Jan. 20, 2022
In Charles Yu’s book, Interior Chinatown: A Novel, Yu explores the painful experiences of Asian Americans on screen: often, they are expected to speak with a fake accent and broken English even when English is their mother tongue. Furthermore, the lack of authentic representation presents a distorted image of and a message about Asian Pacific Islanders (API). To be limited to acting in a strictly stereotypical way destroys one’s sense of identity and wholeness. As the main character, Willis Wu, reveals, he often feels confused about who he is since the boundary between his stage life and reality has been blurred. As a reader and a Chinese immigrant, I intimately share his frustration, confusion, pain, shame, resentment, and anger.
Films hold such power and influence over the cultural norms and values that our society constructs. The Geena Davis Institute recently conducted a study on gender in the media. After reviewing the top 10 grossing films each year from 2010 to 2019 and analyzing an additional 124 films that featured API actors in the main title cast from 2017 to 2020, they found that audiences were asked to laugh at almost half of the API actors, even though less than a quarter of the API characters were comedic. Disturbingly, approximately 30% of female API characters were verbally or visually objectified. Even in the films featuring API characters in the main title cast, nearly 75% are in supportive roles. A little over a third, 35.2%, of API characters embody at least one common API trope or stereotype, such as the “Martial Artist,” the “Model Minority,” or the “Exotic Woman.” Asian men might be portrayed as “hard-working” and “intelligent” but rarely presented as “funny” or “sexy.” However, Asian women quite often are objectified as “hypersexual” or easy to access sexually.
It reminds me of my early years in this country when I worked as a waitress in various restaurants. I encountered quite a few older white male customers who wanted to take me on a “date.” They often approached me by saying that Asian women have a good temperament and understand how to take care of their families. Unlike a typical American woman, we were not “lazy” or “demanding.” These men made me feel like I had swallowed a fly. Little did I know back then that their prejudice against Asian women was not just a personal fetishism: rather, it was deeply rooted in the API history of this country and consistently reinforced in films and media.
The first time I watched one of the American classic Christmas movies, A Christmas Story, I loved it until the Chop Suey Palace scene. For many mainstream viewers, Melinda Dillon’s laughter, shrieks, and discomfort seeing a roast duck’s head chopped off is genuine and authentic. Because she was purposely given the wrong script for the part with the duck, the rest of the scene was improvised on the spot. To me, as an Asian woman, this scene was very painful. I was fuming inside. The three restaurant workers were repeatedly corrected during the singing. Their lack of better pronunciation mirrored my early experience accurately. The symbol of wholeness and togetherness when an entire duck was presented to a guest simply became a target of laughter and humiliation and made me feel insulted and disrespected.
The question is: How often can one find an authentic representation of API on screen? Even in my favorite fantasy movies such as the Harry Potter films, Cho Chang, Harry’s first crush is an Asian girl who turns out to be a spy and traitor. It signals that an Asian girl is unworthy and untrustworthy of a white boy’s love. If you think that might be an isolated incident, then let’s look at another example from this film series. During the Yule Ball scene, does anyone remember what happened to Harry and Ron’s South Asian dates? They are completely ignored and neglected by these two pals, so they run off with other “lesser” boys. Again, it reinforces the negative stereotype that Asian girls do not deserve to be loved and respected by White boys. Yikes! When I say that API should be represented authentically on screen, I am not asking to present API on a pedestal or only under a desirable social light. On the contrary, I am suggesting making them real. Let API characters be dynamic, funny, flawed, and messy — more nuanced. They can be tormented by internal and external conflicts, overcome obstacles, and fail, just like everyone else.
Returning to Interior Chinatown, when Willis Wu eventually reaches the pinnacle of his kung fu career, he realizes how limiting his profession is in terms of what he can do and what he is capable of doing, which is a sentiment shared by many API people. As research shows, API people are most likely to be fired but least likely to be promoted in their companies.
In recent years, the social justice awakening among API communities and the world has resulted in a few positive movies being made in the U.S. with API leads. Back in 2016, Kelly Marie Tran, an unknown Vietnamese American actress, was cast as the new female lead for Star Wars Episode VIII. She is strong, courageous, and genuine on-screen. In The Farewell, Awkwafina authentically portrays a second-generation American who is caught between two different worlds’ beliefs. Through her journey back to her roots, she can find reconciliation, peace, and balance.
In the most recent Marvel film, Shang-Chi: The Legend of Ten Rings, beautiful, strong, and determined Asian women are a prominent feature of the film. It also creates so much room for Awkwafina to keep her hilarious persona. As for Simu Liu, while tormented by his internal conflicts, he is a desirable and sexy Asian male. I hope to see Simu Liu cast as a romantic lead in future films as well. If that happens, it will begin to dismantle the negative stereotype of Asian men as unattractive and unlovable.
Unfortunately, the above positive portrayals and representation remain too few to make a difference. What needs to happen is yet to happen. Curiosity, openness, acceptance, and empathy can widen one’s perspective. Humanizing API characters begins with multidimensional portrayals. It requires that every filmmaker take a hard stand to denounce both Asian tropes and stereotypes. It also requires filmmakers and viewers to not lump all Asians together as one big ethnic group. Instead, films should be made that speak to the particular ethnic API experiences through a multidimensional lens. This is how we better the world we are in.
You may also be interested in reading other articles written by Haiyun Lu.