I’ve been really wanting to discuss this topic for awhile and is actually one of the reasons why I had chosen to create this blog (despite wanting to show you my pretty pics of food and scenic views from my latest vacay). As a Korean-American male, I’ve lived majority of my life in America (Wow, has it been 30 years?) and I’ve noticed the lack of Asian representation and misrepresentation in Hollywood. If you’ve been awaken or are socially aware, you would have noticed this as well. This past year, I’ve read some interesting topics such as the social movement with casting an Asian-American as Iron Fist in Marvel’s Iron Fist TV series (#AAIronFist), photo shopped movie posters of John Cho in the leading role of popular movies (#StarringJohnCho) and an article that quotes Constance Wu on whitewashing ethnic characters.
As far as the late 60’s and dominantly throughout the 70’s, Asians have been stereotyped for being intelligent and performing martial arts with popularity of actors, George Takei as Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series and Bruce Lee pioneering martial arts in Hollywood. Star Trek was really one of the first popularized TV shows to be released with such a diverse and eclectic cast. Bruce Lee was really the first Asian-American sex symbol the America has ever seen. To this day, never have we had an Asian-American actor rise to this form of “sex symbol” prominence in Hollywood. When I say “sex symbol”, I mean, having an Asian-American male actor or model to grace the front cover of GQ and Men’s Health in America. Take a moment…yeah, I can’t think of any either. We’ve had the popularity of martial arts flicks throughout the 80’s and 90’s with Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen and Jet Li but they’ve never made it to that degree of “sex symbol” in Hollywood. Sorry guys!
When reflecting back on past years, we haven’t had much of diverse roles in Hollywood. We’ve had John Cho playing a nerdy, introverted pothead in Harold & Kumar, Ken Jeong playing a goofy Asian pimp in The Hangover and Rick Yune as Johnny Tran who was an antagonist in The Fast & Furious franchise. Many of male Asian-American roles are perceived as emasculate in comparison to Caucasian roles and consist of being either socially awkward, nerdy or playing “the bad guy”. One of the Hollywood movies that had really disappointed me back in the day was Romeo Must Die. Why? Because Jet Li never got the girl in the end (I also had a big crush on Aaliyah). It’s like he did all of that work through out the movie and it still wasn’t enough to be outside of the friend zone. Hollywood didn’t want Li to get the girl. This behavior is still the case in many romantic comedies (Maybe another reason why I don’t really watch them?). Shame!
Fast forward to more recent years, we’ve seen some development in Hollywood and I give praise to those producers and actors that are aware and are taking some action. For example, Steve Yeun as Glenn Rhee in The Walking Dead who actually gets the girl, although it took a zombie apocalypse for this to happen, Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan in an Asian-majority cast in Marco Polo on Netflix, even though Lorenzo Richemly is the lead actor and gets the women. Randall Park in an Asian family sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat which is a fun comedy to watch but perceives the goofy, stereotypical Asian family. Furthermore, Daniel Dae Kim plays a driven and skillful cop on Hawaii 5-0 but can be portrayed as an outcast to the group while Byung-Hun Lee has made his entry into Hollywood with “bad guy” cameos in Red and G.I. Joe movies but finally is at the front line alongside protagonists, Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt in the upcoming The Magnificent Seven. (Who would turn down a movie with Denzel?). Though I must say the actor for playing the most complex of characters has been Daniel Dae Kim based on his roles in Lost and Hawaii 5-0 alone. I haven’t seen him star in any mainstream roles that I know of like Byung-Hun but that could possibly be due to Daniel avoiding being typecast. As for the award for Asian-American actor getting the girl in the end, it could be a tie between Steve Yeun and John Cho. Yeun has had the most longevity with The Walking Dead going on strong into its seventh season (I hope Negan doesn’t kill him!). Although Asian-Americans are on the rise for being represented in Hollywood, we still have a ways to go and are still lacking a solid representation in Hollywood in comparison to Caucasian actors. When will we have more male Asian-American heroes/superheroes in Hollywood?
Surprisingly, we got a hero with Daniel Wu in the AMC show, Into the Badlands which is like the first-time ever an Asian-American plays the lead role while being a hero in a TV series! But it was such a short story as it was only 6 episodes and as much as I had enjoyed the world it created and how cool the martial arts sequences were, it still lacked in the character development for Wu’s character. I’m assuming that partial blame could be due to the budgetary constraints. As for Asian-American superheroes, we unfortunately lost the casting bid to another Caucasian actor, Finn Jones for Iron Fist but we do have Chloe Bennet who plays Daisy Johnson on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in which she’s Chinese-American in real-life and on the show. Although the show has its ups and downs, Chloe’s character is as complex as it gets as she comes from a broken home, is a computer hacker, government spy and struggles to control her powers that can rattle the Earth into pieces! Also, Ming-Na Wen plays a bad-ass martial arts spy on the show.
The empowering Asian-American woman hasn’t always been the case in media but they seem to have progressed further into being accepted into the mainstream of Hollywood in comparison to the Asian-American man. I mean you’ve had Lucy Liu publicized on plenty of fashion and fitness magazine covers in the states and it’s likely you’ll see more of this trend. We can compare this to what Edith Wen-Chu Chen talks about in “Asian Americans in Sororities and Fraternities” in the book, Brothers and Sisters: Diversity in College Fraternities and Sororities. She talks about Caucasian males having the “asian fetish” a.k.a. “yellow fever” as Asian women seem more sexually desirable and “ultra feminine and inferior to white heterosexual males”. She discusses how this scenario is acceptable because it doesn’t disrupt the social hierarchy that is set in place. Furthermore, in her studies she points to media being one of the culprits. For an Asian-American woman living in a “White” society, the combination of Asian men being emasculated and the White man being dominant in mainstream media can psychologically influence Asian-American women to date Caucasians over their own race.
As you can see, this social stigma on a particular race or gender can have influence and consequences. It’s more than just being represented in society, it’s about what we are showing and telling our next generation. As Constance Wu has mentioned on Asian representation, we shouldn’t blame people and point fingers but should make ourselves and everyone around us aware of this fact. Much of the problem of Asian representation is that the Asian-American doesn’t speak up and turns the other cheek while condoning this behavior. Many talented Asian-American actors may have to work harder than other Caucasian actors to land a big role in white Hollywood. The solution to escalate Asian representation seems to be finding more producers to support the change in the current dynamic. This would take Asian-American actors to come together to promote this kind of awareness and to invest into their own production companies to release socially aware content in movies and television. Steve Yeun and Daniel Daye Kim are a couple of known actors that are doing this now. But it will also depend on Asian-American actors to not succumb to being cast as Asian stereotypes. This could be challenging to do since it is already difficult as it is for Asian-American actors to get jobs. John Cho is known for going against the grain in pursuing roles that Asian-Americans haven’t done before and I will end this post with one of his quotes in Glamour magazine last year.
I think Hollywood acts like followers of culture and is constantly seeking to follow trends. I just feel like we could be doing much more interesting stuff and starting a chain of events. Starting and leading social trends and leading artistic movements. And yet I think the town is not as courageous as it could be. It certainly is in a position to influence more than it does. ~ John Cho to Glamour, February 2015
For more great articles on Asian representation in Hollywood:
Asian-American Actors Are Fighting for Visibility: They Will Not Be Ignored – The New York Times
Where Are the Asian-American Movie Stars? – The Hollywood Reporter
“Asian men in media are so desexualized”: Rising star Jake Choi fights the Hollywood odds against Asian American actors – Salon
The Winners and Losers of Asian Representation in Hollywood in 2015 – Buzzfeed