Throughout history, Asian representation in the entertainment industry has been disturbingly small and stained by offensive caricatures. Specifically, as of 2017, only 1% of all leading roles in Hollywood were played by Asian Americans, and even those actors were subjected to unfair stereotyping that portrays Asians as “intelligent, hardworking, and ambitious” all of which typically assemble in a doctor-type character. The above characteristics may not traditionally be seen as “offensive,” however, the underrepresentation and stereotyping of Asians in Hollywood dehumanize and deems Asians as “passive foreigners without dimension.” Furthermore, the media’s perception of Asians influences the viewer’s real-world opinions of Asians, thus leading to harmful cultural and social consequences.
In recent years, Hollywood has made a serious effort to further diversify its leading actors and storylines. The film Crazy Rich Asians marked an irrefutable turning point for modern Asian American film representation in 2018 as the film made $238 million at the box office and reinforced the idea that “diversity could also mean good business.” But Hollywood didn’t stop there, as Netflix and movie theaters also released To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, starring Lana Condor, Searching, starring John Cho as the first Asian American actor to lead a major thriller, and Always Be My Maybe, featuring Ali Wong, Randall Park, and Keanu Reeves. These films and others like them show promise for more Asian representation in Hollywood and entertainment in general, however, it is merely a necessary first step toward actual Asian representation. Ultimately, current Asian representation in Hollywood films falls short because “the stories and the people in them skew mostly East Asian.” Spotlighting the “East Asian narrative” in terms of Asian America as a whole forces South and Southeast Asians out of the conversation. Thus, even in Hollywood’s attempt to depict the Asian American story, the ideas of South and Southeast Asians being not the “right kind of Asian,” or not being “Asian enough” remain.
Still, the entertainment industry presses on in its endeavor to deliver true diversity and Asian representation that goes beyond Asian stereotypes. Thanks to the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC), ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC have all committed to working to increase diversity on-screen and behind the camera. In 2019 ABC scored the highest among the four major broadcast networks, even though the ratio of Asian Americans to the networks of other members was less than the previous years. There is a real concern that films like Crazy Rich Asians did not actually broaden Asian representation in entertainment overall, and current stigmas surrounding the Coronavirus only amplify these concerns. Nevertheless, Asian-American power players– studio executives, lead agents, and producers– have taken it upon themselves to ensure that Hollywood shifts toward a more authentic and lasting form of Asian representation in both film and television.
Megan Kern is a second-year law student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.
Julie Takash, JD candidate at Southwestern Law School class of 2021 and Employment Law Society treasurer.