As a child, the only career I found suitable for myself was that of an actor. Anyone who knows me knows that my true “secret” passion is for the theater. My mother would joke that because the Oscars and my birth were simultaneous, it was a sign of my eventual Oscar win. And I definitely believed it — it even encouraged me.
I currently attend UCSD to study philosophy, with the intention of studying law.
But I was that kid who, inspired by Kate Winslet, would use shampoo bottles and hairbrushes as pseudo-Academy Awards. I would Google interview questions for actors and give speeches to my reflection in the mirror.
As I grew older, I became cognizant of the rare appearance Asians would make in Hollywood and what my close relatives, rather aggressively, called an “unstable career path.” When thinking about the actors that I looked up to, I could probably fill a book with names of white actors. And when working in concert, it both encouraged and motivated my decision to look elsewhere for a career path.
Why is it, though, that Hollywood doesn’t offer a greater representation for Asian American actors today? Perhaps Hollywood is no longer explicitly racist; we certainly don’t use yellowface anymore. Further, when comparing productions of the 21st century to the productions of 20th century, one can see the jump of the utilization of Asian actors.
But we can credit this to a superficial attempt that Hollywood makes to diversify and to no longer seem racist. The rewriting of roles designed for Asian actors to accommodate for white actors (most recently and notably, Emma Stone in “Aloha” and Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell”) just illustrates that the diversity Hollywood purports to have is simply cosmetic.
Statistics reinforce the bleak reality of the Asian American experience in Hollywood: there are few, if any, successful productions where an Asian actor is the leading actor. According to USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, five percent of speaking roles go to Asians. And even more disheartening? Only about one percent of all Hollywood productions have an Asian as their leading role.
“Haven’t you seen ‘Fresh Off the Boat’?,” I’ve been asked. “Hollywood definitely has progressed with the introduction of Asian actors in leading roles!”
This is true: ABC’s “Fresh Off The Boat” is one of the very few successful attempts by the television and film industry to incorporate an all Asian main cast. It provides complexity and depth to Asian American characters on television, questioning the classic stereotypes of Asian Americans that impels type-casting.
Progressive steps towards equalizing opportunity to include Asians have been taken, but many of the roles carried out by Asian actors are typecast. Very often, it’s either the “Americanized” teenager who rebels against her unreasonably strict Asian parents or the brilliant but tragically awkward math genius. When Hollywood is feeling a little more frisky, maybe there’s an Asian who’s been adopted by white parents.
Regardless, the cast of “Fresh Off the Boat,” a show about Taiwanese-American Eddie Huang and his experience with his family, is not all Taiwanese; Randall Park, a Korean-American, plays the role of Eddie’s father, Louis. Just because he’s not Taiwanese does not mean he shouldn’t play this character. I’m sure that the reason Randall Park was given this job was because he was best suited for the part.
But I hope that it’s understandable why this is problematic. Perhaps not intentionally, but as an Asian viewer, what this implies is that just because we share some physical similarities, Asians, regardless of nationality, are simply Asians. It implies that we don’t have distinct backgrounds and origins. It also implies that there is a scarcity, perhaps propelled by the discouraging statistics of successful Asians in acting, of Taiwanese actors to fill these roles.
The La Jolla Playhouse garnered national attention in 2012 for their use of only two Asian actors in a play that takes place in ancient China. In response to such actions, two members of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), Cindy Cheung and Christine Toy Johnson, participated in a panel that was formulated to discuss “the lack of Asian actors in their ‘multicultural’ cast.”
But, much like the example with Randall Park, the implicit racism that is derivative of utilizing only two Asian actors in a play that takes place in Ancient China essentially strips us of our cultural identity.
I’m not saying you should be parading in front of Paramount, shouting for diversity and more opportunities for Asian American actors that do not misrepresent Asians (though that would be incredible). However, it is important to realize that this kind of discrimination does occur and that racism ensues even when roles are being offered to Asian actors.
Though I was lucky enough to find something else that I am passionate about, I clearly was not immune to the strong discouragement of Asian actors. My shampoo bottles are no longer Academy Awards and the correlation between my birthday and the Oscars is now just a reminder that it’s my birthday.
As a child, the only career I found suitable for myself was that of an actor. As an adult, I intend to pursue law.
My hope is that for the next generation of aspiring Asian American actors, barriers continue to be broken and there is a serious acknowledgment of these problems. Perhaps in this way, we’ll continue to see more diversity on the screen.