The Time for Asian Representation in Pop Culture is Now

Hollywood has left me disappointed once again. We have the gender pay gap, an issue that actress Jennifer Lawrence spoke from her own experience in filming American Hustle. But what’s even more disconcerting and has been weighing on my mind—for years, in fact—is that I fail to see myself represented in the media. As an Asian-American, the severe lack of representation of Asians in Hollywood, especially in film, is jarring. Even worse is the fact that when Asian stories do make it to the big screen, producers and executives end up whitewashing the film—filmmakers decide to cast white actors in roles of color.

Most recently, Paramount and Dreamworks released an image of Scarlett Johansson from the film Ghost in the Shell as Major Motoko Kusanagi, and backlash instantly ignited across the Internet. Actress Ming-Na Wen, who stars on ABC’s Agents of Shield, tweeted, “Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I’m a big fan. But everything against this whitewashing of [an] Asian role.” I absolutely love Scarlett Johansson, especially as the Black Widow in the Marvel franchise. However, Ghost in the Shell is based off a Japanese anime series. Now, do you see what’s wrong with the picture?

Replacing Asian characters with white actors is nothing new. Emma Stone’s character in the 2015 film Aloha is a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian. Justin Chatwin played Goku in the 2009 film Dragonball: Evolution, another film based on a popular Japanese manga series. Even Marvel’s upcoming film Doctor Strange is being criticized for its casting of actress Tilda Swinton in the Asian role of the Ancient One. A Marvel spokesperson attempted to defend its decision in a released statement to Mashable that reads in part, “…The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.” Are you kidding me? In an industry where representation of minorities is already scant, you decide to erase an Asian character completely to add yet another white character?

And don’t even get me started on the 2010 film adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Riding off of the incredibly successful and extremely well-developed Nickelodeon franchise, the announcement of a film adaptation meant high expectations. So, you can imagine everyone’s shock when the actors in the film were significantly lighter in skin tone than their animated counterparts. Why, you ask? Oh, well, because the actors were all white. The Nickelodeon franchise was praised for its portrayal of the various ethnicities in the four nations.

Although films continue to whitewash Asian characters, TV shows are making considerably significant strides in having diverse casts. Perhaps most prominent, is ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat which features at the center of its show a Chinese family. The show does an incredible job of showing that characters of a minority group are capable of holding their own. It thrives on its representation of an Asian family just trying to assimilate into American culture in a comedic fashion. It doesn’t shy away from Asian cultural stereotypes, but instead embraces it, even referencing “Tiger Mom” and using the racial slur “chink.” The depiction of the Huang family authenticates the Asian experience in a way not seen often enough in popular culture. Unafraid to tackle issues unique to individuals of Asian descent, it also shows the fears, hopes, dreams, and desires of minority groups really aren’t all that different from the majority. The show’s unflinching look at cultural stereotypes within the Asian community challenges viewers to analyze and comprehend the ramifications of blindly taking part in subtle and not-so-subtle acts of racism.

And while not all shows feature an all-Asian ensemble, the presence of fully-developed, complex Asian characters in TV shows with predominantly white casts only encourages diversity in the media. One of my favorite Asian characters is Mulan, played by the wonderful Jamie Chung on ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Even better is the fact that her character is gay, representing another level of diversity and complexity. As much as I love Chung and her interpretation of a much beloved Disney warrior, she remains the sole Asian character on the show with a compelling narrative. More and more shows are shining the spotlight on Asian characters—just take a look at Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, Ken Jeong’s Dr. Ken, and Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show Master of None.

Unfortunately, for every step forward in reflecting the true diversity in today’s society, some steps are taken back. Take, for example, the news of Arden Cho’s character Kira Yukimura not returning for season 6 of Teen Wolf. As Seventeen pointed out, “…The loss of Kira means one less Asian character in a television landscape where Asian representation is already very paltry.” And even when Asian characters do make an appearance on TV shows, too often stereotypes make up the character’s entirety. In AMC’s Mad Men, an unidentified Asian woman only appears in the episode to ask Don Draper if he wants to “spend the night together.” The fact that she was only there to serve as a sexual object only furthers the over-sexualization of Asian women, playing on their exoticness or otherness.

The deficiency of Asian stories in the media is not only a disservice to the Asian community, but a nation that prides itself on being a melting pot of cultures. Growing up in a culture where white individuals are the dominant group skews one’s perceptions of beauty standards, concepts of masculinity and femininity, and gives the overall sense that certain minorities are inferior to others. Not only that, but the lack of Asian representation makes the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes all the more dangerous. While we may have made progress from the seriously offensive Asian character Long Duk Dong in the 1984 film Sixteen Candles, the entertainment industry has a long way to go. It’s time for Hollywood to give a voice to all ethnic groups. I’m sick of being relegated to the sidelines in popular culture. Or, of just not being there at all.

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