Asian Americans in Hollywood: The Invisible Minority

With worldwide audiences and movie lovers still reeling from the unexpected turns in last week’s less-than-smooth 89th Academy Awards, the issue at the heart of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign which criticizes Hollywood’s longtime practice of racial exclusivity continues. Two years after the birth of the trending hashtag, some encouraging progress has been made for the African American community — as seen in Moonlight’s momentous victory with Barry Jenkins becoming the first African-American to direct a Best Picture film — but the history and implications of the pop culture phenomenon goes far beyond the realm of black and white.

Since the birth of the American film industry, there has been an ‘invisible minority’ which has gone largely unnoticed, both by the moviemaking bigwigs and quasi-observant audiences. Throughout the Oscars Academy Award show’s history, Asian Americans have received only %1 of Oscar nominations; this year, Dev Patel, a British actor of Indian descent, was added to the very short roster of Asian nominees for his acting role in Lion — and was this year’s only non-black acting nominee of color. Back in 1935, Merle Oberon was the only Asian woman to ever be nominated for Best Actress, but never won; she also reportedly felt compelled to hide her Indian identity due to potential prejudice during the pre-awards period.

Asian Americans comprise 5.4% of the American population, yet their lack of representation in current pop culture makes them one of the most outlandishly marginalized demographics of the American media world. Last February, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California published a detailed analysis of diversity and minority representation in 109 motion pictures and 305 broadcast, cable, and digital series between 2014–2015. The studies found that at least 52% of all cinematic, television, or streaming stories failed to portray one speaking or named Asian or Asian American on screen, and in the sample of major studio films released in 2014, only 1.4% of lead characters were Asian.

“This is no mere diversity problem. This is an inclusion crisis,” said Prof. Stacy L. Smith, director of the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative which conducted the study. “It is clear that the ecosystem of entertainment is exclusionary.”

A big obstacle facing aspiring Asian American actors is Hollywood’s ongoing practice of “whitewashing” — taking traditionally Asian stories or characters, and casting white actors for the roles. This racial miscasting received incredible backlash and exposure last year, with Doctor Strange’s Tilda Swinton playing the role of a Tibetan monk from the original comics, and Scarlett Johansson playing the originally Japanese anime character in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell.

But beyond the inordinate lack of representation, there is also the huge issue of misrepresentation. The roles that Asian Americans have consistently been offered are often ones that only Asians can play — whether the casting be for an entertaining foreign accent, the sympathetic immigrant experience or the stereotypical brainy role — and are usually written from an overwhelmingly non-Asian perspective. There is a great need understandably felt by minority members to see more authentic representation in media, independent from these stereotyped characteristics and the ethnic mold. Just like any other actor from any other background, Asian Americans ought to be acknowledged and credited simply for their ability to bring life and genuine understanding to their character and the screen.

Although some heartening progress is being made with new movies and TV series expanding borders and overturning stereotypical norms — a fresh example being ABC’s well-received sitcom Fresh Off the Boat in its third season, featuring the first predominantly Asian-American TV cast in 20 years — the problematic ideology remains, namely: the idea that the straight, middle-class white story is the universal one, and everything else is intentionally distinct. It needs not be said that this is an extremely inaccurate portrayal of the American demography and American experience.

A common argument among major filmmakers regarding the lack of diversity in lead casting is that there are very few qualified Asian actors with a reliable record and following to bank the film’s financial outcome on. The excuse is self-discrediting, however, since the same filmmakers refuse to offer Asian Americans the chance to build these reputations expected of them. Furthermore, the formula for safe, whitewashed casting has repeatedly been tried and failed — as seen in the epic box office flop of the 2015 film Aloha featuring A-list star Emma Stone as a Chinese-Hawaiian lead. The protests of engaged, socially aware audiences are rising, but there’s still so much to be done — isn’t it about time the cameras started rolling with the times?