The Unbearable Whiteness of Hollywood: Thoughts on Asian American Representation in Pop Culture

One of the first times I remember seeing myself represented in an American film was in the early 2000s remake of Charlie's Angels. Lucy Liu’s character Alex Munday was an iconic character who defied the stereotypes of what an Asian female character in popular media was oftentimes made out to be. Her character was tough, witty, and charismatic. She was a total badass, AND she didn’t have an accent. Of course I wanted to be just like her. However, characters like her were too few and far between. Aside from Alex Munday, there really weren’t many other characters that I found myself being able to look up to and relate with. As cliche as this may sound, I hardly ever saw characters like myself in books, TV shows, or films while growing up. Outside of the occasional stereotypical or minor side character, I barely saw or knew of any Asian American characters, especially not ones that I could relate to. In fact, I found more similarities between me and characters from anime or Asian dramas rather than any character from American media. Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee in The Walking Dead 2019 has had a series of major “wins” for the Asian American community. John Cho was cast as Spike Spiegel, the main character of the upcoming live-action Cowboy Bebop film. Taika Waititi notably shared his plans of featuring Asian leads for his adaptation of the 1980s cult classic Akira. Meanwhile, Sandra Oh made history as the first woman of Asian descent to win multiple Golden Globes. And that’s just a few of the recent triumphs for Asian Americans in entertainment. But despite these accomplishments, the Asian American community continues to be largely underrepresented by mainstream media and pop culture. In general, Asian American representation is hard to come across in any form of pop culture and media. Oftentimes, the limited “representation” we receive comes in stereotypical portrayals. Historically, this includes strict parents, wise sages, martial arts experts, nerdy friends and foreigners, among other recurring roles. More recently, there’s the too common “edgy Asian chick with colored hair” trope that honestly makes me cringe. Aside from some occasional outliers, like Steven Yeun’s character Glenn Rhee in The Walking Dead, one of the show’s protagonists and a charismatic zombie slayer, there really isn’t much outside of these roles in American media. These typecasts provide a very limiting perspective on the Asian American experience. Another issue contributing to the lack of Asian American representation is whitewashing, especially in Hollywood. Roles that can and should be portrayed by Asian Americans are too often portrayed by non-Asian actors (think back to 2017’s live-action adaptations of the anime Death Note and Ghost in the Shell). This kind of portrayal of Asian characters spans decades. There are severe cases of not just whitewashing, but yellowface in fairly recent history. Famous examples include the characters Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), and the minister in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007), all characters that blatantly depict racist caricatures of Asian people. Whitewashing and yellowface have a long and horrible history in live theater as well. The most infamous examples are Madame Butterfly throughout opera history, The King and I, and more recently, with Miss Saigon. Similar situations persist in smaller regional and even storefront theaters as well as in large traveling shows. Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's Though not to that same extent, whitewashing still happens to this day and it’s aggravating. It’s not like there’s some shortage of talented or capable Asian actors, but the fact that Caucasian actors keep getting prioritized is disheartening, especially since most of the time people know whitewashing is wrong. Whitewashing often receives very public backlash, and instances of whitewashing frequently create major outrage from POC fans and communities who encourage boycotts or promote their "dream casts," like with the #StarringJohnCho movement in 2016. Yet these instances just keep occurring. Well, why is that? Mark Martell, director of the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), says, “Mainstream society is structured around Whiteness. Everywhere you look, you see Whiteness favored. When I say Whiteness, I don't mean White people, rather, the institutional structure of favoring White people, lighter skin, and White validity… How often do I see faces and features like mine in ads or magazine covers? Rarely. This type of daily experience makes me feel invisible and invalid.” Earlier this year, Martell co-hosted a panel at C2E2 called “From Sulu to Rose Tico: Celebrating and Fighting for Asian Americans in Geek Culture.” The panel centered on topics including identity, the significance of diverse storytelling, and the importance of having POC stories told by POC creators. Along with Martell, other panelists included Dawn Xiana Moon (founder/ director of Raks Geek, bellydancer, and performer), Mary Anne Mohanraj (author, professor at UIC, and founder of Strange Horizons), Michi Trota (Uncanny Magazine), and Wesley Sun (Sun Bros Studios). “To me, Asian American representation in culture means pushing against the master narrative, which, in the United States, means trying to overcome decades of White representation in pop culture or geek culture. By bringing attention to positive Asian American representation, it diversifies culture and makes more inclusive,” says Martell. Recent years see a surge of diversity in various forms of entertainment, especially for Asian Americans. Movies feature Asian-majority casts, like in Crazy Rich Asians. More Asian American stories are being told to mainstream audiences, like in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Fresh Off the Boat. On top of all that, Asian American creatives are given opportunities to produce and share their work and talents. Successful examples include Mindy Kaling’s sitcom The Mindy Project, Aziz Ansari and his show Master of None, or even more recently, Ali Wong and Randall Park’s romcom Always Be My Maybe. Mary Anne Mohanraj, author and UIC professor, believes that representation matters because it shows possibilities. “What diversity does and diverse representation does is say to all the people out there that you can be prominent, your views can be taken seriously, your perspectives are valued, and we want to see more of you. That then empowers everyone, a whole host of people.” “I think Hollywood… starting to realize that there is a demand for "different."  With the success of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, content producers are realizing there is a whole population out there who have been ignored. Now, they're more open to listening to diverse pitches; hiring Asian American writers, directors, creators; and casting Asian American actors,” says Martell. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done in order to truly have a semblance of equality in mainstream entertainment and pop culture. Dawn Xiana Moon shares, “ good news is that we finally have more representation, and things are changing. The bad news is that we starting from the standpoint of being the most underrepresented ethnic group in Hollywood. to the University of Southern California, only 1.4% of the lead characters in studio films released in 2014 were Asian even though we’re 5.6% of the U.S. population. The majority of media still doesn't feature any named or speaking Asian characters.” The cast of The Farewell starring Awkwafina In addition to most Asian characters getting cast in minor, non-speaking roles, the fact that Asian American stories get grouped together with Asian stories prevent there from being proper representation. The distinction between Asian versus Asian American experiences is another major issue that often goes overlooked. While Asians and Asian Americans may have some cultural similarities, the two experiences are vastly distinct ones. More often than not, the two different experiences of Asian people living in Asia and Asian Americans are interwoven into a singular narrative, which is hardly the case. The phrase “Asian American” is an umbrella term that refers to various demographics of people. It can refer to people who were born in the U.S., people who spent a majority of their lives here, adoptees, people who are from mixed cultural backgrounds, and more. In spite of that, Asian Americans are made to constantly prove “how Asian” or “how White” they are as if it’s something that can be measured on a spectrum. Unlike Asian people living in Asia, who live in homogenous societies where they get represented in their culture and media, Asian Americans have to deal with racism and oppression in their everyday lives as an ethnic minority. Moon states that Asian Americans live oppression in a way that sourcelanders don’t understand. “Asia is home to an incredibly vast set of people - we're talking about 48 countries, 2300 languages, and 4.5 billion people… Unless they're part of an ethnic minority there, which exists, they're racially privileged, with all of the advantages that come from controlling media, economics...and culture,” Moon continues,“Sourcelanders are used to seeing themselves represented, and they're allowed to be individuals. They're not assumed to be something other than what they are. They don't face racism within their borders.” So why does Asian American representation matter in the U.S.? It matters because we, Asian Americans--and our experiences--matter. Our identities, backgrounds, and struggles matter. The Asian American experience is so broad with unique stories waiting and wanting to be told. Finding small bits of relatable content in Korean dramas, Bollywood, and anime won’t cut it. Our stories, accomplishments, history, ideas, and dreams are real and valid and they deserve to be shared. As an author herself, Mary Anne Mohanraj enjoys being able to share diverse cultural experiences through her writing. “I love being able to write something that brings out an angle that doesn’t get talked about in the mainstream conversation because it makes people so happy to be seen and have their truths spoken,” she says. “You see that in the queer South Asian kid who writes to me and says ‘I’m not out to my family, but your story made me feel like someday I can be visible in the world.’” The fight for Asian American representation is a continuous uphill battle. Even so, seeing genuine depictions of Asian Americans in major network shows and getting our stories told authentically by us through films and books, instead of through age old stereotypes and tropes, is progress. It gives us hope that more Asian Americans will get opportunities to share more of these narratives and for us and our experiences to be normalized. Sunita Mani as Trenton in Mr. Robot In regard to what many Asian Americans might want to see in the future, Moon put it best: “I want people to recognize that Asians can create anything, that if an Asian is creating art, the art is Asian… I want it to seem normal - expected even! - that a person with an Asian face in media speaks with a standard American accent and isn't assumed to have been born in another country. I want Asians to have the same opportunities as white people, and for us to be allowed to be individuals,” she says. I’m looking forward to seeing more diverse Asian American narratives in pop culture and mainstream media that our community can relate to and find solace in. I want to keep seeing Asian American folks who don’t get perfect grades, who are queer, who don’t have the best relationships with family, who deal with mental health issues, who come from different backgrounds, and more. And I want us and others to be able to see Asian Americans as the multi-faceted, imperfect, unique people we are. It’s time for our stories to be told.
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Pearl Shin