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

(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)
(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)

Representation in Hollywood is an issue by itself, but Asian representation in Hollywood is near non-existent. With the state of Hollywood being that black equates to “diversity” (despite there being more types of diversity out there than just being black) and Asian characters are still overrun with stereotypes or whitewashing, Asian actors and actresses have had a tough uphill battle in breaking through the glass ceiling.

JUST ADD COLOR is all about exploring how all types of diversity are showcased in Hollywood, so I thought it would be fantastic to have an ongoing series called POC in Hollywood. First up, the Asian American experience in Hollywood. In this longform piece, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues and biases plaguing Asian creatives in Hollywood.

This is a longform, so if you’d like to jump to specific parts, here’s the table of contents:

Whiteness as the default

IMDB
IMDB

Historically, Hollywood has used Asian locales and people as props, while white characters are given layered characteristics. In short, white characters have been treated as humans, while everyone and everything else are only developed in stereotypes.

The most recent examples of this include The Birth of the Dragon, in which a white character is used to frame Bruce Lee’s biopic, Doctor Strange, which sees Tilda Swinton playing an Asian role and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, which is a white character used to exploit a stereotypical Asian mysticism, Ghost in the Shell, which uses Japanese culture to frame Scarlett Johansson as The Major and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, which features India as a backdrop for white characters and Dev Patel playing a stereotypical Indian character.

“What’s particularly silly about The Birth of the Dragon is that they invented a fictional white character thinking that that would be what North American audience would want,” wrote Quentin Lee, The Unbidden director and founder of Margin Films in an email interview. “The filmmakers obviously fell flat on their faces. Not only it wasn’t historically accurate for the story, the film ended up insulting Bruce Lee and the audience who would support it. It was a creative misfire.”

Chris Tashima, an Academy-winning director for the 1998 short film Visas and Virtue and co-founder of Cedar Grove Productions, wrote that while he hasn’t seen The Birth of the Dragon yet, he found the basis of the film “ridiculous.”

“It’s understandable, why this has been the practice—being that traditionally, decision makers have been white males, and like anyone else, will want to see stories about themselves, and that audiences have traditionally been thought of as young, white males,” he wrote. “However, all of that is changing. It has been changing for a while, and it’s easy to see where it’s going: towards a diverse world. That’s an old practice and you’d think Hollywood would want to project, and put themselves on the cutting edge, and be more inclusive. It’s old, and tired, and more and more, I think audiences will want to see something different, something more truthful.”

“I think the overarching theme that runs through how Hollywood/the West represents POCs has to do with the ease with which they are able to strip POCs of agency over their own stories,” wrote Kesav Wable, Brooklyn-based actor, writer, 2011 HBO American Black Film Festival finalist for his short film, For Flow and Sundance lab short-listed screenwriter for a script about a Pakistani boxer wrongfully accused of planning a terror attack.

“This may come across as a bit exaggerated or radical, but I do believe that there is a link between white imperialist concepts such as ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘white man’s burden,’ which validated a lot of the literal takings from POCs that happened throughout earlier periods in civilized history, and now, in a media-hungry world where information, content, and stories are the most valuable currencies, there is an analogous “taking” of the narratives that POCs have lived through. By depicting POC characters through the lens of a white character, it enables white audiences to keep POCs’ stories at arm’s length, and to not completely empathize with those characters because they are not given the complete human dignity and complexity that is afforded the white character.”

“Perhaps, this, in a way, damps down the guilt that white audiences may feel if the POCs stories/circumstances have to do with the literal takings that were exacted by their ancestors. Or it’s just good for a cheap laugh. The truly insidious effect of POCs being usurped from their own narratives is that, even many of us POCs begin to start viewing things through a white lens and stop questioning whether these stories truly represent who we are because of how pervasive white-controlled media is.”

Wable used the upcoming film Happy End, which is about a bourgeois European family living amid the current refugee crisis. “Granted, I haven’t seen the film, so it’d be presumptive of me to conclude that refugees are not conferred with dignity/complexity as characters, but the very thought that French filmmakers think that shining a light on a bourgeois family with the refugee crisis as a ‘backdrop’ can be instructive about their world, speaks volumes about what it is white people are most interested in; themselves,” he wrote. “In this case, apparently, the context is a rueful rumination on their own blindness to the refugees’ plight. Somehow the irony of the very film’s existence as a manifestation of that blindness seems to be lost on them.”

Mandeep Sethi, filmmaker and emcee, also discussed about Hollywood’s tendencies to erase non-white people from their own stories. “I think centralizing POC stories around white characters is Hollywood’s way of taking a black or brown story and making it about white people,” he said. “Our culture is full of amazing stories and histories and Hollywood loves to cherry pick what they like but leave out the real nitty gritty including the people who created, interacted, and setup that story.”

Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)
Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)

Sinakhone Keodara, founder CEO of Asian Entertainment Television and host of Asian Entertainment Tonight, wrote that Hollywood’s penchant for using whiteness as a default is “a heinous tradition that is long overdue for a change.”

“Rather than trying to normalize Asian presence on screen to a wide American audience, Hollywood often goes the tired, well-worn and ‘safe’ route of using a white character in an attempt to more easily relate the character to a majority white American audience.  It’s cheap and unnecessary, because the proper and more effective way of relating a character to an audience is writing a character with emotional depth,” he said. “Ethnicity informs and colors our individual and community experiences, but emotion transcends ethnic boundaries.  With political correctness aside, Hollywood needs to stop engaging in a form of neo-emotional and neo-psychological colonialism against people of color, especially Asians by injecting whiteness into our stories.”

“I think that centralizing PoC stories around white characters is always going to happen as long as the people telling these stories are white,” wrote Asia Jackson, an actress, model and content creator. “What Hollywood needs is not only diversity on-camera, but to also make greater efforts to allow filmmakers of color to tell their own stories.”

Jodi Long, an actress who was a castmember of the first Asian American TV sitcom All-American Girl and member of the actors branch of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote that while whiteness as the default is the reality in Hollywood, a study shows a much needed change in film. “I just saw a new study The Inclusion Quotient done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media where the reality in terms of box office is changing, where women and diverse actors in lead roles are now performing extremely well,” she wrote. “Money talks in Hollywood but we still have to get beyond the implicit (unconscious) bias that factors into which projects get greenlit based on outmoded ways of thinking.”

Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)
Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)

Kunjue Li, Ripper Street actress and founder of China Dolls Productions Ltd., also addressed how money rules Hollywood, despite Hollywood not making the audience demand actually work for them financially. “I don’t think [whitewashing] is the right thing to do, and second of all, I don’t think it’s very commercial,” she said. “…[I]f they want to sell to Chinese audiences, which is the second biggest film market, then they need to tell a Chinese story…I think you have to tell a Chinese story [with] a Chinese cast.”

“If the film [was] an an American-Chinese co-production, [it would] actually help with the film itself because then it doesn’t have to go through the quota system…which means that only 30 percent of foreign films are allowed to show in China markets every year. If they do it as a co-production, then they get 1/3 of Chinese funding, but they have to have 1/3 of a Chinese [cast]. They’ll have one-third of Chinese funding, they’ll have domestic showings, they don’t have to go through the quota system, it’s much more feasible. Commercially, [whitewashing] doesn’t even work. I don’t understand why people keep doing that.”

Next: The pain of exoticism

Oscars Fallout: Many Sound Off on Program’s Stereotypical Asian Jokes

Yesterday, tons of people gave their two cents on Chris Rock’s Oscars monologue. The monologue itself has been met with a range of emotions, from delight to disgust (you can read my opinion here). But it’s the jokes outside of the monologue that made people justifiably upset, especially since the jokes were a part of a night dedicated towards ending the diversity glass ceiling in Hollywood. Towards the end of the night, two tasteless jokes reared their ugly heads, and both made fun of Asians.

First, Sacha Baron Cohen, as his poser character Ali G., crudely compared the Minions to Asian men by using the phrase “little yellow people” and invoking sexual stereotyping.

Apparently, Baron Cohen was supposed to do his bit with Olivia Wilde straight, but he had his wife, actress Isla Fisher, sneak in his Ali G. costume. “The Oscars sat me down beforehand and said they didn’t want me to do anything out of order, they wanted me to actually just present it as myself,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain (as reported by the Guardian). “But luckily my wife put on the Ali G beard in the disabled toilets and I managed to get away with it.” In order to put the whole costume on while in the bathroom, they pretended Baron Cohen had food poisoning. According to what Baron Cohen said, Rock gave him “the thumbs up” to go ahead with the stunt after meeting with Rock to quickly pitch him his idea.

Second, when Rock opened the part of the show usually dedicated to introducing the accountants from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, he introduced three Asian kids. While the kids were cute, the joke wasn’t.

“As they clutched briefcases, they visually illustrated the stereotype that Asians are diligent workers who excel at math,” wrote the New York TimesMelena Ryzik. “‘If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids,’ Mr. Rock added, a punch line interpreted as a reference to child labor in Asia.”

These jokes were tone-deaf, seeing how the entire tone of the night was one berating Hollywood for its tone-deafness when it comes to black actors and actresses. At worst, the jokes showed how there are implicit biases even in intra-racial and intra-ethnic relations that need to be deleted. As pointed out in yesterday’s “5 of the Top Moments from the Oscars” post, it would have been great if Rock had discussed how all minorities are marginalized in Hollywood, since that is actually what #OscarsSoWhite is about. To quote #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign from her exclusive interview with JUST ADD COLOR:

I think it’s unnecessarily limiting and I think it’s unfortunate that they can’t get out of that box for themselves because I’m not in that box…It’s not clear to me why people think that is. I don’t know if it’s because I’m black and they can’t see past who I am and understand that I’m multifaceted, or if it’s just easier for them to think in binary terms. But that’s not what #OscarsSoWhite is about at all. Race is just one portion of it; it’s all marginalized communities, and within race, it’s not just black people; it’s definitely about Asian people. It ‘s definitely about Latinos and Latinas and Hispanics. It’s about everyone who should be represented on the screen.

As Rebecca Sun for The Hollywood Reporter points out, the Oscars welcomed Asian stars Byung-hun Lee, Priyanka Chopra, Dev Patel and other POC stars as presenters for many reasons (which can make up its own post), one of them being that they are also a part of the large demographic the Academy (and by extension, Hollywood itself) should represent more, a demo that obviously isn’t limited only to black people. While black actors and actresses don’t get cast as much as they should, Asian, Latino and Native actors and actresses get cast at an even smaller rate:

What’s equally as sad is that Rock had proven himself to be the right guy to take on Hollywood for its transgressions, both in his career and, by several accounts, earlier that night in his monologue.

“For most of the Oscars, Chris Rock proved himself once again to be a dynamic truth-teller abut systemic racism, managing not only to make pointed comedy out of #OscarsSoWhite but to keep it front and center long after his biting opening monologue. Then, about two-thirds through, he took a break to make an Asian joke,” wrote Lowen Liu for Slate. Jeff Yang wrote for Quartz about how he flipped in between the #JusticeforFlint event and coverage of the Oscars, ready to be entertained by Rock’s wit. “[W]hile I had decided to refrain from watching, the prospect of bringing the pain to a theater full of Hollywood’s most cream-colored creme de la creme was awfully tempting. And so, I cheated: I kept a tab open during his monologue and monitored the reactions of my friends to his blistering assault on the Academy Awards’ embarrassing whiteness,” he wrote. “…But my amusement was shortlived.”

Many actors, actresses, and even NBA star Jeremy Lin tweeted their disapproval and disappointment in the jokes.

So far, there’s been no word from Rock or his camp re: his Asian jokes.

This controversy has ignited conversation about the role minority activists should play. As Al Jazeera asks, “Should minorities advocate for one another?”

As stated in the Oscars article Monday, if I was tasked with hosting the Oscars, I would have made sure to advocate for all minorities and oppressed people, because we’re all in this fight together. I wouldn’t have specifically only discussed the black acting pool, because the #OscarsSoWhite issue affects more than just the black acting pool. However, that’s how I’d do it. The question of if minorities should advocate for one another should be a resounding yes. The unspoken question, though, seems to be if Chris Rock should have been (at least on Oscar night) that particular minority activist who does advocate for others. As to what Rock feels about his own performance and how he should proceed in the future can be answered by Rock himself, but the disappointment the jabs at Asian stereotypes caused is something that will linger for a while and, hopefully (like all disappointment should) lead to increased action to make sure all people properly represented by the media (including jokes).

What did you think about the off-putting jokes? Give your opinions in the comments section!

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