4 Reasons Why the Lack of Asian Americans in Hollywood Is Completely Absurd

Side profile of someone smiling slightly as they stare into the distance.

Side profile of someone smiling slightly as they stare into the distance.

I watched a lot of TV growing up. You could say that I was practically raised by it.

Through my TV, I watched nice white families eat meals together and nice white couples fall in love. I watched white winners overcome all obstacles and become the best at everything imaginable – boxing champions, superheroes, mathematicians, and kings. Heck, they even made the best samurai and kung fu masters.

And what about the people who looked like me, the Asian Americans? Well, they were one-dimensional stereotypes who never had enough lines to fill an entire story arch. You know, your evil villains, sexy geishas, and nerdy sidekicks.

Like with most young kids, people always asked me “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I never really had a straight answer.

For a short while in middle school, I said that I wanted to be some kind of writer, but never with confidence. I just couldn’t see myself doing it, even though I knew that I felt most alive when I crafted words onto a page. I couldn’t see myself doing anything, really.

What Hollywood shows us are possibility models that stretch or limit the imagination of what you can do and who you can be. According to what I saw on TV, Asian people couldn’t be wildly expressive, or creative, or triumphant. Asian people were never the winners or the heroes.

And so I couldn’t imagine myself as someone successful at anything I found worth doing because those images didn’t really exist for me.

And these are the same messages that are feeding public perceptions of Asian people, including Asian Americans themselves.

Today only 1% of leading roles go to Asian Americans, and even roles that are for Asian characters are being whitewashed out. Asian Americans continue to struggle against a “bamboo ceiling” – not just in the media, but in business, sports, and politics.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the term Asian American represents a widely diverse community in which some groups receive even less visibility than others. Filipino Americans, for example, are often considered to be an invisible minority even within the Asian American community.

And that, my friends, is absurd. Here’s why.

1.  Asian Americans Are Sexy (In an Empowered Way)

I’ve always had a thing for Asian American men. Yes, that’s right.

Despite all the lies we’re told about them being effeminate, weak, and unattractive, I think they’re smokin’ hot, and it’s time for the everybody else to start seeing them that way, too.

Thus, #StarringJohnCho was born. Thanks to the magic of Photoshop, this viral social media movement proves how handsome Korean American actor John Cho (of Harold and Kumar and Star Trek fame) looks front-facing several of Hollywood’s blockbusters as the leading man.

Like in this reimagined poster of Me Before You. Just look at how charming he looks in the arms of Emilia Clarke. I thought it was real when I first came across it and was quickly disappointed when I finally saw the actual version. Damn, just another white guy. (It was also disappointing to learn how ableist the movie is, but that’s another story.)

And as few roles as there are for Asian American men, there are even fewer for Asian American women, who usually have to play some horribly degrading caricature of a white man’s sexual fantasy.

Sorry to break it to you, Hollywood, but I don’t spend most of my time parading around in kimonos and sexy Sailor Moon outfits. Not only are these fetishizing portrayals unrelatable, but they also put Asian women in serious danger.

So where are my empowered Asian American women out there?

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 Poster, with the actress Constance Wu as the star.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 Poster, with the actress Constance Wu as the star.

Thank you, #StarringConstanceWu. You read my mind. This hashtag campaign puts Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu as the face of badass roles like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Wonder Woman. She has become our icon, our declaration to the world that Asian American women can be strong and sexy as hell.

So let’s not let the hype die down.

As time passes, these campaigns will probably fade to the backs of our memories, but we can’t forget their messages. We need to be seen as sexy. Because we need to be seen as people who can be wanted and who can be loved for who we are.     

2. Asian Americans Are Hilarious

And not in the “ha ha, don’t they have funny names” kind of way.

There are plenty of Asian American comedians who talk about their personal experiences in witty and insightful ways, which to me is much funnier than hearing yet another boring crack about how we all eat dogs and work in sweatshops.

But unfortunately, in Hollywood, we’re usually only allowed to be the butt of jokes rather than the joke makers. Let’s not forget about this fiasco from the Oscars, for instance, when Chris Rock used three Asian children to play the role of silent child laborers who are also really great at math. Hardy har har.

Even in shows that have been praised for their well-rounded diverse characters, for some reason, Asian Americans are still the go-to minority punching bags.

Like in the last season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt when an organization of Asian American activists speaking out against yellowface were hilariously given the name “Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment” or, in acronym form, RAPE. Now that’s just going too far.

So why are there so few Asian American voices taking the reigns on comedy? Because stereotypes tell us that they are muted and awkward outsiders who can’t say anything funny unless it’s in a foreign accent.

That’s just not true, friends. I make hilarious jokes all the time. Just take my word for it.

And it’s not just me. You’ve gotta watch Ali Wong’s stand-up special Baby Cobra on Netflix, which was dubbed by WTF’s Marc Maron as “the most honest, rawest, funniest specials I’ve seen in years.” Aziz Ansari is just crushing it between his new show Master of None, his new book Modern Romance, and his fourth stand-up special Live at Madison Square Garden.

Asian Americans are even ruling on YouTube. Check out Anna Akana, a comedian, actress, and filmmaker whose uproarious rants and sketches have earned her a following of 1.5 million subscribers.

As you can see, Asian Americans are not the meek, characterless pushovers Hollywood makes us out to be. We have our own voices and our own opinions that are clever, that are entertaining, that people want to hear.

3. Asian Americans Are Bold

Ever heard of the term “model minority?” It comes from the idea that Asian Americans are the “good” minorities who keep their heads down and never cause any trouble.

That’s also a myth. There are plenty of “bad Asians” out there who break the rules and don’t take crap from anybody.

But sadly, Hollywood likes to portray us as the compliant sidekicks, the token extras, or just keep us out of the picture altogether if we don’t fit into the mold of what they think Asian people are supposed to be like.

Well, we’re tired of that bullshit – and so now we’re speaking out.

I’ll bet this isn’t the first article you’ve read about Asian Americans in Hollywood in the past couple months. Asian American actors are exposing all the racist nonsense they have to deal with on a regular basis. Asian American audiences are protesting having to see yet another white person play them on screen.

We’re rallying and we’re ready to claim our turn in the spotlight.

Korean American rapper dumbfoundead dropped the mic on whitewashing in Hollywood with this kickass music video, “Safe.” His lyrics call out the problem loud and clear: “The other night I watched the Oscars and the roster of the only yellow men were all statues.”

You also have to check out “Green Tea,” a rap video birthed in collaboration between famed comedian Margaret Cho and rapper Awkwafina. You won’t see any subservient China dolls in this video. It’s pretty much their call to Lemonade, a bold, satirical musical statement that defies stereotypes of Asian American women.

What people don’t realize is that Asian Americans have always been revolutionary. From the Yellow Power movement of the Civil Rights era (made in solidarity with Black Power movement), to the activists mobilizing against the murder of Vincent Chin.

People just don’t remember these legacies of Asian American badasses because our history has been sterilized and rewritten.

It’s not acceptable anymore. The world’s going to keep hearing from us until Asian American Rockys and Daenerys Targaryens are the norm.

4. Asian Americans Are Just Like Any Other People – And Should Be Treated That Way

And of course, this is the most important reason.

The massive lack of representation of Asian Americans in the media is a form of systemic racism that inhibits us from being seen and heard as complex, fully realized, equal human beings.

It’s dangerous to reduce an entire race of people to a single story. Stereotypes can breed damaging misjudgments and constrain potential. They can take away our capacity to be empathized with and to be understood.

And we deserve better.

***

The entertainment industry is run mostly by white men who will argue again and again that the lack of diversity in Hollywood is not a “race problem.” It’s just the way things are! It’s not where the money is. Audiences don’t want to see “different types of people” on screen.

The thing is, these statements aren’t actually true. A recent study found that “films with diverse leads not only resulted in higher box office numbers, but also higher returns of investment for studios and producers.”

But it’s not just big shot studio executives who are oblivious to this problem.

I was talking to a white friend about an episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in which a Filipino American family was shown for probably the first time on mainstream American television (which was awesome, even though the intentionally ironic title of the show is still ableist). She laughed off that she never realized before that there were barely any Filipino Americans on TV because she “knows so many Filipino people.

This conversation struck me as a prime example of white privilege. To her, this realization was a fun fact. A quick “Hey, isn’t it funny that I’ve never thought about this!” before moving on to the next topic of conversation.

For me, it was a reminder of something I’ve always known, that summed up my entire life’s experience of being Asian American – that we are easily forgotten and erased.    

I get it. White people aren’t aware of the absence of people of color because they are so used to only seeing themselves. We’ve all been taught that white stories are the norm and they’re the only ones that matter.

It’s not necessarily an individual problem, it’s a culture problem, but that’s still not an excuse for maintaining the status quo.

So if you’re a white person (or anybody else) who’s only beginning to realize these things, it’s okay. You’re now aware and have a choice moving forward.

What you can do is look around at the spaces you inhabit and take notice of where Asian Americans and other people of color are absent. Learn how to be a better ally. Support organizations that are dedicated to promoting gender and ethnic diversity in film and television like Asian American Film Lab.

Lastly, make a point to watch shows and movies with diverse casting. That way, we can show Hollywood not only do we want stories that reflect the diversity of the world we live in, we need them.

Sherina Ong is Writing Fellow for Everyday Feminism and a Filipina American writer, journalist, and intersectional feminist who believes that stories speak louder than words. Sherina juggles freelance writing, radio producing and trying to get people to care about minorities through NextDayBetter, a storytelling platform for Filipino and Asian Pacific Islander diaspora communities. You can follow her on Medium and Twitter @sherinaong.