Representation in Hollywood: A Reflection on Our Reflections
When I was younger, about 4 or 6 years old, I would play dress-up with my friends. And yet, despite our vivid imaginations, my friends would always tell me, “You can’t be Hermione Granger. You need to be Cho Chang.” or, “You can’t be Belle. You need to be Mulan.” Hollywood for people like me isn’t a mirror; it is a rippling pool where our reflections are either distorted or are barely visible. To those who aren’t looking at the same pool, the skewed representation doesn’t seem to affect them. However, the lack of Asian and Asian-American representation in American media is problematic, and affects more than just people of Asian descent.
For as long as I can remember, I have been told by many peers that I am a “bad Asian.” I do not have hooded eyelids, I do not speak Korean, nor do I have the associated accent. I wasn’t like “my people” on TV. My friends were always quick to point out Asian characters such as Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid, Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Apu from The Simpsons, or Ip Man as representation of “my people” in Hollywood. My friends had good intentions, but even they were blind to the problems with roles like these; they’re all stereotypical, generalizing, and inherently detrimental to Asian identities. Movies like these show Asians as martial arts experts with thick accents, or as someone who is angry and bitter. We’re shop-keepers, nail technicians, and our English is minimal at best. I wouldn’t pick any of these characters as representative of me or my culture, but quite frankly, it’s all I have to work with.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released in 1961, and yet the problem of white-washing is still prominent in 2018. For decades, Hollywood has given roles for people-of-color to be played by White actors. People like myself are made invisible and replaced by faces that American audiences might be more familiar with. My sentiments of feeling invisible is shared by many other Asian-Americans. Sociology professor Nancy Wang Yuen expresses that, “We are nondescript and in a way dehumanized by not existing in scenes or having speaking roles (James & NG).” Deathnote, Ghost in the Shell, Aloha, Doctor Strange, are just a few recent movies that have given away roles for Asian or Asian-American actors to White actors. The casting director for Deathnote tried to defend their actions claiming that actors from Asia, “didn’t speak the perfect English. (James & Ng).”
Recently, an episode of The Simpsons addressed the controversy surrounding the character of Apu. Apu is a convenience store owner of South Asian descent. At first this seems fine albeit a bit stereotypical, however, the voice of Apu is Hank Azaria. Hank Azaria is not of South Asian descent, and admits that the extravagant accent he puts on for the character of Apu is based off of an accent that the actor Peter Sellers used. It is a white man impersonating a white man that impersonated person of color (Holmes). The episode claims that Apu was once “applauded and inoffensive” but “is now politically incorrect.” However, Apu has been criticized for years. Actors Aziz Ansari, Maulik Pancholy, and former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy all express that it is characters like Apu that perpetuate stereotypes. This character is based off of stereotypes from over thirty years ago, being voiced by someone who has never had to deal with the repercussions of these generalizations.
Although most people would generally agree that Hollywood should be more diverse, they rarely speak up about it. The only time that people unite together to protest the lack of representation for people of color is during the Oscars. During 2015 and 2016, debate over if the Oscars were “too white” was extremely prominent. The hashtag #Oscarssowhite, was all over social media. However, during 2017 and 2018, the discussion has taken the back-burner. Of the 24 categories during the 2018 Oscars, with each category having between 3-9 nominations, there were only 7 Asian or Asian-American nominations. Only 7. Some are quick to say that the nominees of the Oscars are not truly exemplary nor represent the industry fully (Schulman). Even if the nominees do not represent the entire industry, a study conducted in 2017 found that only 28.3% of all speaking characters, in movies and TV, were minorities (James & Ng). 28.3% of speaking characters to represent not just Asian descendents, but to represent all of the underrepresented ethnic and racial groups.
But why does this affect anyone else? Stereotypes affect more than the targeted demographic. Media helps us to form our ideas of those we do not know, or have not have much interaction with. If we are constantly bombarded with outdated stereotypes, we assume that there is some truth to them, otherwise we would not see them everywhere.
Maybe, you still cannot care less. You may still feel like this doesn’t affect you. But maybe, you’re like me. Maybe you’re wondering what you can do to help. The best thing you can do is to speak up. When Ghost in the Shell was released, the negative ratings harmed the movie more than protesters or boycotts (Berman). It may not feel like your voice is heard at first but by keeping the discussion going, progress will been made. Instead of tweeting about the lack of diversity when it’s time for the Oscars, keep the ball rolling throughout the rest of the year, keep the momentum going. Individually, our voices may be drowned out. But together, we can’t be ignored.
Perhaps one day, Hollywood can be a mirror for all of us.
Article by: Emma Franza