Where are all the fat Asians?
Asian actors are already underrepresented on screen. Fat Asians are practically invisible.
I’ve always been a sucker for romantic comedies, despite how much I denied wanting any romantic attention from boys. I would watch movies like “The Princess Diaries” over and over again, dreaming of my own moment when I would be told I’m actually a princess. I memorized Mia Thermopolis’ makeover scenes (in both movies) and the cheesy romantic lines (“I loathe you!”).
As I got older, though, I started to realize I never saw a romantic movie with a lead character that looked like me. There was “Mulan,” but that was animated and romance was not the top of Mulan’s priorities (which I respect). That all changed last year, though, when “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” released on Netflix with Lana Condor as the lead, a Vietnamese American actress. Finally, a girl that looked like me got the boy of her dreams.
There are now more than just a few successful Asians in film and television — Sandra Oh, Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj and Awkwafina, to name some. We are seeing Asians, from all parts of the continent, more frequently on camera, which is wonderful. But there is still a group of Asian people we hardly ever seen on screen: fat Asians.
Don’t get me wrong — I think bringing visibility to Asian actors is a key first step to representation. Asian American representation in western media is weak overall, but has made significantly improvement over the last few years. Last August was notoriously called “Asian August” with films like “To All the Boys,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Searching” all releasing successfully. Television shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Kim’s Convenience” have shown than Asian-led sitcoms can be successful with mainstream audiences. And shows with large white casts, like “Stranger Things” and “The Good Place,” have featured strong performances from south Asian actresses. But of all these Asian actors, only a handful could even be characterized as “overweight.”
Right now in western media, it’s like an actor/character can only check one of the “other” boxes — you can be a person of color, queer, fat or X characteristic, but producers and screenwriters seem to think it’s hard for audiences to accept you if you’re more than one (I think this is false, but I’m not an executive). It seems that just casting Asians in the first place, and getting over this racial barrier, is the focus right now.
This is why it’s an issue that in these limited performances by Asian actors, there is still problematic representation. “Crazy Rich Asians” — which arguably wanted its biggest message to be about increasing visibility of east Asians — only portrayed south Asians in service roles, says Sezín Koehler, a multiracial Sri Lankan American film and TV critic and fat activist. Other critics have pointed out that “Crazy Rich Asians” has actually taken a step in the wrong direction, as it presents its characters in relation to white norms.
If we’re focusing on increasing visibility of Asian actors, we need to be doing a better job of not perpetuating stereotypes and stigma when we have these opportunities on screen. And this means not creating stereotypical fat Asian characters when we do see them — which is rare to begin with.
“The only fat representation that we get is to be the butt of someone else’s jokes,” Koehler says.
Think about Kimchee Han, Jung’s 20-something-year-old best friend and roommate on “Kim’s Convenience.” Kimchee, a larger, rounder man, constantly compares himself to Jung, who has washboard abs and the ideal masculine figure. In some ways this shows that yes, Asian men can be seen as sexy — but the show seems to perpetuate the idea that only Asian men with Jung’s body type can overcome this stereotype. In fact, in the episode “New TV,” Kimchee thinks the girl he is seeing only wants to be with him to get with Jung — because that’s what usually happens. He forces Jung to make himself purposely look bad, but in the end, they find out she truly liked Kimchee just the way he is.
This is just one example on one modern television show — let’s not even get started about how Margaret Cho was told she was too fat for her ’90s show, “All-American Girl,” which was the first network television show to feature a predominantly Asian cast. The show was pulled off the air early on and showrunners wanted tamer content — and a more conventionally attractive lead. “The mistake was not in casting a performer who didn’t conform to mainstream views of beauty and attractiveness,” says Elaine Chang, associate professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph in Canada, in an email. “It was in trying to homogenize Cho’s image and her comedy.”
I’m not familiar with every piece of media with an Asian-led cast, so there might be a few good examples of fat Asian representation, and likely more examples of bad representation. A few actors and actresses might pop out, like Mindy Kaling — but while Kaling might be bigger than the typical Hollywood actress, she’s a relatively normal-sized woman, and would be considered tiny compared to most women in the fat community.
But that’s the thing — how many examples are there? You just don’t see fat Asians.
Part of the lack of visibility comes from the stigma and stereotypes we hold about Asian people. Asian women are often seek as delicate, demure and small. It’s tough enough for Asian people to navigate western standards of beauty — we’re either seen as too Asian or too American depending on our body size. So when you throw in fat in the mix, it means you’re even less accepted by people of both American and Asian communities. And when that happens, where do you belong?
Plus, weight is a sticky subject in Asian American culture in its relationship to food. Sharing meals is a huge part of Asian culture. When we are thin, families force us to eat more. But as soon as we start to gain weight, suddenly you can’t eat as much as you used to.
Having unproblematic representation of fat Asian characters when they do appear on screen is a good first step. But in order for that to happen, Chang says we need to be more mindful of our actions offscreen. “‘We’ need to be fighting and creating on all fronts,” she says. “Wider, fuller political enfranchisement and social-cultural representation offscreen are needed to make a difference onscreen.”
As a disclaimer, I write from the perspective of a thin Asian woman — I’ve grown up with thin privilege all my life. I don’t truly know what it means for the women in your family to comment on the weight you gained, because I’ve only experienced that lightly. I also am east Asian — I don’t understand southeast Asian or south Asian culture as well as my own, and I recognize my ignorance.
But what I do understand is the feeling of seeing someone who looks just like you on screen. And for my fat Asian brothers and sisters, I hope that moment comes soon.