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The Problematic Representation of Asian-Americans in Hollywood

Last updated on June 28, 2021

“You’re a good actor, which is why I’m telling you, stay the hell out of L.A. There’s not much of a future for you. Go to Asia.” 

This is what Ken Jeong was told by his acting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Like the professor suggests, Hollywood is an incredibly difficult environment for Asian-Americans to thrive in. And while Jeong has undoubtedly become successful in the States, the underrepresentation and misrepresentation Asian-Americans face in the film industry are immense problems today: “…while Asian Americans made up 5.4% of the United States population, they represented just 1.4% of lead characters in studio films in 2014. ” (Chow, Time

Recent movies like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I Loved Before are certainly signs of progress, given their casting of Asian-Americans in prominent roles. However, the problematic representation of Asian-Americans is still apparent in these films. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean declares her love for the movie Sixteen Candles. Peter Kavinsky points out the distasteful stereotyping in the portrayal of Sixteen Candles’ infamous character Long Duk Dong. Long Duk Dong is the perfect example of casually racist characters in American movies: he appears with a gong sound, speaks with a thick accent, is a horrible driver, and is continually referred to as “Chinaman” throughout the film. Long Duk Dong is shown as weak, creepy, and socially inept.

The problem is that racist stereotypes have long been ingrained in Hollywood. And as we witness a massive increase in hate crimes on Asian-Americans, Hollywood and its reinforcement of harmful stereotypes play a larger role than some may think.

Asian-Americans are severely underrepresented in film, particularly as characters with depth. They are oftentimes extremely oversimplified or, like Long Duk Dong, embody Asian stereotypes to serve as comic relief. 

To start, there is the issue of yellowface in film. Historically, white actors often took on Asian roles by using makeup and prosthetics to manipulate their features. There was a motivation to include yellowface in film because white actors “were better-known and seen as more relatable to audiences, [so] producers figured featuring them would generate more ticket sales.” (Morgan, History) Examples of works that include yellowface are Madam Butterfly, The Mask of Fu Manchu, and Dragon Seed. The caricature of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s may be the most infamous example of yellowface in film. Actor Mickey Rooney, with taped eyelids, buck teeth, and a thick accent, behaves in an extremely ridiculous manner. Mr. Yunioshi shows us how characters portrayed through yellowface heavily rely on Asian stereotypes. 

Today, yellowface in movies is extremely rare. However, many argue that Hollywood “whitewashing”, the assignment of roles that were originally intended to be Asian to white actors, is the “ghost” of yellowface. For example, there was a substantial amount of backlash in response to the casting of roles in Annihilation. Caucasian actors were assigned to play characters described to be of Asian descent by the author of the book the film was recreating. The same has happened with Ghost in the Shell, in which Scarlett Johansson was cast for an Asian role.

Following the rise of Yellow Peril, which is the Western fear of Asia, Asians were portrayed in films as evil and villainous. Anna May Wong was famous in the early 20th century for her roles as an “exotic” villainess. She explained her reason for leaving Hollywood in a magazine interview, “I was so tired of the parts I had to play… Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that. How should we be, with a civilization that’s so many times older than that of the West.” 

This Asian stereotyping hasn’t disappeared.  Another common stereotype seen on-and-off the screen is the model minority myth, which has a long history in the United States. To address this issue, the history of Asian discrimination in the United States should also be recognized. In 1854, the People v. Hall Supreme Court decision ruled that Chinese Americans could not testify in court. A few decades later, Chinese workers were deemed “unfit” for citizenship when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred them from immigrating to America. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that established Japanese internment camps. 

Motivated to strengthen its alliance with China, the United States repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act by the Magnuson Act of 1943. Many other restrictions on Asian immigration were lifted soon after, however, immigration was still tightly controlled. It became a priority for Asian professionals to be the first ones to travel to the United States. The result was a dramatic shift in the narrative surrounding Asian-Americans and the creation of the model minority myth. This myth was intended to push out Asian-Americans as an “example” of a minority that was supposedly able to overcome discrimination and assimilate into America. 

Why is the model minority myth is a “myth”? Household income, the statistic that the stereotype is primarily based on, is not reliable. All Asian-Americans cannot be grouped as one, and the community is much more complex than the myth makes it out to be. According to Harvard Law, “Asian Americans have the largest income gap of any racial group… in New York City, Asians experience the highest poverty rates of any immigrant group.” Inequality among Asian-Americans is simply ignored by the model minority myth. 

The myth is extremely harmful. It dismisses the struggles that many Asians who have not successfully assimilated into America face. The model minority myth also poises minorities against each other by suggesting that all minorities should be able to “overcome” discrimination like Asian-Americans supposedly did. For example, the model minority myth was weaponized against the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties. However, the myth fails to recognize that the history and struggles of Asian-Americans and other minorities in the United States are different (and the fact that Asian-Americans are not the “model minority”).

The model minority myth also distracts from the real problem at hand. Why should minorities be responsible for “overcoming” discrimination in the United States? Shouldn’t the burden of eliminating discrimination and systemic racism be on our country?

At the 88th Academy Awards, Chris Rock spoke about the pressing issue of diversity in Hollywood. However, he made a counterproductive joke that stemmed from the model minority myth. Three small Asian children were brought to the stage in suits carrying briefcases. They were jokingly deemed as “the most dedicated, accurate, and hardworking” accountants at the firm that counts the Oscar votes. Chris Rock then said that “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.” Many prominent figures, including Constance Wu, Jeremy Lin, and Daniel Dae Kim expressed their disapproval. Constance Wu tweeted, “To parade little kids on stage w/no speaking lines merely to be the butt of a racist joke is reductive & gross. Antithesis of progress”. 

Asian stereotypes were briefly used for comic relief in The Office, a loved show for many. In the episode “A Benihana Christmas,” there is a running joke that Michael Scott cannot tell the difference between two Asian waitresses. He ends up marking them on the arm to tell them apart. While this gag might seem harmless because Michael Scott is a generally offensive character, it is representative of the idea in many films, that “Asians look the same” or “are all the same.”

We saw the fatal consequences of stereotypes with the shooting in Atlanta that tragically took the lives of eight people. The shooter has told police that he is a sex addict, which has led some to think that the shooting was not racially motivated.

Even so, the shooting can be traced back to stereotypes: the hypersexualization and objectification of Asian women have a long history in film.

The Page Act of 1875 restricted prostitutes from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country” from entering the United States. This act affected all Asian women: United States immigration officials now had the power to decide if a woman fit under the act’s description. This in combination with the humiliating interrogations and medical examinations Asian women had to go through had a substantial toll on Asian women and their ability to enter the country.

The act was one of the many causes of the stereotyping of Asian women as prostitutes. This stereotype has been displayed and perpetuated through the fetishization of Asian women in films. In the film Daughter of the Dragon, Asian women were dehumanized and portrayed as sex objects rather than people with depth. Further, in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a Vietnamese prostitute was depicted saying “me love you long time.” This line is used today as a demeaning comment towards Asian-American women. This fetishization and objectification perpetuated by movies are clearly dangerous. According to National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), “The everyday racism and sexism against Asian women yield deadly results, 41 to 61 percent of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime. This is significantly higher than any other ethnic group.”

Hate crimes on Asian-Americans increased by 150% in 2020. As much as we might not like to admit it, Hollywood has a significant amount of influence on the American public’s opinion. Because the characters that we see on screen shape our views of the world, it is crucial to place an emphasis on creating authentic Asian-American roles in films beyond those that are racist or dehumanizing.

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