Asian-Americans: Hollywood’s Rejects

Why Hollywood continues to pretend Asian-Americans don’t exist

Netflix’s Death Note (2017) is among the most recent of Hollywood’s whitewashing controversies.

Not even finished with 2017, Hollywood has already left a trail of outrage regarding their representation of Asians in film. Asian Americans have seen few lead roles, with a myriad of pay discrepancies and controversies leaving talented Asian-American actors still waiting for their chance in the spotlight. According to a study at the University of California, Los Angeles, Asian actors represent the smallest minority in Hollywood, holding no lead roles in a top 100 film in nearly five years. Asian actors are represented less than 4% across all film and television roles as a whole while White actors maintain an 87% representation in lead roles alone.

With such little Asian representation in Hollywood, one would invariably be forced to question Hollywood’s fascination with Asian pop-culture. In 2017, we have already seen two, American film adaptations of beloved Japanese animation be cleansed of all Asians in an attempt to “reinterpret” these franchises to a Western audience.

The recent Ghost in the Shell and Netflix’s Death Note were panned by critics and fans alike, the former bombing in the box office while the latter successfully deleting all traces of cultural context from what many would describe as a classic. Both films sparked outrage among Asian-Americans, panning both films for “white-washing” the previously Asian lead roles.

The message that Hollywood sends to Asian-Americans is simple: Asian material is interesting, but the people are not.

2017’s Ghost in The Shell casts Scarlet Johansson as the beloved Motoko Kusanagi.

In order to fully understand why Hollywood holds a particular disdain for casting Asian leads in film, it is important to understand what Asian-Americans represent in American society. Asian-Americans have always been subject to the role of the model minority, a controversial position where Asians teeter between the brink of acceptance and mystical fascination. Western culture has long been addicted to the mysticism and exotic eroticism exhumed by Asian culture, always searching for ways to appropriate Asian culture while conveniently forgetting about the existence of Asian-Americans in the United States.

If we were to take a step back and view what Asians represent under the guise of tropes, it becomes easier to understand the role Asians play in society and why Hollywood is reluctant to cast them into lead roles.

In Vorris L. Nunley’s article on tropes, Nunley describes the trope as, not abstract, nor neutral. A trope — whether in the form of an image, entity, symbol, speech act, or gesture — can emit dense concentrations of cultural, experiential, and political energy and effects — energy producing profound effects for particular audiences. Nunley argues that we as a society view people not as individuals, but as tropes that represent American individuals, using the example of Trayvon Martin to describe the black trope: savage, undomesticated and prone to violence.

Bringing this conversation of tropes back under the lens of the Asian actor, we can see what Asians represent in American society through the roles they most often portray. Sam Levin from The Guardian describes the role of Asians in Hollywood perfectly when he explains that Asian men are often regulated to the role of tech nerds, assistants, doctors — sometimes highly emasculated, desexualized characters. Asian women, meanwhile, regularly go up for parts as masseuses and sex workers or characters described as submissive, fragile or quiet.

While Hollywood is often afraid to depict offensive racial stereotypes in film, there is no shortage of offensive tropes for Asians. The majority of examples found for Asian characters portrayed in American film are reduced to highly offensive tropes which regulate the Asian to background characters. Male characters are nerdy, unattractive or work as supporting characters to help a white lead better shine in the spotlight while Asian women are submissive and are often a trophy to be claimed by the white male lead.

These tropes are problematic because not only do they cause us to view Asians under a string of offensive stereotypes, they cause us to view Asians as a direct contrast to America’s image of a hero. Asian men, being stereotyped as emasculate or nerdy, are viewed as the direct opposite of white masculinity, incapable of being the hero in an action flick or the love interest of a romantic comedy. Asian women face a similarly challenging barrier, their overly sexualized and submissive caricatures objectifying them into trophies to be claimed by white men.

Lynne Marie Rosenberg, an actor who publishes offensive character auditions on a tumblr page Cast and Loose, shows how Hollywood views the Asian trope. Her most recent post headlines:[ KIYOMI CHEN ] 20–30, Asian female. Stripper, computer programmer and hacker. Her computer skills and knowledge make her an essential piece to the gang.

Lumping nearly every Asian stereotype together, this offensive audition search outlines everything that is problematic with the Asian trope, reinforcing stereotypes that restrict Asians to playing the same, uncomfortable roles while limiting any possibility of depth to their characters.

While Hollywood seems to lack three-dimensional Asian characters, it seems there is no shortage in offensive tropes that force us to reaffirm such stereotypes. Hollywood’s whitewashing choices will continue to hurt Asian actors until casters recognize that there are a wide number of talented actors capable of reinvigorating the Asian image in Hollywood.