How Asian Actors Are Still Getting The Short End Of The Hollywood Stick

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic.
When Master of None co-creator Alan Yang accepted his Emmy award this year, he got a standing ovation from at least one member of the TV audience: me.

I leapt off the couch and clapped when Yang — who, along with Aziz Ansari, took home a win for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series — spoke his piece.

As an Asian woman, it’s rare to see someone who resembles me being honoured by the entertainment industry, and literally doubly rare to see two Asian Americans up on that stage, accepting a prestigious award. That fact was apparently not lost on Yang, either.

“There are 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there are 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong,” he remarked from behind the podium. “So we’ve got a long way to go. But I know we can get there. I believe in us. It’s just going to take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there: If you could just do me a favour, just a couple of you get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll be all good.”
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Campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite have put diversity in Hollywood in the spotlight over the last year. But Asian actors still largely remain in the shadows. On the morning the 2017 Golden Globe nominations were announced, for example, only two Asian actors names were called in total: Dev Patel, for Lion, and Riz Ahmed, for HBO’s The Night Of.
Photo: 3 Arts Entertainment/Universal TV/REX/Shutterstock.
That’s just two out of 71 actors nominated — a mere 3% of total nods — a statistic that reflects both the lack of Asian people in prominent roles, as well as the lack of recognition for Asian actors in general. Where was the nomination for Fresh off the Boat’s Constance Wu? Or for B.D. Wong, who all but steals the spotlight as a recurring character on Mr. Robot? And what about Mindy Kaling, whose comedic timing on the long-running Mindy Project is second only to her nuanced portrayal of what it’s like to date as a single mum?

And sure, I’ll concede that nominations are more diverse now than they have in the past; Viola Davis (Fences), Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin), and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) are all rightly getting their due this year. But Asian actors have been largely left out of the trend: In 2016, it’s still the case that only 1 out of 20 Asian actors are cast in speaking roles. No wonder the nominations aren’t rolling in.

Another move that could help usher Asian actors into more award-worthy parts? The industry could start by casting actual Asian people as Asian characters. The Emma Stone Aloha mess comes to mind — as does the outrage over Scarlett Johansson being cast as a key character in the screen adaptation of the Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell. The filmmakers were accused of whitewashing the original story line; some critics even alleged that Johansson's on-screen image was doctored with CGI to make her appear more ethnically Asian. And by more, I mean Asian at all — which the actress empirically is not.

The list goes on: Matt Damon is currently facing backlash about his role in the upcoming movie The Great Wall, a mashup genre film that has been criticised for whitewashing as well as employing a “white saviour” narrative. In an interview with the Associated Press, Damon defended his role in the film, saying that he takes “whitewashing very seriously” and also that he “didn’t take a role away from a Chinese actor.” (Damon blamed clickbait and the fake news phenomenon for stirring up controversy about the project.) But Damon’s attitude about whitewashing only adds insult to injury: It’s a slap in the face for Asian actors to see a film about Asian heritage fronted by a white leading man.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
What’s more: Growing up, the Asian actors I saw on screen typically played tired stereotypes, like math geeks, martial artists, wimpy sidekicks, or exotic beauties — not action heroes — and it made me believe that being Asian was somehow embarrassing.

Now that I’m in my 20s, I’ve outgrown that. But I don’t want future generations of Asians to feel the same way I once did. Even though Asians actors do seem to be making headway (here I’m thinking of Asian-Canadian actor Hayden Szeto, who plays Hailee Steinfeld’s love interest in The Edge of Seventeen, as well as the casts of in-the-works movies like Crazy Rich Asians and the revamp of Mulan), Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to representing all people of colour, Asians among them. The Golden Globe picks for this year were still disappointing on that front. But I’m hopeful that 2017 nominations will turn out to be a bit brighter.
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