Asian Americans deserve multifaceted representation in Hollywood

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Author: Emily Gao

Hollywood is a lawn with an “If Asian, keep off grass” sign; actually, there are signs for all racial minorities. This lawn has gotten away with only accommodating white audiences for decades, a problematic infrastructure not being called out by social media campaign #OscarsSoWhite in response to the lack of racial diversity among the Oscar nominees.

And #OscarsSoWhite rings true — but so would the hashtag #LetsMakeFunofAsians. At this year’s Oscars, Chris Rock perpetuated the model minority myth by featuring three Asian kids as the butt of his stereotypical jokes about math and child labor. By Rock and by others, Asians are unfairly generalized to be harmless, subservient and well-off people who allegedly never rally against racial injustice. The need for people and stories on-screen to better reflect their audiences is an issue that extends beyond any one particular minority group and is now more necessary than ever.

Constance Wu, best known for playing Jessica Huang on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” (FOB), affirmed my sentiments Feb. 16 during an event entitled, “Keeping it Fresh: A Conversation with Constance Wu,” held at the University of Southern California (USC). USC’s Asian Pacific American Student Assembly (APASA) invited the Taiwanese-American actress to discuss how her Asian-American identity influences her career, as well as her participation in a landmark show: FOB is the first show in 20 years to star an entirely Asian cast. While I was overjoyed to find out the show was coming to ABC, I can’t help but still lament the general lack of Asian representation in the media.

This lack of representation manifests itself in the fact that I didn’t see an Asian love interest for years (eventually, Trixie Tang on “Fairly Oddparents”). It is originated by years of producers highlighting the stories of white people over those of anyone else. And it causes years of trying to be white because being the “other” is tiring, and all a middle schooler wants is to fit in.

“I’m not asking [white artists like Lena Dunham] to write the next “Joy Luck Club” … what I’m asking of [them] is to just have an awareness of what [they’re] creating and why [they’re] making those choices and [to] not use ignorance as an excuse for not being inclusive in your idea of what the world looks like,” Wu explained in response to a question on the silent erasure of Asians from the big screen.

“FOB” does not come without flaws, but the benefits the show brings to Asian-Americans outweigh these missteps. On the whole, FOB does a good job of portraying what it’s like to be Asian American, in addition to challenging stereotypes. For example, the eldest son, Eddie Huang, is head-over-heels for all things hip-hop. The show also tackles instances of racism — in the show, the Huang family moves from Washington D.C. to Florida, where they appear to be the only Asian family around. When Jessica and her husband come across the Asian-American Association of Orlando (AAAO), they are met with disappointment. The AAAO is run by a white male who knows zilch about Chinese culture, but celebrates Chinese New Year anyway, getting all the traditional customs wrong in the process (the traditional Dragon Dance is performed by a person sporting a “Dragon Tales”-looking costume).

As a child, I felt embarrassed by my parents’ accents. They made it so obvious that we were “other,” and I always wondered why their accents weren’t considered beautiful. In a direct nod to my experience, Wu noted that throughout cinematic history, French accents have been portrayed as sexy, while Chinese accents have been portrayed as unattractive and are often used for comic relief. She adds that having an accent is something to be proud of because it is a sign of being bilingual.

“When asked why we don’t have more Asian movie stars,” Wu said. “The common answer is that there’s no Asian actors who have an established box office revenue. But there’s a lot of coming-of-age, teenage movies that star people who are also not box office-established.”

Like Wu, I too want to see Hollywood arrive at a place where an Asian person onscreen provokes neither elation nor criticism. Ideally, it would be great to have a popular culture in which an Asian actor is normal, but I know there’s a societal paradigm shift that needs to happen before we get there.

When the microphone was handed to me during the Q&A, I brought up the phenomenon of Asian artists on YouTube. If popular reasoning for the lack of Asian representation in the media is “there are not enough Asian actors,” “they’re not relatable” and “they wouldn’t bring in high ratings,” then how could Asians be prospering on YouTube? How can networks be so irresponsible as to ignore the proof that Asians deserve to be heard and listened to?

“Racism,” Wu answered emphatically.

An astonishing amount of Asian-American creativity exists on YouTube. From producing and directing to singing and acting, it’s clear that Asian-Americans are talented creators. Asian-American YouTubers garner millions of views (i.e Michelle Phan, Kevjumba, Timothy Delaghetto, Communitychannel) and have done so for years. Some YouTubers, like WongfuProductions and Nigahiga, have even produced full-length movies. They have the “it” factor as much as Jennifer Lawrence or George Clooney does.

I’m not just saying all of this simply because I’m an angry, underrepresented Chinese-American woman. I’m saying it because I’m an angry, underrepresented Chinese-American woman who knows that YouTube is a platform that dispels every excuse. There is proof that Asian-Americans have the talent, beauty and brains of any Emma Stone or Bradley Cooper. This truth would lead us to believe that “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a story based in Asian and Inuit cultures, would have cast a plethora of Asians — save for the problematic whitewashing of TV networks and Hollywood producers.

Wu hopes that within 20 years greater representation of Asian actors onscreen and in leading roles will become the norm. She hopes that the Asian-American community won’t want to cringe when they see an Asian actor playing a dweeb or a hunk. Asian actors will not be typecast, because they are as diverse personally and professionally as any other folk. What she hopes to see is a Hollywood where the tokenization of Asians is antiquated.

“There are Asian dweebs and Asian hunks,” Wu joked, “Just like there are white dweebs and white hunks.”

I want to see Hollywood get to the point where seeing an Asian onscreen isn’t a moment of surprise, followed by worry about whether the portrayal will be positive. Bigotry is not an excuse to exclude the stories of large populations who matter, are lovable and have stories worth telling. Directors aren’t crafting any more Charlie Chans, but we’ve still got a ways to go. Believe it or not, Asian-Americans have stories worth sharing that go beyond nunchucks, math skills and mystical kimonos.

It’s embarrassing that I can only list about five Asian-American movie stars, but it’s more embarrassing that networks took two decades to usher in a show that stars Asian-American actors. Chris Rock addressing the exclusion of Black people from the Oscars is a step in the right direction, but it does not give him leeway to undermine other people of color. It is imperative, as Wu highlighted, to address the issue of racial representation now in order to hold Hollywood to a higher standard, one which reflects how the world really is, melanin included.

Emily Gao is a first-year Critical Theory and Social Justice major. She can be reached at egao@oxy.edu.

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