The Lack of Asian-American Representation in Hollywood

SAN DIEGO — Hollywood has recently gained a spectrum of criticisms from both the public eye and from those working in the respective industry themselves. Notorious for a shortage of both racial and ethnic diversity, controversy has especially grown in regards to the disparity of working women behind leading, creative roles in the entertainment industry and its longstanding track record of predominantly male influence.

On January 1, 2018 a letter of solidarity was published on the #TIMESUP website emphasizing the notion that while the movement was initially founded by women facing adversity in fields of entertainment such as film, television, and theatre, they actively seek to establish a platform of support for women nationwide. As a group “powered by women” for women, they subsequently seek to “address the systemic inequality and injustice in the workplace that have kept underrepresented groups from reaching their full potential.”

The chronic lack of recognition of women as adept individuals with capabilities have resulted into a growing outcry from the suppressed gender for an evocation of change. Ultimately this has highlighted the demand for social justice within minority groups in the industry as well.

Unfortunately, Hollywood is no stranger to displaying varying degrees of discrimination on an industrial and micro level and has perpetuated this unfavorable notion for decades. Presently, Asian-American actors are another disadvantaged minority on the list of widely underrepresented and overlooked bodies in the industry.

On September 6, 2017 an article was published in the digitally-based magazine Paste entitled “The Scrutable West: Industry Bias, Whitewashing and the Invisible Asian in Hollywood.” The article explored the industry’s tendency to whitewash. Whitewashing is a casting practice commonly utilized in the U.S’ film industry in which white actors are typically cast in non-white character roles. Despite a history of public disapproval and attempts of anti-whitewashing campaigns, it continues to be a prevailing practice which has resulted in an open and necessary discourse regarding institutional racism.

Writer Kenneth Lowe explores the state of invisibility in which Asians characters and creators have been bound to for decades.

Lowe highlights a conversation between an unnamed casting director and Nancy Wang Yeun, the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. The director stated to Yeun, “I work with a lot of different people, and Asians are a challenge to cast because most casting directors feel as though they’re not very expressive… they’re very shut down in their emotions.”

Lowe reacted, “I’m at a loss.”

He further questioned, “Here, ultimately, is my concern as the grandson of a Chinese immigrant, having lived out a good stretch of my time in Middle America, where I have encountered some pretty putrid racism in my immediate vicinity: Does this invisibility dehumanize an entire hemisphere?”

“Does it close our collective cultural mind off to the broader spectrum of what it is to live on this planet?”

In response to the controversial sentiments in the Paste article, the hashtag #ExpressiveAsians became viral on Twitter by user @mauxbot. Due to the nature of the platform, the hashtag allowed users to attach images, memes, and commentary of the issue in a joking matter, however, many used the opportunity to shed spotlight of the damaging stereotype of emotionless Asians.

Twitter users nationwide also criticized Hollywood’s practice of whitewashing which is associated with the concept of yellowface.

Yellowface was a process in which strategic makeup was utilized to portray Eastern Asians in past film by generally non-Asian actors. While it directly refers to the intentional usage of makeup to portray an Asian ethnicity it is associated with the systematic bias of powerful directors and producers to choose non-Asian actors over authentic Asian people regarding casting decisions.

Filmmakers and casting directors can easily adjust the origin or race of a character based on their prerogatives. In mid-August of 2017 actor Ed Skrein decided to leave the cast of the Hellboy reboot after backlash over his cast role. He was set to play character Major Ben Daimio, a military character originally illustrated as an Asian man in the comic book franchise.

Skrein wrote on his Twitter, “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voice in the Arts. I feel it is important to honour and respect that.”

Films released in the past year such as Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange have also gained scrutiny and furthered discussion regarding Hollywood whitewashing.

Patty Ahn is a current assistant professor in the department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego.

When prompted about her experience with discrimination working in the media industry as a former producer she stated, “It’s exhausting.”

“You have someone tell you you should be quiet, and enough times you start to believe it. You have to do internal work. Like no, I deserve a seat at the table. Yes, my dreams and desires matter.”

She continued, “It’s work. You have to really fight that. You have to fight the system and whatever it’s telling you and believe in yourself. Breaking in the film industry, I mean — it’s a little different now — because there’s so much critique around racism in Hollywood that they’re sort of trying to shift a little bit compared to 10–20 years ago.”

Currently the President of the Undergraduate Communication Society at UCSD, Lora Liao is set to graduate next quarter in the Spring and has aspirations to work in the TV industry. Recognizing her identity as a female international student from China she is discouraged about her ability to secure a career post-graduation in the U.S.

She explains, “I know for sure I want to work with media but I feel like I’m an disadvantage in a way? I’m not from here and I even have an accent. I’m going to be judged instantly.”

Evan Kwong, a fourth year UCSD student and peer of Lora’s, explains his decision to switch majors from Theatre to Communication.

“I initially wanted to work in costume design, well I still do. But the industry is so cutthroat, especially as a minority.”

Evan felt taking Communication courses would be applicable in “real-life skills” towards finding a sustainable career compared to the narrow nature of the Theatre courses. He is adamant about finding a place behind-the-scenes in the entertainment industry, however, is uncertain about his plans post-graduation.

Echoing both Lora’s and Evan’s apprehensions Patty reflects on her experience, “Y’know it’s hard because you’ll never climb unless you absolutely insist that you deserve to be at a higher position — no one’s going to just promote you like they do with men, especially white men.”

She pauses and continues, “Look, It’s discouraging but you have to be determined to really fight for your place and love what you do enough to go through the emotional and disparaging experience of not getting what you deserve.”

Comm 102M: Basic Studio Production is a hands-on course offered at UCSD that simulates the experience of professionally working in a television studio environment.

On the first day of class after an overview of the facilities and a live demonstration on the operative functions of the multi-camera equipment, Patty brightly encouraged, “If you haven’t touched the cameras yet please do so now! I would like to see more females behind the cameras please and thank you.”