Quick - name all of the Asian American actors depicted below in three seconds or less.
I know what some of you might be thinking.
The truth is, as an Asian American myself, I have a difficult time naming prominent Asian American media figures off the top of my head as well. Acknowledging individuals such as Aziz Ansari, a recent Emmy winner for his Netflix series, Master of None, or Constance Wu, who stars in Fresh Off the Boat, may seem trivial in the overarching political and artistic landscape of modern society; however, discrepancies of Asian representation in media are not just restricted to the sphere of artistic culture.
As Woody Allen once noted, we are "...always trying to get things to come out perfect in art, because it's real difficult in life." Film, literature, music, and other artistic forms have afforded us the luxury of making the intangible tangible. Stories are metaphors for life. Thus, the sentiment of empowering these metaphors through disruptive storytelling is less about belittling or excluding those who exhibit low awareness of different cultural corners around the world; rather, it is an invitation to explore how current creative systems may be systematically preventing the authentic portrayal and inclusion of groups, such as Asian Americans, from coming to fruition.
Truth in Stereotypes
Cultural stereotypes are merely fragments of a bigger picture; they should not completely be dismissed. In light of some of the oversimplifications that stem from the Asian American narrative, specifically regarding tendencies of Asians to emphasize education and lucrative careers, it is important to acknowledge that in a statistical context:
Yes - Asian Americans have a higher tendency to receive a higher income than white, black, Native American, and Hispanic individuals.
Yes - Asian Americans are more likely to attain a college degree than white, black, Native American, and Hispanic individuals.
Hence, the common cultural assumptions that Asian Americans are, for instance, typically smart and obsessed about their studies, are not entirely baseless.
Certain values are ingrained into the traditional outlooks of Asian cultures, and with the hardships that accompanied most Asian grandparents' immigration experiences to America, Asian individuals have been consistently raised with traditional values: earning success through a tireless work ethic, investing in the power of education and knowledge, and finding financial stability in exploring lucrative fields of work (doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc.).
However, applying generic characteristics to a population of unique, Asian American individuals (who may not fit the stereotypical mold) not only discourages the sentiment of individualism, but it also inherently erases the distinctions between different Asian ethnicities. Furthermore, reinforcing generalizations about Asians in corporate or educational institutions creates social obstacles, making it harder for Asian American individuals to stand out in the crowd, especially during college admission or interview processes.
It is safe to say that generalizations, stereotypes, and misconceptions about Asian Americans embedded in forms of media bleed into other spheres of reality that can affect the diffusion of societal discrimination, self-images, career choices, and levels of cultural reverence. Thus, the more that one can understand the origins and implications of a lack of diversity in media, the sooner modern society will be able to prosper on a more holistic scale.
When was the last time you saw an Asian American in a lead role?
Although Asian Americans are one of the nation's fastest growing demographics, their presence in film remains small. Due to Western society's habitual resistance against letting minorities take the "lead role," the underrepresentation of Asian Americans and other minority groups in forms of media is not a new nor a surprising concept.
However, Asians continue to be one of the least represented minority groups in Hollywood next to African Americans and Latinx, as well as other minority groups that experience a similar dearth of opportunities for representation in film, such as Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other mixed races.
Regarding the lack of screen time Asian Americans specifically experience, one could reason that there might be a smaller pool of available Asian American actors and actresses to leverage their presence in the movie industry, or that perhaps Asian Americans consistently happen to be ill-equipped for certain roles being offered from film projects. However, I believe resorting to these factors as explanations for a lack of Asian American visibility in the movie industry is practical but considerably lazy, albeit the navigation of the line between wanting to elevate racial diversity yet still locate individuals with sufficient acting ability can be a tricky task.
It is readily apparent that Hollywood's diversity issue is not solely about Asian American cultural tendencies or underrepresentation in media. Successfully combatting the oppression of minorities in the artistic world must involve factoring in the effects of filmmakers' manipulation of the cultural portraits of minority groups.
Because Asian stereotypes in the film industry have transcended the barriers of time, the problem at large concerning diversity involves more complexity than merely frowning at a small percentage representative of Asian American visibility in the film industry. Even though the systematic problem of continual streams of typecasting minorities stems from a lack of diversity, another element that must be considered should focus not only on who or what is visible, but what implications surface from those rare moments of visibility.
Most movie-goers are most familiar with the concept of coating Asian Americans with culturally broad brushstrokes. Historically, Asians have typically ended up being the main character's supporting friend, the overachievers and products of lucrative success, the nonathletic geek, the math whiz, the main character's exotic love interest, the master of martial arts, or the epitome of a foreign outsider. Additionally, if one looks far enough into the past, one will also find acts of Yellowface, where non-Asian actors playing Asian characters had their physical features engineered through costume and makeup to reflect and exaggerate Asian features, such as slanted eyes.
Because of the appearance of discriminatory patterns on film, cultural assumptions about Asians' wealth of knowledge and successful know-how have created negative pressures for Asian youths to live up to an idealistic image of being the 'model minority.' High cultural standards innate to Asian culture married with Western society’s presumptuous expectations of Asian Americans have led to deteriorating self-esteems among young Individuals in Asian communities. In consequence, in the midst of a society filtered with Western ideals, at some point in time, young Asian Americans have fallen into the trap of developing a fractured cultural identity - wanting to disassociate from Asian culture, yet still wanting to maintain loyalty to their ancestral roots.
Are screenwriters, casting directors, and filmmakers at fault for the reinforcement of inauthentic portrayals of Asian Americans?
Yes and no. As a writer/director/creator, it is principle that one invents a product that has some relation to one's own bank of knowledge or interest. Basically, writers write what they know, and if mostly white men or women in Hollywood are writing about what they know, all they are directly familiar with is their own experiences and cultural values. Although it depends, most tend to be limited to knowing only the superficial layers of other lifestyles and cultural values that relate to Asian societies.
The solution to dissolving the lack of representation of Asian minorities in the world of media is not complex on the surface. We need more storytellers - namely, Asian American creators. It is unrealistic to expect non-Asian creators to fully understand the implications of the Asian American experience, but it is sensible to expect them to eventually jump over the hurdle of figuring out ways to represent Asian Americans in universal roles that are not Asian-specific. The more Asian American creators that rise to the surface, the more readily Asians will be able to exemplify authentic portrayals of their cultures and reinforce universal depictions of themselves.
With a variety of projects in development that plan to star Asian American leads, such as Crazy Rich Asians and Disney's live-action Mulan, the future for Asian American representation seems to be shining a bit brighter. Hopefully, throughout the progressive growth of Asian representation in media, more public recognition of works by Asian Americans such as Aziz and Constance will continue to increase, while projects that are solely restricted to elaborations on the Asian American experience slowly decline.
It is imperative to not overlook current growth and progress in the Asian American community. Asian Americans have harvested other outlets besides film in Hollywood to channel their voice and create universal content. YouTube, in particular, has become one of the hottest creative spaces for Asian Americans. Founded in 2006, one of its most commercially successful group of creators is Wong Fu Productions.
With Wong Fu Productions, the viewer gets to see products such as comedy sketches, artistic shorts, drama, and sci-fi parodies. They get to see Asians playing romantic leads, instead of sidekick characters, who explore human relationships and universal ideas. Universal depictions become accessible and widespread through the platform of YouTube, where many young people roam for sources of entertainment. This type of authentic and diverse material is what should be fed not only to the Asian American youth, but to all mixed, racial communities.
Asians may not be handed extensive creative freedom on the big screen for a long time coming, but if one continues to support the groups that are innovating the disposition of Asians in creative systems like YouTube, the possibilities for what Asians can achieve on a bigger scale in the future are limitless.
Below is a montage I created of notable Asian American faces from the media and film industry. It is accompanied by an excerpt of commentary by Philip Wang, a Wong Fu member, on the representation of Asian Americans in the film industry.
You can watch the original video of commentary by Philip Wang here.
In order of appearance: Anna Akana, Marlon Brando (as Sakini in The Teahouse of the August Moon), Mickey Rooney (as Mr. Yuinoshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's), Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi & Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Gong Li (The Curse of the Golden Flower), Constance Wu, Randall Park & Hudson Yang (Fresh Off the Boat), Aziz Ansari, Jenn Im, David So, Bart Kwan, Joe Jo, Chris Dinh, Jeremy Lin, Christine Chen, Philip Wang, Ashley Matsunami, Taylor Chan, Dominic Sandoval, Wesley Chan, Cassey Ho, Casey Chan, Tiffany Del Real, Julia Chow, Kevin Wu, Ryan Higa, Ted Fu, Kyoya Iwata & Ranan Yamasaki (Komorebi [木漏れ日])