My Love for Korean Dramas in a Whitewashed Hollywood

Staring at the screen, my eyes droop as if weights were attached to them. It’s 3 AM, and I’m watching a Korean drama. Rubbing my eyes, I wonder where the time went and stretch my cramped limbs.

It wasn’t the first time that I had fallen deep into the spell of a drama — but it wasn’t always that way. As a child, I remember sitting on the swings with my best friend, staring at his almost blindingly blonde hair, at his bright blue eyes. All I could think of was my own catlike monolids and my jet black hair. When I watched movies, all the princesses I wanted to be (as an impressionable 8 year old) had blonde hair and blue eyes like him. Why was I different?

I first discovered the wide breadth of Korean dramas during my freshman year of high school, and it was like falling in love. Despite my mother’s clucking voice, complaining how corny, cliché, and sexist Korean dramas could be, all I could do was stare, glued to my screen. Suddenly, there were girls who had hair, skin, and eyes like me. Characters that spoke the words I grew up hearing. Actors who ate the foods that I loved. Somehow, I couldn’t look away.

But why had these dramas become so drug-like? When I watched American shows, the characters I saw became merely toys to chase away boredom.

The reason, I discovered, was the lack of representation I felt — in my own country.

Whitewashing, or the act of casting white actors in POC roles, in American media continues to become a more pressing issue. While white actors playing Asian roles is nothing new, there has been an increase in whitewashed casting. Take recent examples such as “Ghost in the Shell,” “Doctor Stranger,” and “The Great Wall” — the list goes on and on.

As the demographic of Asian Americans grows in population, the issue of whitewashing in media divides Asians, as it would any minority group, from an American identity. Refusing to cast Asians in Asian roles prevents kids from growing up with role models they feel they can identify with and inherently implies that Asians are not important or “American” enough to cater to in American media. Despite these concerns, the issue is often glossed over, a reflection of the way many Asian Americans feel they themselves are treated.

“Real Chinese people are happy with The Great Wall, so it’s fine.”
“The anime character for Ghost in the Shell wasn’t even drawn Asian, so it’s fine.”
“That role in Doctor Strange wasn’t even a major character, so it’s fine.”

In reality, whitewashing is never fine, and as a result, it often feels like a hopeless quest to find Asian actors. Even when Hollywood does come up with interesting and complex Asian concepts or films, those Asian roles are taken over by white actors.

In “The Great Wall,” Matt Damon was casted as a ‘white savior’ to the Chinese people. (Image source: ABC News)
Scarlett Johansson was casted as the lead in “Ghost in the Shell,” a Japanese manga. (Image source: Paramount Pictures)
Likewise, Tilda Swinton was casted as The Ancient One in “Doctor Strange,” a character depicted in the comics as a Tibetan man. (Image source: Marvel)

The issue is that whitewashing continues to marginalize Asian-Americans, the fastest growing minority population in the United States. While it’s all fine and dandy that the “Chinese are happy” with Matt Damon starring in “The Great Wall,” using this argument implies that the identities of Asians and Asian-Americans are the same, invalidating the possession of Asian-American identity.

Asians who grow up in their respective home countries grow up witnessing representation of themselves everywhere. Their models look like them, and their movie and TV stars look like them, so they never feel the lack of representation. Anywhere they look, they can find role models by whom they feel represented. However, Asian-American identity is entirely different. It is a mix of two cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles, but it can also mean feeling displaced in both Asia and in the United States. Growing up without adequate representation in American media, the only way I could fit in with my culture was to try and be more white, even though I never truly could be. But am I not just as American as anyone else?

After all, I’m an American, born and raised.

This is the reason why representation is so important, and arguments like “The anime character wasn’t even drawn that Asian” shouldn’t matter. The reason why this is such an issue in the first place is because characters like those from “Ghost in the Shell” are merely some of endless examples; because even when Hollywood decides that Asian plotlines are “good enough” for America, it doesn’t hesitate to replace Asian heritage with white actors; because Asian youth growing up in America should feel comfortable enough in their culture to embrace who they are — both as Asians and as Americans.

This article was written by Clara Park and edited by James Noh.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Young Asian Leaders of America.

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