Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Yunioshi, and good old-fashioned racism.

All I knew about Breakfast at Tiffany’s was that Audrey Hepburn starred in it and looked smashing. It ended up being…not nearly as pleasant a viewing experience as I’d expected.

For one thing, here’s Mickey Rooney:

A nice old man, right. White, of course. And here’s Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s:


Oh wait, here’s an even better one!


Here’s the thing: I can’t talk to you about how hurtful it is to me to watch this kind of racist caricature, because it’s not about me. I have the privilege to ignore it, and focus on the rest of the movie, which enrages me on a more immediate, personal level (i.e. with sexism.) But I don’t want to ignore it. It shouldn’t be ignored. But I can’t talk about how hurtful it is to me

And so, this blog post just keeps stopping and starting. I absolutely cannot, cannot write about this movie without explicitly calling out such a terrible portrayal. But whatever I try to write ends up sounding self-centered and privileged. So, since this is NOT about me, I’ll give you some other people’s words on the topic:

I can’t separate Audrey Hepburn from “Mr. Yunioshi” by Gil Asakawa.

The character has magnifying-glass spectacles, squints and mumbles with pronounced buck teeth. It’s almost a WWII-era caricature of a “Jap” from a poster, comic book or cartoon, come to life. Only it’s not 1942, it’s 1961.

And, the character of Mr. Yunioshi was played by Mickey Rooney, the diminutive Caucasian movie star. Maybe it’s because no Asian would agree to play the part. I can only hope.

But this wasn’t just an example of letting a white actor play an Asian character. It was a broad and particularly nasty stereotype captured in a major motion picture featuring a cast of big name stars. It was a statement that said loudly, that this particular stereotype is (was) an acceptable way to portray Asians in America.

At least on the closing commentary on the Anniversary Edition of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” producer Richard Shepard admits, “If we could just change Mickey Rooney, I’d be thrilled with the movie!”

That’s good to know, but Rooney is there as part of the film’s legacy forever, and I still end up associating its brutal racist depiction of Japanese – of me – with it, and with Hepburn’s image. A lot of fans of the movie can dismiss or overlook the stereotyped character. Some even think it was a high point of the movie, that it added comedic elements. (Read the comments.)

When I was younger, I could squirm and chuckle along with it, but I can’t stand to watch the movie anymore. And the old saw about “that’s what it was like back then” doesn’t fly with me, either. Imagine an African-American character in 1961 being satirized that way. Like I’ve already mentioned, Rooney’s portrayal was a throwback to WWII depictions of Japanese – it was over the top, even for 1961.

Check out the whole thing.


10 Responses to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Yunioshi, and good old-fashioned racism.

  1. dollyann says:

    I’ve never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s–just heard a lot about Audrey Hepburn and black dresses and stuff. Is Audrey Hepburn supposed to be feminist or something? She doesn’t strike me that way.

    The racist caricature of this Mr. Yunioshi character looks awful though. I’m glad to see you’re tackling the issue though, eloriane. I find it difficult to post about racism a lot too because it is part of our privilege not to be affected by it. But you’re so right that it’s important to bring it up in discourse regardless because that’s one of the ways we chip away at that unfairness. Good post.

  2. dollyann says:

    Oh, and btw, I sent you my guest post. Let me know what you think!

  3. eloriane says:

    I’ve never considered her feminist or anything, just extremely well-dressed. Though this particular movie ended up being really thought-provoking in the ways that it’s not particularly feminist.

    I’ve got a few more posts on the movie set away for while in India, but I just had to get this said first.

    Oh, and I love the guest post! Even though I haven’t seen the show, it was really fascinating. And I’m pleasantly surprised that the overall message is so, well, pleasant. 🙂

  4. […] beginning I was cautiously optimistic about Breakfast at Tiffany’s (except, of course, for Mr. Yunioshi). Holly and Paul seemed like such interestingly broken people, I was looking forward to seeing how […]

  5. […] The blog world is abuzz with news of a racist Carlos Zambrano shirt. Personally, I find the “Cardinals take it in their Poo-holes” far more offensive. Couldn’t they just put Pujols? Do they really think people wouldn’t get it unless they added the words “poo” and “holes”? Or what about those Fukudome shirts that said “Horry Kow”? That’s pretty racist (like Breakfast at Tiffany’s racist.) […]

  6. Kari says:

    The novella by Capote was much better. I love this movie, but cringe at the blatant racism and ignorance on the part of Rooney and the writers. It really ruins it, and takes away from what was so wonderful about the story. It is about a woman with a very troubled and painful past, who fears a cage more than anything but her life is alreadya cage she made for herself, not allowing her to know love when she sees it.

    Holly golightly is a feminist, in that she is independent, or at least she thinks she is. She uses older wealthy men like tissues, and the movie and novella very subtly show that in fact she is a call girl. But Holly is also very insecure, she doesn’t know what she wants from life and she runs away from love. The movie and novella end differently, the movie has a happy ending, but the book is more bittersweet.

  7. […] Jo, we’ve gone down to 66% gayyyyyyyy. However, I’m not sure what this has to do with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Yunioshi, and good old-fashioned racism! Or why you think we’d object to a mostly-factual statement on our sexual […]

  8. I was recently compelled to make a video about this issue, diagnosing our choice to forget the racist scenes in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” as Breakfast at Tiffany’s Syndrome.

    The Rooney stuff ruins the movie for me. This film should be remembered in the gorgeous photo stills of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly.

  9. […] as it wants to be, but at least it has no Long Duk Dong character (just as Sixteen Candles had no Mr. Yunioshi). In fact, Easy A deals with homosexuality in a way no ’80s teen comedy ever did. That would […]

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