say that, or will I be torn into shreds for saying that?”

      I realize this is probably not your intention at all, but when you say things like that it comes off very disingenuous. It paints POC who call out racism as volatile, irrational, and even violent. To assume that it’s easy and painless for a POC to call out racism couldn’t be farther from the truth. Your statement turns the conversation back onto your feelings as a white person instead of the real pain that POC feel when encountering racism. It’s begging for a “oh no it’s totally fine for you to like this book, don’t feel bad! You’re one of the good ones, not like the annoying people who complain about racism.” I’m not trying to be combative, I just wanted to show how your comment can come across.

      1. I am not denying that the book is racist. I stated it in beginning that I agree it’s racist, and I would argue that this book is perfect example of why there should be more minority representation.

        I am just tired of being unable to say anything without someone accusing me of somehing.

        1. With all due respect, being accused of racism isn’t on the same level as actually being a victim of racism. The point of my comment was to show you a different perspective not to attack you. If you feel you’re constantly being accused of something, you might want to examine your own behavior. I was responding politely to the actual words you wrote and you still turned it into a pity party for yourself.

          1. Lesson learned. Keep mouth shut and don’t engage in any dialogue or share any thoughts or feelings. Also I am an ethnic minority, not a mainstream white, and I have a Hapa four year old son.

            I am not saying this to excuse myself from anything, but am saying it because you don’t know me or mine situation.

          2. I can see you’re purposely misrepresenting what I said so I won’t engage any further. Have a good day!

  2. Wow, this was a very great article! Definately feel a bit conflicted about this despite the Asian representation!

  3. My issue with the Vice article is that the author of the piece admits they didn’t actually read the book, which makes the journalism feel lazy. Also, I don’t think men being feminine is bad; what is bad is that women and men seen/coded as feminine aren’t valued and don’t get good presentation.

    But I did find it weird the Korean mother would name her son “Park”, which is like if I named my kid “Halonen” – a clear surname in my culture. Also the language used about the mother is kind of… yikes.

    However, I feel that due to the criticism, the movie has a chance to improve on those issues, like maybe drastically re-write many scenes. Though admittedly that’s wishful thinking.

    1. No critical thinking or interaction skills. I also found it weird that there is so little about Parks mom in the story. I am dying to know why she made the choices she made. Rainbow Rowell could have done a lot with her character to explore the economy, war and why she refused to teach her son’s about her culture.

    2. Men in general being feminine isn’t bad; the problem is, East Asian men are so often stereotyped as being feminine. Park is the only male character in the book whose Asianness is emphasized, and he’s portrayed as being feminine. The stereotype has a history of being used to emasculate and dehumanize East Asian men, to set them apart from other races. Since a lot of creepiness and racism in the books came from narration, maybe the movie will be better, though.

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