After decades of whitewashing and supporting stereotypical roles, Asian-Americans in Hollywood are finally gaining non-stigmatizing representation.
Hollywood has a rough history with casting Asian-Americans. Dating back to the early 1900’s through the 60’s, when racism and the Yellow Peril hovered like a thick fog over America, yellowface was a common occurrence where Asian roles were needed. Forgoing casting an actor of Asian decent, Hollywood movies would choose a white person for the highly stereotyped part, using makeup to render their features Asian.
Though this discriminating practice is no longer prominent, stereotypes and whitewashing still persist. Regarding stereotypes, Asian-American actors, past and present, have found themselves typecasted as non-English speakers, submissive china-dolls, domineering and underhanded dragon ladies, martial artists, or geeks. While these personalities do exist in real life, the problem occurs when Asian representation in mainstream media is limited to only those tropes.
How people perceive themselves and others often depends on what they are exposed to. If the media constantly portrays Asian-Americans as extremes of dominance, masculinity, and intelligence or unworthy of playing a role originally created for a person of their race, what message is being sent to the impressionable public? Stereotypes in media perpetuate prejudice in real life.
Also missing the mark–perhaps even demeaning–is when Hollywood, in a fiasco of whitewashing, fails to represent Asian-Americans at all. Notable cases of this include Avatar the Last Airbender (2010) and Ghost in the Shell (2017). The directors’ excuses that the characters seem racially ambiguous and that there are no Asian movie stars fall short when the fabric of the stories and these roles rely on Asian culture and themes. To borrow a culture only to then erase a key aspect of the characters and their history is ignorant, not only to good storytelling, but also to the sea of Asian actors struggling to be casted.
Representation and inclusiveness matter, and the mainstream film industry finally seems to be realizing it. This year, the Asian-American community made a great breakthrough with Crazy Rich Asians (2018), the first contemporary movie by a Hollywood studio to feature an all Asian-American cast since The Joy Luck Club (1993). The movie is the most successful romantic comedy in almost a decade, surpassing The Proposal (2009), and earning over $169 million in the US.
With its smashing success, Crazy Rich Asians proves wrong the prevailing bias among discriminating directors that Asian actors will not raise ticket sales. Audiences crave authentic representation, not whitewashed characters, no matter how famous the actor is. Dodging whitewashing and stereotypes, Crazy Rich Asians displays diverse personalities and is a step in the right direction for positive representation.
Following on the heels of its release are other movies featuring Asian leads, but this time their heritage is almost casual. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) and Searching (2018) are refreshing in how the storyline is not hinged on their Asianness.
The future holds more representation, like the live-action retelling of the Avatar the Last Airbender series with culturally accurate casting.