Evolution of Asian Representation in Western Media

Evolution of Asian Representation in Western Media
Representation can come in many forms. Whether it is "good" or "bad" is up to the audience. The history of accurate and nuanced stories of Asian people has had its ups and downs, and progress is beginning to show. Mainstream media has reached a point where simply having an Asian person on screen is not enough.

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 you ignore it because you laugh." Another character who enforced harmful stereotypes is Long Duk Dong in "Sixteen Candles." A gong would sound when he would appear on screen, and his sexual ineptitude was pointed out throughout the film. "Asian Americans who grew up in the second half of the 1980s complained that they were called 'Donkers' in junior and high schools," Grace Ji-Sun Kim, a researcher at Georgetown University. Asian men are portrayed as effeminate, losers, and nerds in the media; meanwhile; Asian women are hypersexualized as either shy and submissive or as femme fatales. These stereotypes only harm the Asian community further. It was discovered in a study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, that less than a quarter of Asian characters were meant to be funny– almost half of them were laughed at, suggesting that they often serve as the punchline. These caricatures are more than just jokes as these stereotypes can impact how Asians are perceived outside of the media. Madhavi Reddi, a Ph.D. student in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said, “There are different ways to maintain white superiority. One of them is to marginalize via humor."


When representation comes to mind, the actors everyone sees might be the first to come to mind. However, offscreen representation is equally as important. When the original animated feature film "Mulan" came out in 1998, Disney hired Chinese American writer Rita Hsiao, and many of the voice actors were Asian American. So, when Disney announced a "Mulan'' live-action remake, expectations were high. The main cast was Chinese, but it was revealed that very few of the creatives behind the scenes were of Chinese descent -  director, screenwriters, and costume designer. Dr. Nancy Yuen believes that not having diversity behind the scenes can lead to one-dimensional general stories that lack nuance and don't accurately reflect the community.


However, the history of Asian representation and diversity in the media hasn't always been abysmal. Sessue Hayakawa, famed silent film actor and arguably the first Asian movie star, was frustrated with Hollywood's offensive depiction of Asians in film and the material he was being offered, so he started his own studio in 1918, Haworth Pictures. He made 23 films and was one of the highest-paid actors of his time, and earned an Oscar nomination in 1957 for his role in "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Bruce Lee opened many doors for future martial artists like Jackie Chan and Jet Li after the success of "Enter the Dragon" in 1973. M. Night Shyamalan found directorial success in the supernatural horror genre after "The Sixth Sense," and director Justin Lin brought the Fast and Furious franchise to the global market. "Harold and Kumar" was the first Hollywood franchise led by Asian American actors. "Crazy Rich Asians" turned stereotypes on their heads with Henry Goulding playing a charismatic rich Nick Young, and through Rachel Chu, the Asian American identity was explored.


Though, in the past few years Asian–centered stories have been coming to the big and small screen. Back in 2020, Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite'' won six Oscars, including Best Picture and Director, making it the first Korean and non-English-language film to win. The 2020 film "Minari" followed Korean immigrants chasing the American dream, and it earned Steven Yeun a Best Actor Oscar nod, the first Asian American to be nominated in this category, while Korean actress Youn Yuh-Jung won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as the feisty grandmother; she is only the second Asian woman to win in this category since Japanese-born Miyoshi Umeki won in 1957 for "Sayonara." Marvel's "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" is the first of its kind in the superhero franchise: an all-Asian-led film with an Asian director. It garnered rave reviews and broke pandemic box office records. Pixar's "Turning Red" is another instance where Asian voices have been brought to mainstream media. Asian stories have also hit the small screen too. The Netflix smash hit, "Squid Game'' also broke records on the streaming platform as the biggest series debut, and it made history at the Screen Actors Guild Awards as the first non-English-language series to win SAG awards for best female and male actor categories. Netflix's coming-of-age "Never Have I Ever", follows Devi Vishwakumar, her friends, and her family. The show complicates many stereotypes about Asian Americans including perceptions of intelligence, religion, and social status. Netflix's "The Half of It" takes on race, religion, sexual identity, and combines it into a story about first-generation Chinese American daughter, Ellie Chu. Fans of the animated series, "Avatar: The Last Airbender" can also look forward to a live-action remake that has been confirmed to have cast Asian and Indigenous actors for the lead roles.


With ongoing discussions of what is good or bad representation, some may call into question why discussing representation even matters. To some, it doesn't matter who plays their favorite characters, but to many marginalized groups accurate representation matters. Earlier this year, it was announced that American Girl Doll would release the first-ever Chinese Girl of the Year, Corrine. Author Wendy Wan-Long Shang and illustrator Peijin Yang created two books featuring Corinne said, "I think when readers feel seen, they realize that they matter and their experiences matter, and that they are meant to be the stars of their own stories!" Sesame Street has also introduced their first Asian American character, Jiyoung. Kathleen Kim, the puppeteer, created Jiyoung's personality and hopes that Jiyoung can be the representation she never had. A fellow puppeteer reminded her, "It’s not about us ... It’s about this message."


Representation can come in many forms. Whether it is "good" or "bad" is up to the audience. The history of accurate and nuanced stories of Asian people has had its ups and downs, and progress is beginning to show. Mainstream media has reached a point where simply having an Asian person on screen is not enough. There is a difference between being on screen and being seen. Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Nalini in "Never Have I Ever" said, "Character arcs for minorities still feel underdeveloped and stereotypical. As a result, the audience doesn't fully see us. They don't get the three-dimensional version of us, and it's that version that moves the needle. That's the version that can create empathy, understanding and change." Developed and nuanced stories and characters are important to truly capture Asian experiences. Not every movie or television show will perfectly encapsulate every Asian narrative, but the progress that has been made is something to celebrate. 


With works like "Minari," "Parasite," "The Farewell," "Blinded by the Light," and others on the way, Asian stories are gaining exposure they haven't had in the past. Asian people should be in charge of their own narrative, this way they can be as human and complicated as they want to be. By being human, audiences can finally see all dimensions of a community through these stories, and then true representation can be achieved.


Editors: Evie F., Rachel C., Amshu V., Blenda Y.

This article was originally written in March 2022

Image Credits: Gabriel Campanario - The Seattle Times