Being Asian in Hollywood: Actors, directors, and creators talk representation

Next: What audiences need to know

Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange.
Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange. (Marvel/Disney)

Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange act as microcosms for everything discussed in this interview. Both films address two sides to the Asian representation issue; whitewashing and erasure. But while many have joined with Asian Americans in protesting these films, there are still many others who either don’t understand the issues or feel like the outrage is a threat. For too many, the controversy surrounding these films is just “Social Justice Warrior” meddling.

The controversies are far from meddling; it’s a call to action from a marginalized group to be represented accurately and with respect. For too long, that cry has gone unheard, but finally, and slowly, more and more ears are picking up on it. However, instead of a non-Asian voice summing up what the fight means to Asian Americans, here they are in their own words.

Lee:  “The passion of fans come from the purest place. Listen to the fans. The fans bash Hollywood for whitewashing The Last Air Bender and Ghost in the Shell. Why doesn’t Hollywood listen?”

Jackson: “I think some entertainment fans need to understand that not everyone is equally, accurately, and positively represented in media. Marginalized groups are always portrayed in stereotypical roles while white characters are allowed to be multi-dimensional protagonists. All we want is equal representation.”

Long: “I can’t speak for what any one takes away from a discussion. I only say just keep having the discussion!”

Tashima: “It’s about race representation, and employment opportunity. Fairness, justice, and why racism and oppression onscreen is bad. If you understand that, you’ll see what should happen and what shouldn’t. When you understand the issues, it’s easier to see right from wrong. Balance is crucial. Stay away from thinking issues relate to artistic interpretation, artistic freedom, and those arguments which are a different topic. We all want those things. But, what else is going on? What is the history of oppression? What needs to be done to make change?”

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Wable: “I think folks who have trouble understanding why (well-informed) representation of minority voices in entertainment matters, don’t fully understand why entertainment and media generally matters. For most people, regardless of race/gender/sexual orientation, it wasn’t until relatively recently that minority representation in media began to be talked about as an important socio-political issue that needed to be addressed. Of course, there have always been activists of all walks of life who have recognized the issue and fought for fair representation, but I think for many people entertainment still remains just that- an idle pass-time that they assume, has no effect on how they perceive the world, when in fact, every image that flickers past their eyes and word that’s uttered by someone on screen, is coloring the lens through which they view their fellow humans. So I think the real take away for entertainment fans is a question to reflect on- “How has/does entertainment inform my opinions about a given issue or group of people? “

“…I will leave it on a positive note by saying that I am optimistic. I think we live in such an exciting time given all the avenues for creators to find their audiences and I think it’s a critical time for us to keep discussing these issues and, it’s critical for creators and gatekeepers alike to be tuned in to these discussions because they are not only essential to the corporate interests that are interested in making money off of cutting-edge content, but the cutting edge content itself is how we will ultimately evolve into a more inclusive and humane society where our entertainment reflects the reality we live in and not the fears that produced it.”

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Sethi: “They need to understand that these are our stories, our culture and our community. We must protect these things because this is all we have.”

“I truly feel that even the representation we have right now for Indian American actors on the big screen and TV is minimal and weird. It doesn’t reflect my parents, me or my community. But seeing brown faces on the screen is definetely the first step. and there are a few actors out there that refuse to do the Indian accent and really are pushing the limits of how far we have seen brown faces succeed in this industry.”

Keodara: “Misrepresentation and underrepresentation is a form of emotional and psychological violence against Asians.  It’s degrading and demeaning to be told that we’re not Asian enough or good enough to portray ourselves in our own stories.  What they need to understand is that characters can be made compelling to the American audience without relying on the actor’s ethnicity.  Even if you don’t understand why we feel hurt by these portrayals, do try to understand that on a basic human level, our hurt is genuine and that we should all care for one another’s pains and frustrations.  We are all Americans, and more importantly we are all human beings.  Whatever our backgrounds, our ethnicities, our finances, our politics, we all feel fear, frustration, anxiety, worry, pain and isolation.  No matter how were are colored, we all deserve the support and consideration of one another.” ♦

The Blasian Project and WGA comedy writer M. Hasna Maznavi were also reached for comment for this article. 

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