Growing up in America, we idolize those on the big screen. Movie and TV stars become untouchable role models and inspirations. Popular movies and TV shows become part of our culture, influencing how we act, the customs we have, and the social norms we follow.
So what happens when those we see on the screen to represent us, are horribly misrepresentative, or in fact, we don’t have anyone on those screens that look like us ?
Asians have a long history of lack of representation in Western media. The industry has been dominated by white people since its beginning, and thus is formed around their standards, desires, and stories. When Asians are depicted, it’s usually with gross stereotypes.
Take for example, the horrendous Mr. Yunioshi played by white actor Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” from 1961, or Long Duk Long from “Sixteen Candles.” Countless other examples stray away from blatant yellowface and outright disgusting, disrespectful portrayals into the realm of subtlety, having Asians be the nerdy, awkward ones in the group or the one who’s really good at martial arts.
Furthermore, white people have even been cast in roles obviously made for people of color in stories about POC.
Think along the lines of the half-Asian lieutenant in “Aloha” played by Emma Stone, white Aang in the live-action “Avatar: the Last Airbender,” the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Tibetan Ancient One in “Doctor Strange,” the portrayal of a Hispanic family by British actors in “The Impossible,” the white actors playing Egyptian Kings in “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Ben Affleck playing a half-Mexican CIA agent in “Argo,” or the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the live-action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell,” a beloved Japanese manga. The list could go on and on.
This problem definitely stems from the power structure in Hollywood and how the producers, directors, and casting agents in power have close-minded thoughts related to casting people of color, derived from the historical whiteness of the industry.
For instance, “Kubo and the Two Strings” was nominated for an Oscar in best animated feature, and rightly so, because everything, from the plot to visual effects is stunning. However, despite being a film set entirely in imperial Japan, the most integral characters, including young Kubo, were voiced by white actors, such as Matthew McConaughey and Rooney Mara. Laika president, Travis Knight responded to the backlash from this choice in casting arguing that the story was told in a diverse background to celebrate a diverse culture, which does mark another big step in Hollywood. However, he also argued that voice actors should be cast solely on the caliber of their voice acting talent and how they portray emotions of a character. And yes, Art Parkinson was cast blindly as young Kubo based on his voice acting abilities, however Mcconaughey was specifically chosen, praised by Knight for his superior voice acting abilities. And there’s no doubt that Mara, Charlize Theron, and Ralph Fiennes were also chosen for their top-line acting performances in other films.
But by casting recognized white actors in these roles because of their “caliber,” Knight delivers a slap in the face to the Asian acting community, implying that there were no Asian actors talented enough to cast in these roles instead. This kind of reasoning borders the lines of cultural appropriation, merely using the backdrop and culture of Japan, but excluding Japanese people in the telling of this story. Sure, it’s not like the faces of voice actors are seen anyways, but in the bigger picture, it would have been a great opportunity for some fresh Asian actors and actresses to be discovered and showcase their talents in a film celebrating their culture. Disney does a good job of this with their animated films even. Look at Irene Bedard in “Pocahontas,” Jordan Nagai in “Up,” Ryan Potter in “Big Hero 6,” Ming-na Wen in “Mulan,” and more recently, Auli’i Cravalho in “Moana,” as examples.
Disney, although far from perfect, takes the extra mile to find new actors of color to play their animated characters and the success of their movies isn’t compromised by hiring these new actors and actresses to play the roles they deserve in movies set against the background of their country. “Moana” gained the same amount of success as “Kubo,” with an Oscar nomination, casting Auli’i Cravalho, an unknown native Hawaiian actress who did a fantastic job in her main role. Her reaction to her getting her big break was innocent and heart-warming, and no doubt the future is bright for her because of this opportunity. Furthermore, the profit made by Disney was in no way impaired by hiring an actress that matches the ethnic background of the character she is portraying.
Circular reasoning like Knight’s cause this cycle of under representation. Great actors are going to end their career eventually. Jennifer Lawrence and Tom Hanks can’t star in every film ever. And these successful white actors had to start out somewhere. The same thing goes for actors of color. New actors are being discovered everyday and will continue to be discovered. And new people must be casted in roles to unlock their potential and accurately and precisely tell stories. The success of a movie or TV show is not determined by the casting of newly discovered white actor in a role versus a newly discovered Asian or Latino actor. And people of color are fully capable of playing the main role, not just the best friends or sidekicks. Talent is not dictated by the color of someone’s skin.
Of course, we have come a far way from the past with more and more Asian representation in the media, including the huge victory of the box office success of “Crazy Rich Asians.” But, we have a long way to go, and so much progress to make. It’s important to be conscious of this problem because in order to make a change, we have to act. We have to support our fellow Asian-American friends going into careers into the entertainment industry. We have to support films starring or created by Asians. Because we as Asian-Americans have stories to share, talent to give, and experiences that matter. We are worthy of representation, and we have to fight for it.