After decades of whitewashing the film industry, Hollywood has just begun to have an awakening – an awakening that will finally bring dejected Asian actors into the limelight. From yellowface roles in the late 1800s to white actors playing Asian characters today, Hollywood movies and TV shows have failed to portray Asian Americans properly.
Recently, “Crazy Rich Asians” debuted with an all-Asian cast while, just a year ago, Scarlett Johansson, a white actress, played a Japanese character in the movie “Ghost in the Shell.”
Casting directors have been under harsh scrutiny for their choices and the lack of diversity in casts. Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen found that 77 percent of casting calls specify a white actor and interviewed a casting director for her book on Hollywood actors and racism.
“If it’s a look thing for business where they [Asian actor] come in there at a computer or if they’re like a scientist or something like that, they’ll do that; but if it’s something were they really have to act and get some kind of performance out of, it’s a challenge,” the anonymous casting director said.
Growing up, I only saw effeminate, nerdy Asian men and occasionally, the submissive Asian woman. The socially awkward sidekicks in sitcoms never resonated with me and always portrayed Asian Americans as unfavorable.
Nevertheless, Asian actors who have gotten the opportunity to portray significant characters have flourished in the industry. A Nielsen report on Asian American influence and impact revealed that leading Asian celebrities have staggering levels of marketability and public appeal.
Currently, Sandra Oh of “Grey’s Anatomy” and Aziz Ansari of “Master of None” are the only Asian Golden Globe winners. As an Asian American myself, I am disappointed with the trivial roles Asians are handed, solely to check off the diversity box in films.
Of even greater concern is the fact that young people are heavily influenced by actors on screen. Not only do stereotypical Asian characters perpetuate false beliefs, but they are also very unrelatable. Many Indian Americans can’t see themselves in Raj Koothrappali, a socially awkward astrophysicist, from “The Big Bang Theory.” As a Chinese American, I can’t see myself in martial artist Lee from “Enter the Dragon.”
“This lack of representation feeds into a lack of role models for non-white children and feeds racial bias for white children as well. The stereotypes are seen on television influence a child’s self-esteem, leading to damaging thoughts on what roles they can fill in life,” Sam Tracy of the University of Maine said.
A majority of directors in the film industry are white. Therefore, most of the portrayals of Asians are reflective of an ethnocentric perception of Asians instead of realistic representations. Rather, I believe we should focus on celebrating the culture and accurately depicting customs, so young people can feel that they can embrace their heritage and white children don’t stereotype real Asian people in predominantly white communities.
When movies like “To All The Boys I Loved Before” deviate from one-dimensional caricatures of Asian culture, we are taking more steps to just representation. Breaking down the archaic system of whitewashing and misrepresentation is a rigorous task that may take years. I would like my children to be able to see their counterparts positively on TV someday. The future generations need active role models in the film industry to admire and look up to