Wave of Asian representation in film fights stigma



Sidonie Brown, Arts Editor

To see yourself on screen is not a privilege available to all. For Asian-American viewers, representation has long been wishful thinking, an airy hope of a future without whitewashing or yellowface, stereotypical depictions or racist narratives.

By perpetuating stereotypes and effectively ignoring a large population, the lack of Asian representation in Western film poses many dangers to Asian-Americans. However, the recent arrival of movies like “Crazy Rich Asians,” Hollywood’s first predominantly Asian-American cast in 25 years, suggests a changing landscape and brighter future for Asian-Americans in the media.

According to Dean of Student Support Systems and Asian-American history teacher Brian Poon, the idea of image-starvation, or not being able to see yourself in the media, is a “horror story” that is damaging for Asian-Americans.

“I think that part of how everyone constructs their reality of knowing they exist is by seeing images of themselves,” Poon said. “If you have no images of Asians or Asian-Americans, then it’s like you have a feeling that you’re not real or your struggles or your challenges.”

Poon said that, historically, the roles that have been given to Asian actors were often racial archetypes, such as the devious male, the adept martial artist or the “Dragon Lady,” an enticing, mysterious and powerful woman.

“[The history of Asian-Americans in cinema} is neat and tragic… Asian-Americans had to make choices of compromise,” Poon said. “Early Asian-American actors had to say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to take the role of this sexualized Asian woman in order to work.’”

Senior Brandon Chin, the leader of the Asian Pacific American Club (APAC), said that stereotypical depictions such as these lead to false impressions.

“I think that it leads to more stigmas about certain groups,” Chin said. “If white people are cast more instead of minorities, the minority groups lose their stories. It sort of twists the story of what’s actually supposed to be.”

Senior Ivy Tou said that she was not conscious of the issue at hand while growing up. Once she realized that most of the television shows and movies that she watched did not feature Asian people, she said that she felt anger at the lack of awareness and action surrounding the matter.

“It’s giving people the idea that perhaps we’re not that important and it makes me feel in some ways that I’m not significant, {that} other people in my race are not important as lead roles,” Tou said. “It’s a part of that whole idea that there are certain races that are superior to others, and that’s why they need to be portrayed as heroes.”

Chin believes that, with the popularity of “Crazy Rich Asians,” tomorrow will hold more acting opportunities for all minorities.

“I think it’s definitely a brighter future just because {‘Crazy Rich Asians’} was a big success and people are actually starting to have conversations,” Chin said. “There are a bunch of other minority groups that can fulfill these main roles and should.”

Some other movies with Asian leads that have come out recently include “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Searching.” According to Tou, with films like these, diversity in the media is evolving, but there is still a long way to go.

“The more films that are being made like “Crazy Rich Asians,” the more and more we’re likely to reach the point where racism isn’t as present in the industry and the media,” Tou said.

Poon believes that the market for Asian-American movies is on the rise because of the possibility for box office success. He cited how the rights of the book, “Crazy Rich Asians,” were bought by a white couple instead of Asian people, indicating capitalistic motives rather than a pure desire for Asian representation.

“Given the rise in demographics—Asian-Americans are the fastest growing population in the United States—if {the movie} makes money, then you will see all sorts of nuance, and we will get all sorts of good and bad movies with Asian leads,” Poon said.

Senior Niddeaw Kittsapkajon grew up in Thailand. There, she said that she saw people like herself on television, but after moving to America, it was a shock to see so few Asian people on screen. She commented upon how only a few Asian ethnicities are portrayed in Western media.

“I think ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is a great segue to mainstream cinema in America to get more Asian figures out to the American community, but I think there’s a lot to improve on,” Kittsapkajon said. “There are a lot of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, but Southeast Asians like Thai, Filipino, Laotien, they are not represented.”

Poon described the complexities surrounding the subject, including the debates on casting multiracial actors over fully Asian people or actors who come from different countries than the role they are playing. For example, Nick Young in “Crazy Rich Asians” is played by a biracial actor.

“There is this whole idea of what it means to be authentically Asian-American or authentically Chinese,” Poon said. “There’s an orthodoxy that pushes up against who is really Asian, which is sort of like next level of stuff, but who gets to say?”

Poon said that, in this growing moment of consciousness around Asian-American representation, you must take steps to educate yourself in order to avoid the harmful messaging of the media.

“There’s so much telling you that you’re imperfections mean that you are not worthy of love,” Poon said. “It’s a total political move to say, ‘I am worthy of love and care, my own self respect, and so therefore I deserve these images and I deserve to see myself reflected in media.’”