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Evolution of Asian Representation in Western Media

Representation is a subject that's widely discussed when it comes to content consumed by the public. However, the interpretation of the actual word may vary. According to Merriam-Webster, representation means, "one that represents: such as an artistic likeness or image." In Western media, the standard for representation sometimes is simply having a person of color on the roster. However, the narratives and actors audiences see on screen should accurately reflect the group of people they portray. Representation is far bigger than just having a person of color on the screen. In the long history of the entertainment industry, Asian people - and other marginalized groups - have been reduced to offensive stereotypes and are sidelined as the main character's best friend, in other words, not true representation. A report from Nancy Wang Yuen, Stacy L. Smith, and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that out of 51,159 speaking characters in 1,300 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2019, only 5.9% were Asian American or Pacific Islander characters, and only 44 films had AAPI leads. Out of those 1,300 films, only 241 creatives who worked behind the scenes were AAPI, and out of the 50 AAPI directors, five were women. Nuanced stories about the Asian experience are only beginning to break through into Western media. Change is on the horizon, but it is necessary to examine where it began to see how it's going.

The history of how Asian people have been represented in the past is inaccurate and often offensive. For example, In "Breakfast at Tiffany's" the audience is greeted with Mickey Rooney portraying Mr. Yunioshi, a buck-toothed Asian man with a heavy accent. In "Lawrence of Arabia" Alec Guinness portrays an Arabian prince and Ashton Kutcher with darkened skin and a mustache appeared as Raj in a Popchips advertisement. It should be noted that Rooney, Guinness, and Kutcher are not Asian men. Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors in Asian roles. Ethnically white actors would darken their skin tone or use prosthetics to appear Asian; this tradition was coined yellow-face. Nancy Wang Yuen, Associate Professor at Biola University, said, "Putting on a costume, and everyone knew you were in a costume, and then using that yellowface performance to ridicule or villainize Asians in a way that was entertaining for its audience."" The first instance of yellow-face in American entertainment was in 1767 during Voltaire's theatrical performance of "An Orphan of China," and D.W. Griffith's "The Chink at Golden Gulch" was the first time yellow-face was used in film.

Yellow-face persisted through the 1930s, and Asian people would be portrayed as villainous characters in movies like "The Mask of Fu Manchu" or as submissive and meek characters in "Madam Butterfly." One of the main reasons for these casting decisions was the Hays Code: an internal set of guidelines. The code included restriction of sexual interaction between actors of different races. This explains why Anna May Wong lost a Chinese American role to Louise Reiner in the 1937 film "The Good Earth." She allegedly said, "You’re asking me, with Chinese blood, to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters," when she was offered a role as a concubine. Wong left Hollywood for Europe, where she felt like she would have more autonomy in her career. Meanwhile, Reiner would later go on to win an Oscar for her role, becoming the first person to win an Academy Award for a role in yellow-face. This was the decade that yellow-face became extremely normalized, and the practice continued throughout the 1940s and 1950s. As yellow-face became less common, whitewashing soon replaced it. In this practice, actors wouldn't alter their appearance to look Asian, but non-Asian actors would still fill roles meant for Asian people. There are many instances of this occurring. For example when Emma Stone was cast as a quarter-Hawaiian, quarter-Chinese, Allison Ng in "Aloha." Oh was also referring to Scarlett Johansson who was infamously cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi in "Ghost in a Shell," an adaption of a series entirely composed of Japanese characters, but the main cast was not Japanese.

Additionally, Hollywood has been known for mischaracterizing and stereotyping its Asian characters. Hari Kondabolu, comedian and creator of the documentary "The Problem with Apu," spoke about the mischaracterization and stereotyping of South Asians in American media at a panel held at Carolina Union's Great Hall. He discusses how The Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was voiced by white actor Hank Azaria, who put on a heavy stereotypical Indian accent. However, the show did announce in 2020 that white actors would no longer voice characters of color. Kondabolu said that these generalizations can encourage teasing and alienation of people of Indian descent. “When something is effective as art, it's like propaganda," Kondabolu said. "It spreads messages, and