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“Crazy Rich Asians.” “Turning Red.” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” These are just a few examples of Hollywood works showcasing great Asian representation and which have achieved great success across the world. Yet, to get to this point, a vast number of obstacles in a white-dominated industry such as Hollywood had to be overcome. In addition to harmful stereotyping of Asian characters in Hollywood media, Asian performers also faced invisibility in the industry. According to the 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, 91% of Hollywood executives were White. Furthermore, the report discovered that over 69% of all film roles in Hollywood were occupied by White actors and actresses, with only 4.8% of performers identifying as Asian. Despite the recent success, the profound legacy of racial discrimination in Hollywood against Asians continues to exist, paralleling modern-day society by setting a dangerous precedent for Asian minorities in the U.S. to the point where racial equality still seems far off.
A History of Asians in Hollywood: Martial Arts
Like other racial minorities, Asian representation in Hollywood is rooted in numerous harmful stereotypes. Not only were White people cast as Asian characters, but they were also portrayed as physically revolting – with broken teeth and slanted eyes – and only able to speak English terribly. Moreover, Chinese men were often portrayed as drug addicts with a likening for prostitution and gambling. They were also emasculated, such as insecure sidekicks and comedic antagonists, with zero sex appeal. On the other hand, Chinese women were overly sexualized and portrayed as conniving sex workers, such as “geishas.” Stereotypical symbols of Asian culture were used as well, with Chinese women being characterized as “dragon ladies” and “china dolls,” both sexual and demeaning representations. This portrayal of East Asian women as sexual and submissive on-screen has also led to dangerous real-life consequences, such as a higher risk of sexual assault among East Asian women due to society’s adoption of this media-perpetrated perception.
These representations continued for decades, that is until the rise of Bruce Lee, who seemingly transformed Asian representation in Hollywood. Shifting from the stereotypical Asian man portrayals of comedy, undesirability, and submission, Lee began to showcase martial arts skills in his roles that revolutionized the way people saw Asian men on camera. As martial arts became integral to the depiction of Asian characters, the former dehumanizing stereotypes in Hollywood were slowly dismantled and transformed. A new stereotype was born that associates “Asian” with martial arts. Take Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan. While they are all formidable Asian actors, they’re known for one thing: their ability to perform martial arts on television. Yet this wasn’t the end, because a whole collection of new stereotypes has since risen to further ridicule Asian cultures.
Misrepresented and Stereotyped: Rise of Anti-Asian Racism
Even after martial arts became associated with the portrayal of Asian people on film and T.V., directors and producers continue to represent harmful stereotypes about Asian people in Hollywood media. Take the character Long Duk Dong from the 1984 film “Sixteen Candles”. The first time he appears in the movie, a gong – a musical instrument associated with Chinese culture – rings. He then uses an exaggerated East Asian accent and “broken” English in order to make comments and jokes that portray him as a socially awkward, racially stereotyped Asian man. This was the case for many other portrayals of East Asian characters in Hollywood and continues to be the case even today.
Moreover, South Asian characters were depicted as a reflection of how White people often viewed them: docile and weak. For example, Raj Koothrappali from the hit show “The Big Bang Theory” is unable to talk to women unless under the influence of alcohol for six seasons. As the only Asian main character, he served as the comedic relief and was often represented as emasculate and sexually repressed, which are common racial stereotypes used against Asians in a White-dominated industry. Not to mention, when Asians are stereotyped and misrepresented to fulfill White producers’ desire for comedic relief, it also makes it “socially acceptable” for the (mostly White) audience to laugh at an entire race.
The Continued Invisibility of Asians in Hollywood
In addition to misrepresentation, Asians also faced another challenge: underrepresentation. Michelle Yeoh, the star of “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” and “Crazy Rich Asians”, stated that when she started her career in Hollywood, “there was no regard for Asian actors.” She also described how Asian actors and actresses have been debased, that they are not asking “to be treated a special way” but to be given the “opportunity to go for the same things as non-Asians.” Yet even on the rare occasions Asians are given opportunities to appear on screen, their portrayal is often stereotyped.
What’s even more pressing is that Hollywood has a history of casting White actors and actresses as Asian characters, referred to as “yellowface.” In the popular 2016 movie “Doctor Strange”, the Ancient One, a character inspired by a Tibetan man in the comics that the film is based on, was played by White actress Tilda Swinton. In a response to her controversial role, Swinton stated that the writers wanted to avoid the “Dragon Lady” stereotype associated with Chinese women, suggesting that yellowface was used for the sake of “diversity.” Of course, the problem is that the writers classified Asians solely based on stereotypes and the notion that Ancient One played by an Asian actress could not exist without depicting a “Dragon Lady”, implying that an authentic Asian portrayal would only conform to racial stereotypes.
However, “Doctor Strange” isn’t just an exception. In the 2017 movie “Ghost in the Shell,” the Japanese character Major Motoko Kusanagi was portrayed by White actress Scarlett Johansson, who was also altered with digital effects to make her appear “more Asian.” In the 2015 movie “Aloha,” Allison Ng, a Hawaiian character of Chinese descent, was portrayed by Emma Stone, another White actress. The list goes on and on. To offer an Asian role to a non-Asian performer rather than an equally, if not more, deserving Asian performer shows the extent to which Hollywood underrepresents Asian people and actively deepens their invisibility in popular media.
The Success of Recent Efforts for Asian Representation
Despite this tumultuous history of racism and discrimination, Asians in Hollywood have made great strides in advancing accurate and abundant Asian representation. For example, the 2022 film “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” co-created by Asian director Daniel Kwan, transformed the way Asian women are normally portrayed. Evelyn Wang, Yeoh’s character, is not just sexual and submissive, but a superhero with the ability to jump through parallel universes. She’s not just a “tiger mom,” but is a dynamic character struggling with her daughter’s sexual identity and reasons with herself to ultimately accept it. Yeoh contends that Asian roles that make the public go “Oh God, no, don’t do that because it’s a stereotype” are ultimately the result of White Hollywood writers’ assumptions that it’s “what the audience wants.” However, these assumptions must come to an end as they are untrue; instead, audiences actually desire accurate and diverse representation, and works such as “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” are helping change the industry’s flawed assumptions.
Another successful work in Asian representation is the hit Netflix TV series “Never Have I Ever,” co-produced by South Asian actress Mindy Kaling, whose Asian American characters are portrayed as complex individuals and not just as stereotypes that Western media often places on South Asians. There’s Devi, the teenage protagonist, who isn’t just focused on academics like Asian teens are stereotyped to do, but is also balancing her Indian and American identities while navigating the death of her father. Then there is Nalini, Devi’s mother, who doesn’t play the role of the “tiger mom” who’s always strong and strict but is someone who continues to mourn the death of her husband and struggles to keep her family together. Actress Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Nalini, is ecstatic that screen time for Asian performers is increasing but admits that Asian character arcs are often still stereotypical. Yet for her, “Never Have I Ever” and other works that showcase great Asian representation give Asians a chance to write their own complex narratives, rather than the underdeveloped and racially-motivated stories that White Hollywood tends to create for them.
Recognizing the Legacy of Asians in Hollywood
While recent Hollywood media has been increasing in its diverse representation of Asians, we must recognize that there is a great history of Asian misrepresentation and underrepresentation behind this success. While it is usually swept under the rug, it is now a force that we must reckon with. The recent successes of Hollywood media highlighting Asian cultures did not just come about abruptly; artists of Asian descent struggled in order to get where they are today. Hopefully, harmful stereotypes about Asian cultures will continue to diminish and more Asian actors and actresses will be able to perform the roles they deserve, ones that accurately depict their culture and continue to push the advancement of Asian representation in Hollywood. Moreover, greater representation can reflect on advancements in racial equality for Asians in modern society. In addition to the continued societal view that Asians being oppressed is a “false narrative” because the Asian community in the U.S. is one of the richest racialized communities, COVID-19 increased anti-Asian racism due to the widespread use of the harmful term “the Chinese Virus,” which certainly did not help the case. But through more diverse representations of Asian identities in Hollywood, the public can better develop empathy for Asians, correct their mistaken assumptions about the Asian community, and learn about issues that Asian people struggle with in society.
Edited by Majeed Malhas