Why Asian Americans Have Been Hidden From the Big Screen
For Over 25 Years
Written By Dev Chatterjee
“The conversation of underrepresentation is ultimately one about American identity and if Asians will be allowed to fit in this definition.”
The overwhelming emotion surrounding the film Crazy Rich Asians released this fall, the only all-Asian cast in a Hollywood film since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago, makes me wonder how we ended up celebrating what should have been a normal standard in America. Why did it take so long for not just Asian American stories, but an Asian American cast to star in leading roles in Hollywood films and mainstream TV? Why are there so few Asian American leads to begin with? The excuse that Asian American actors don’t deliver box office hits doesn’t compute with the Crazy Rich Asians‘ opening weekend sales of $26 million, but with the embarrassing sales of films that used white actors for characters with an Asian heritage.
Scarlett Johansson did not convince anyone that she was a Japanese manga character in The Ghost in the Shell nor did she generate higher profit for the film. The founding director of Boston Asian American Film Festival, Susan Chinsen, referenced Hollywood’s history of whitewashing as one of the reasons why Asian Americans are not given enough chances to have their break in Hollywood films. Hollywood’s move to evade financial risk by not casting a real Asian American proved ironic as the film lost at least $60 million. When Emma Stone was cast as a quarter Chinese and quarter Hawaiian woman for romantic comedy Aloha released only three years ago, the film grossed half the amount expected.
Even two years ago, whitewashing made its grand return in Doctor Strange. GQ senior editor, Kevin Nguyen, shared in a discussion on PBS Idea Channel that even if whitewashing is used as a means to avoid portraying negative stereotypes for an Asian character like The Ancient One in Doctor Strange, Nguyen said: “you’re just saying that you couldn’t write an Asian character without negative stereotypes.” With fewer opportunities in Hollywood, Asian American actors find themselves in a Catch 22 since they’re not given initial breaks in films, they’re pigeonholed into the category of non-grossing actors when they were given so few opportunities in the first place.
The slim percentages of Asian Americans in front and behind of the camera help explain the perpetuated invisibility effect. MTV Decoded released a video stating that of the 5% of Asian Americans in the population, only 1% had lead roles, demonstrating that even if the Asian American population is smaller than the white population, Asian Americans are still deprived of accurate reality-to-screen ratios. As for executive positions, only 34 out of 1000 films surveyed had Asian directors, which is .034%. The disproportionate correlation between reality and depiction on screen inadvertently tells aspiring Asian American talent that the doors are closed and that their dreams can’t be achieved. Independent filmmaker Adele Han Li shared during a phone interview that the invisibility effect—when the lack of representation dictates the social script for a certain people group—helps explain the relationship between low Asian American representation on screen and few people in the younger generation believe they can achieve successful roles in acting.
Traditional values passed down by foreign-born Asian parents, in addition to the lack of Asian American precedence in popular media content, exacerbate the problem. Graduate student Min Huh wrote in her dissertation Media Representation of Asian Americans that professional occupations which promise profitable careers such as medicine and law become agendas pushed onto the younger generation while a career in the arts and entertainment is belittled. Younger Asian Americans not only feel the financial pressure and responsibility towards their family, but a lack of confidence in succeeding in an industry where not many resembling faces can be found. Regardless of passion or talent in the creative field, the younger generation subconsciously internalizes the social script in which their occupational roles are limited.
Another independent filmmaker from Los Angeles raises the issue of not enough Asian Americans uniting together in the filmmaking industry. After working with different networks like NBC Entertainment and Amazon Studios, Benedict Chiu shared during a phone interview that Asian American filmmakers don’t seem to be as connected as other ethnic groups in the corporate world like Black Americans. While there are support groups for Black Americans in the industry, Asian Americans seem to be dispersed in the many subsets of Asian American identity: Filipino, Korean, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, and so forth. Chiu stressed the importance of Asian Americans uniting in the entertainment industry even if another creator isn’t making the content desired, such as Asian American stories. Ultimately, the goal is for creators ranging from Youtube comedy sketches to indie films to make their best content and not have to bear the burden of representing an entire people group through their work.
Yet even after considering all these valid explanations, I felt like no one directly addressed the major taboo topic. Part of the issue is that I when I contacted over 35 people to interview—well-known Asian American film critics, influential Youtubers, film directors and producers, actors, Boston University and Emerson professors, college students, and a film festival director—only 6 people responded. And of the few that did respond, the various reasons posited for Asian American underrepresentation in mainstream media were relevant but byproducts of a deeper reason no one wanted to say. Yes, whitewashing and limited casting are functional explanations, but why is there whitewashing and limited casting in the first place if the correlation to money doesn’t make sense?
After searching through the 15th “O” of Google, I read two dissertations that helped me reach a satisfying and simple answer: Asian Americans on the big screen threaten to change the face of America’s national identity, establishing that they are of equal standing to the white majority and not other, immigrant-packaged, and inferior. Stereotypes of Asians boxed them in one-dimensional understanding so that Asian identity would never bleed into American identity, and Asian Americans would only be Asian.
“Asian Americans on the big screen threaten to change the face of America’s national identity.”
Asian Americans will not be seen as entertainers, compelling characters, talented communicators, or socially adept, not just because of their invisibility in mainstream media, but because of the general discomfort in seeing a people group outside of their stereotype. Humanized, they’re made more complex than a caricature.
Not only within film, but in music, Asian Americans confront a glass ceiling purely based on their Asian face. Bustle released an article last year Why There Are So Few Asian Artists in Mainstream American Music, exposing struggles experienced by artists like Paul Kim, a former American Idol contestant who writes and performs original R&B music. Kim shared in an interview with Bustle that “many music executives told him that if it weren’t for him being Asian, he would be signed to a major label successfully.” Asian Americans have been perceived to be unfit for the entertainment industry for so long that when the two come together, the result is nothing less than disappointing.
I mean how American must an Asian American be in order to be culturally relevant and successful in the entertainment industry? We can’t ignore the tense relations America had towards Asian immigrants in the mid-19th century when the Chinese population mass-immigrated during The Gold Rush and dominated the labor market, only to then face The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 when Chinese immigrants were banned from entering America for 10 years. With timeline delayed and percentage of Asian immigrants in the U.S. population decreased, initial hostile relations between Asian immigrants and White Americans did not help the case for a beginning of positive media representation for Asian Americans.
Even though Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan became popular in the mid-20th century, too few Asian Americans achieved success in mainstream media and the effects have influenced the generations of Asian Americans identity within the context of America. Both Asian Americans and the general public consume subconscious ideas of what role Asians play in society and their foreignness, ultimately not fully belonging to the American identity. A Boston University journalism student, Josee Matela, confessed that she never really saw Filipino actors or actresses who looked like her on TV: “Growing up without strong representation lead me to become self-conscious about why I didn’t look like the sought-after actresses with lighter hair and whiter skin.”
Another student had a similar experience. A junior in Boston University’s acting program, Sebastien Garbe said that “I remember, as a little kid, watching a lot of cartoon network shows and I always wanted to have brown hair or blue eyes because when I saw The Incredibles I deeply wanted to be a blond, short boy who could run really fast.” Though at the time Garbe didn’t recognize his desire to fit into the White American norm to be a means of self-significance, Garbe confessed that he had his fair share of insecurities. When he did act in high school, he mainly took on side roles because white blond people were cast in the main roles, because the standardized image was a White American for plays like Fiddler on the Roof , Legally Blonde, Footloose.
Yet Garbe recounts a time of feeling empowered after watching a predominantly Asian American cast on stage for David Henry Lou’s show Soft Power. Towards the end of the interview, Garbe became briefly excited sharing about watching Lou’s show last summer saying, “I realized watching that, it hit me for the first time, I’ve never seen a stage full of Asian Americans. It really inspired me to do so much more work and it made me a lot more excited at the prospect of jumping into the world of acting.” The power of Asian American representation in the arts cannot be overstated because representation empowers the next generation of creators to have hope and see a wider door for their passions to come fruition. But, also on the audience side, Asian American representation on stage or on screen voices and validates their stories to be just as important, humanizing the cultural group beyond shallow perceptions.
The cost of underrepresentation cannot be justified by the notion of lack of talented and high-grossing actors and actresses, especially evidenced by the cultural shift of Asian American success in media this year. Not only have To All the Boys I’ve Loved , The Big Sick, The Mindy Project, The Good Place, and Emmy-winning Master of None all proved to be tour de forces, but the democratized platform of Youtube has long demonstrated that Asian Americans can take leading roles in bankable shows. According to Business Insider, Nigahiga, a comedian vlogger, has 20.4 million subscribers, and Liza Koshy, another comedian vlogger, gained 10 million subscribers in just two years. Asian Americans have the talent and potential as does any other ethnic group, but the issue is whether Hollywood and major TV networks will give them more chances to succeed.
The Crazy Rich Asians success was not just a celebration of Asian American stories, but Asians taking a stab at showing America that their people are not a quiet, one-dimensional package of foreignness, but are American citizens of equal standing who can also celebrate their cultural heritage. Boston University film and TV student Hannah Lee said in our interview that “We, as Asian Americans of individual culture and ethnicity, are fighting, urging, campaigning for our right to manifest ourselves as Americans and not only ‘Asians.’”
The conversation of underrepresentation is ultimately a conversation about American identity and if Asians will be allowed to fit in this definition. The conversation is about the Asian American fight for cultural relevance and to be categorized beyond the culture represented on their face.
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I am Esther Kwon: a Cali-native still waiting to grab coffee with H.E.R and Lauryn Hill. I have the journalism-student label but I'm also a Yelp connoisseur who will walk an extra twenty minutes to eat a Myers Changs. I've written for The Buzz Magazine city section and reported for The Wire.