Asian Representation: The Visibility Issue in Hollywood

Photography by Josie Lie

Asian Charlie Brown. That’s what I was for Halloween in sixth grade. But that’s not what I wanted to be. See, I wanted to be Charlie Brown. I’d searched Walmart after Walmart for a solid yellow t-shirt, but couldn’t find one, so I settled for a faintly orange tee with a Nike swoosh on the lapel. Then, using my expert craftsmanship, I constructed a zig-zag pattern across the shirt using strips of black duct tape. When the day came to wear my costume to school, I couldn’t wait to show off my hard work. I was eager on the bus, ready to flex on some sixth graders.  

Now generally, when someone spends a long time on something, it’s customary to (a) acknowledge their hard work and (b) not be a dick. If you’re eating dinner with your girlfriend’s family and her mom asks how the cauliflower is, you’re supposed to say, “Great.” What you’re not supposed to do is spit the cauliflower out onto the plate.

So, there I am, strutting into homeroom with all the confidence in the world, and I hear this snickering behind me. “Asian Charlie Brown,” I heard someone say, “It’s Asian Charlie Brown!” It was at this moment, in Mrs. Vondran’s sixth grade homeroom, that the class collectively took a break from their Halloween celebrations and ruined mine. My class, comprised entirely of white kids, reduced me to my race, and belittled me for doing something I was proud of.

They spat out my cauliflower.

The Asian Charlie Brown story is a common one among American children of Asian descent. Without iconic Asian characters in mainstream film and television to idolize, Asian-American youth are often forced to identify with characters who don’t look or sound like them. So when Halloween comes around and kids choose their favorite fictional character to mimic, Asian-American children are left to abandon their own culture and adopt another. The struggle to assimilate is often exacerbated when white people see Asian children dressed as characters like Superman or Elsa from “Frozen” and ridicule them for it.

The tremendous lack of representation in pop culture is felt at every level of the Asian-American experience. Additionally, the little representation Asian-Americans do have is utterly insufficient, and often offensive. Racist Asian stereotypes—rather than being countermanded by our society—are played to comedic effect in the media.



The Joke That Isn’t Funny

In 1961, the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” premiered. The film follows two white socialites, played by Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, as they navigate through a maze of wealth and romance on Fifth Avenue. It’s cute, charming, and hyper-indulgent in its opulence and high fashion. And as much as I might enjoy aspects of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” I will always hate that movie.

Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” is played by actor Mickey Rooney. Now, if you’re not familiar with Mickey Rooney or his work, you might be thinking to yourself, “Hm, ‘Mickey Rooney’ doesn’t sound very Japanese.” And that’s because Mickey Rooney isn’t Japanese; he’s white. With help from a prosthetic mouthpiece, eyelid tape and generous amounts of yellowface, this short white comedian was transformed into a grotesque, buck-toothed cartoon of an immigrant whose sole purpose on screen was to elicit laughs from ignorant 1960’s America. And people ate that shit up. So much so that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was nominated for five Academy Awards and is still considered a cult classic today. To add insult to injury, over 20 years after the film’s release, Mickey Rooney was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for his “50 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances.”

Men who are Asian by birth are seldom given an opportunity to display versatility. Mic Nguyen, comedian and co-host alongside Fumi Abe of the podcast “Asian, Not Asian,” has noticed that the media doesn’t always allow Asian men to be funny on their own terms. “The media has had a long-running obsession with making fun of Asian dudes,” Nguyen says. “It sucks because being funny is a good thing, and it’s a huge Hollywood mindfuck that they’ve made being funny a bad thing for us.”

Arguably, one of the most harmful and wildly popular cinematic stereotypes—now cemented in our pop culture—occurs in the second act of “Full Metal Jacket.” In the scene, a Vietnamese prostitute, played by Chinese-British actress Papillon Soo Soo, approaches two American soldiers and solicits her services, famously saying, “Me so horny, me love you long time.” If you haven’t seen the film, you may recognize the phrase from its use in hip-hop music, sampled by the likes of 2 Live Crew and Sir Mix-a-Lot. The joke, projected to an English-speaking American audience, is that Asians with heavy accents are unintelligent, inferior, and easy to laugh at.

With a limited number of Asians in the director’s seat, the same jokes are told over and over. “We’re being cast in someone else’s version of us,” Nguyen says. “We’re not real people, we’re dragon ladies, or opium den operators, or nail salon techs, or doctors, or nurses, or cab drivers, or delivery boys, or not even there at all.  If we want to see better depictions, we need to go out there and make our own shit.”

Seen on the Big Screen

That’s what the people behind “Crazy Rich Asians” did—but that doesn’t mean the problem is solved. We’re at a crucial point in the fight for representation. Following the massive success of Jon M. Chu’s rom-com juggernaut “Crazy Rich Asians,” we have to make sure not to fall victim to complacency––one movie can’t magically solve this hundred-year-old problem endemic in Hollywood. “Crazy Rich Asians” was not the solution for representation; it was the start of visibility.

Joel Kim Booster, an LA-based comedian known for his many appearances on “Conan” and Comedy Central, has fought for visibility throughout his career. “I think the biggest change here is Asian-American creators not waiting for other people to tell stories about and featuring us,” Booster says. “You can’t wait around; you have to advocate for yourself and your own representation.” After recent success, he’s not alone in this fight. “Asian people show up. We say we want representation, and we buy the tickets to back it up,” Booster says.

Booster was born in South Korea and was later adopted by a white family in the suburbs of Chicago. Growing up gay and Asian in a white evangelical family, he struggled to see himself in pop culture. “I still haven’t seen anything even remotely close to my experience depicted on screen, and that’s a bummer,” Booster says. “You sort of are forced to compartmentalize those experiences—oh here’s a really great gay narrative, but there are no Asian people. Or here’s a great romance with an Asian lead, but it’s not queer.”

Still, Booster recognizes the significant progress that “Crazy Rich Asians” along with other recent films and shows with Asian actors in prominent roles has made. “It feels like we’ve moved beyond identity being a part of the story…these stories didn’t have to be told with Asian faces in the lead, but why shouldn’t they?” Booster says. “It used to feel that any time you’d see a minority on screen, that identity had to be addressed, had to be a part of the story. Only white people were allowed to be neutral faces within the narrative. It was so nice to just see Asian people allowed to exist outside of those stories.”

“Crazy Rich Asians” proved that there’s a market for Asian-American films, and that people—Asian or not—will show up for a movie with an Asian-heavy cast. It also proved that Asian-Americans, without a doubt, have the looks, charisma, and chops to tackle diverse roles beyond taxi drivers and manicurists. But all this progress doesn’t come without some pushback. Now that Asian-Americans have a massively successful movie to their name, they run the risk of people saying “Alright, you’ve got your movie, now stop complaining.”

The goal is to get to a point where these moments are not monumental, and are instead simply normal.






Brown with a Purpose

As “Crazy Rich Asians” proved, Asian faces on-screen get noticed. In the Netflix series “Master of None,” Aziz Ansari plays a fictionalized version of himself––an Indian-American actor trying to find success on a popular television program. In the episode, “Indians on TV,” his character, Dev, is in a cab with a television executive; they are discussing why Dev and his friend cannot both be cast in the program. The executive says, “Okay, look, I’ll be frank with you. If I do a show with two Indian guys on the poster, everyone’s gonna think it’s an Indian show. It wouldn’t be as, you know, relatable to a large mainstream audience.” To which Dev replies, “Yeah, but you would never say that about a show with two white people. Every show has two white people. People don’t say that. People don’t watch ‘True Detective’ and go, ‘Ooh, there’s that white detective show.’”

There is, however, some truth to what the executive says. If a show like “Full House” was casted with an Indian family and premiered on ABC or CBS right now, it would not come off as just another run-of-the-mill familial sitcom, it’d be “that Indian show.”

An all-brown cast rarely exists on television without that brownness being central to the story. To American audiences, there are two spectrums of television: the default and the political. Default television includes programs like “Full House,” “Seinfeld,” “Cheers,” “Sex and the City,” and “Friends”––shows that explore the everyday lives of everyday people. Political shows, on the other hand, are just like default TV shows, only browner. These are programs like “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “One Day at a Time,” “A Different World,” and “Family Matters” — shows that came so close to being default television, but didn’t have enough white people.

Tamara-Lee Notcutt, the casting director for Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” strives to choose diverse casts of characters whose roles are not defined by their race or ethnicity. “When casting Lara Jean and her sisters, I was able to deep dive into a specific talent pool of actresses, which I had previously not been able to explore as thoroughly,” Notcutt says. “…I always try and think beyond [race or ethnicity], and just think ‘Who is right for the role?’, ‘Who can bring the characteristics and mannerisms of the written word of this character to life?’”

The result? A hit special with plots and characters that everyone can relate to—no matter where they are from or what skin color they have.

To white audiences, non-white characters typically have to be brown with a purpose. “Full House” would have been completely different if the Tanner family was, say, Pakistani. But would it really? In 2016, the hashtag #StarringJohnCho hit the internet. Accompanying this hashtag were thousands of fan-created movie posters, photoshopped to include actor John Cho’s mug in lieu of various white leading men. Though on the surface #StarringJohnCho may have seemed like comedic parody, the movement at its core proved to be more than just a joke. After scrolling through a couple faux movie posters, John Cho’s misplaced face begins to seem more and more natural in his given surroundings.

“Audience perception, awareness, and sensitivity is changing and evolving, and so has the writing [and] content for film and TV,” Notcutt said. “I feel that for this up-and-coming generation of young people who are starting to see more and more representation on screen in leading roles that look like them, and whom inspire them to work hard and possibly try a career in the arts, then the future looks great, and hopefully we will see more of a balance on screen of all groups of people, that reflects the America and world that we live in today.”

Hollywood has a history of using white people as the go-to template for characters. Asian-Americans aren’t seen as regular, everyday Americans in real life, because they aren’t cast that way on screen. Nondescript characters in film and television that could be any race, should be any race. Diversity has to be normalized in order to change the perception of “normal.”

Continuing to Change the Narrative

A lack of proper representation may seem like a frivolous complaint, but it’s violently important. How a group looks on screen is how a group is perceived off screen. In order to reshape the way they are perceived, Asian-Americans in entertainment first need to get their foot in the door.

Michelle K. Sugihara is the Executive Director of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, and her work revolves around the push for better representation. For 27 years, CAPE has been dedicated to educating and empowering Asian-American creators through programs and fellowships focused on championing diversity in Hollywood. Sugihara and her coworkers strive to “create systemic change in the entertainment industry,” and they have alumni staffed on every major network and streaming platform.

“We focus on writers because diversity starts on the page. If you start with the actors on screen, it’s too late; you have to go back further down the pipeline,” Sugihara says.

CAPE starts with the executives of the Counterbalancing Partner Program. “The executives are the gatekeepers and the ones with the power to finance and greenlight projects and decide which stories get told,” Sugihara says. With these two forces working in tandem, Sugihara and her coworkers at CAPE plan “to change the landscape of what gets to be on screen.”

But that doesn’t come easy. “A lot of Asian-Americans, we don’t have a long legacy or history,” Sugihara says. “We don’t have the uncle who’s the president of the studio that could get us a job. So it’s really a lot of our amazing executives who have gone to high places who now want to give back…to open doors for [our fellows] that might not have been open before.”

Growing up, I would wear big-rimmed glasses to school to make my eyes look “normal.” Out of fear of public humiliation and vilification, I would suppress my roots––do everything in my power to hide my Asian-ness. And when I’d come home after a long day of school, I’d turn on the TV and be reminded that it wasn’t just my classmates who hated me––Hollywood did too.

But what if Hollywood didn’t demonize Asian-American-ness? What if instead of gas station clerks and sex workers, Asian-American actors got to play firefighters and rockstars? And what if, instead of admonishing entire cultures, they were celebrated and represented the way white people celebrate themselves. The answer to this problem of representation is not more movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but movies like “The Bourne Identity,” “The Notebook,” and “Mamma Mia!” By simply casting Asian-American actors and actresses into non race-specific roles, we move further and further away from Mr. Yunioshi, and closer to a future we can be proud of. And by providing Asian-American creators with the resources and support they need, we are able to take our image into our own hands. The road to a more representative Hollywood for Asian-Americans is long and winding, and it’s up to the loudest voices and strongest storytellers to lead the way.


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