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Asians in American Film: A Story of Stereotypes and the Dream to Break Them


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“Hollywood likes to put actors in boxes, and it likes to put Asian actors in really small boxes.” — Sandra Oh

The Problem

According to the Hollywood Diversity Report 2018 conducted by UCLA, Asian Americans (who, based on the 2017 census, represent 6% of the U.S. population) have been underrepresented in Hollywood films and in 2016, comprised only 3.1% of all “top film roles” (Hunt). And when they were given roles in films, they weren’t given the lead character roles (roughly only 1% were). Aside from a statistical problem of scarcity, there has been an issue with the types of roles Asians have been given too, which have historically included compliant sidekicks, one-dimensional nerds, sneaky villains, sexualized figures, or exotic foreigners. In other words, Asian actors are often either invisible or reduced to stereotypes in American cinema.

Asian Americans have recently clamored for more meaningful representation in cinema, building upon the #OscarsSoWhite movement that started with a critique of the all-white actor nominations of the 2016 Oscars. In 2018 Crazy Rich Asians debuted with an all-Asian cast and was celebrated as a “historic moment”(Schoellkopf). But will this momentum turn the tide? Only time will tell. Below is a video reflecting on this issue.

WHY DO I CARE?

I chose to explore this topic because it relates to how I think about who I am and who I ought to be. I realize that my last name, “Jones”, has often given people the impression I’m not Asian, but my physical appearance reveals my (half) Asian identity. And along with being half-Asian, have come stereotypes about my mathematical, chess, or science abilities. I have no idea whether I’m a stereotype by design or by nature, but that stereotype and the expectations I perceive my community has of me and other Asians must come from somewhere; I wondered whether film and media might have helped to generate those perceptions. More generally, cinematic portrayals that reflect and reinforce stereotypes of any type is a negative influence on how we, as a society, can become a community that relates to each other compassionately and authentically. In fact, the lack of meaningful Asian representation in film deprives Asian Americans the chance to share their narratives, and American society misses a chance to fully appreciate the diversity of its people.

Link to Full Personal Interest Essay —https://docs.google.com/document/d/17vWR1RGW8J_pMAgfCat7uaxcnZChqt0OVvr3-AfcNbA/edit?usp=sharing

ROOTS OF THE PROBLEM: THE “YELLOW PERIL”

The problem of stereotyped representations of or absence of Asians in American film takes its roots from the mid 19th century when Chinese immigrants, largely single Chinese men, first started coming into the U.S. in significant numbers as contract laborers. Many of them came to help build the Transcontinental Railroad (“Asian Americans Then and Now”). By 1871, after the railroads had been built and an economic depression set in, Chinese immigrants were seen by labor groups as “cheap labor” competing for slowly disappearing jobs. Natives who resented the Chinese began to propagate anti-Chinese sentiment, including dubbing the Chinese as the “Yellow Peril.”

The “Yellow Peril” imagery portrayed the Chinese as the “Other” — dangerous, immoral, diabolically cruel, almost subhuman persons who often took the form of opium smokers, idolaters, and criminals who were invading the U.S. in droves (Gates). In response to these sentiments, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first immigration law aimed at excluding a specific nationality. The Exclusion Act would have a notable impact. In 1882, 39,500 Chinese immigrants entered the U.S. while only 10 came in 1887 (“Asian Americans Then and Now”). But while the Exclusion Act restricted the number of Chinese that came into the country, racist attitudes against the Chinese persisted.

The Chinese were still viewed as “tricky” people who were trying to evade the Exclusion Act and cause harm to the U.S. with their presence (“Chinese Tricks”). These continued notions about the “Yellow Peril” not only prolonged Chinese exclusion as an immigration policy but also set the stage for more legislative anti-Asian discrimination. In 1924, all Asians were banned from citizenship/naturalization, thereby legitimizing the racist Yellow Peril attitudes (“Asian Americans Then and Now”).

Link to full Historical Problem Assignment —https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pRy-chnfOWqSEnJ4yXkuyxl0-9zPVSrwq1k0P4NVcIg/edit?usp=sharing

THE YELLOW PERIL TRANSLATES INTO EVIL VILLAINS AND DRAGON LADIES

This anti-Asian, “Yellow Peril” attitude flowed into the making of early American films. Asian characters in early 20th century films often reflected the Yellow Peril imagery of the Asian as a devious “Other.” For example, the portrayal of Asian women centered around the exotic yet sexualized prostitute whose primary job was to intoxicate white men of integrity (Wang). Anna May Wong, a famous Asian actress especially popular during the 1920s-40s, symbolized this dangerous, seductive character, which later became more widely known as either the “Dragon Lady” or the more benign “Suzie Wong.” Wong often appeared in exotic costumes (emphasizing her “otherness”) and in seductive roles such as prostitutes, either with a violent edge or an overly submissive one. After starring in multiple films as these stereotypically negative Asian roles, Wong remembered, “I got weary of it all — of the scenarist’s concept of Chinese characters” (Wang). Asian male actors faced different yet similar issues. Asian men were also often portrayed as villains in American film.

In the 1916 movie The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu, the infamous Fu Manchu typified the “epitome of Chinese treachery and cunning” with his villainous, criminal deeds; his devious acts would serve as part of a long running series of movies (Gates). But Asian males were also portrayed as “non-threatening,” sometimes emasculated men. One popular movie character, Charlie Chan, was seen by Americans as being, although an intelligent character, also a “physical wimp,” and a “sexual deviant” (Gates). Charlie Chan embodied an early stage of the model minority myth — the idea that Asian immigrants can be diligent and proper, but can never fulfill a truly heroic/leadership role in American society (Gates). Thus, negative images of Asians spawned by anti-immigrant, racist attitudes abounded in early Hollywood films and probably reinforced those racist attitudes within society.


One Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa, who actually garnered fame as an actor, tried to defy these anti-Asian norms by setting up his own production company in 1918 (Tseng). Through his company, he made 23 Asian-centric films, but he ultimately had to leave Hollywood in 1922 because of rising anti-Japanese sentiment (Tseng). These early efforts to articulate solutions to or protests against anti-Asian perceptions in film were unsuccessful. Asians could seemingly never shake their image of being an “other” — less than fully American. It would be up to the later generation of Asian actors and artists who, having grown up under the shadow of the model minority myth, would fight for greater and fairer representation of Asians in film.

A NEW IMMIGRATION LAW, A NEW STEREOTYPE, A NEW CINEMATIC PROBLEM

The model minority myth (as applied to Asians) is a falsely “positive” stereotype in which society sees Asians as a model for other minority groups. While ostensibly positive, the model minority myth also feeds into the concept of Asians being “submissive, obedient, and excessively academically oriented”(Yang); according to this theory, Asian submissiveness and compliance is what contributed to their success. The model minority myth ironically stemmed from an effort to ease immigration restrictions against the Chinese. In 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act, which abolished national origin quotas and based immigration admission on other factors such as family reunification and professional skills and ability. This change resulted in more highly educated Asian immigrants being admitted into the US, and the success of these educated immigrants contributed to the popular belief that they were more hardworking, and perhaps more skilled, than other minority groups in the US (Chow 2). This perspective would indirectly lead to Asians being viewed as a monolithic group of educated professionals rather than as a diverse group of individuals with varying aspirations and skill sets (Hsu).  

This Asian model minority myth has affected Asian representation in American cinema. The portrayal of Asians in late 20th century cinema featured the worst aspects of the model minority myth i.e. individuals as nerdy, socially awkward, and lacking social intelligence. One iconic example is actor Gedde Watanabe’s infamous role in Sixteen Candles (1984), Long Duk Dong. Dong was a foreign exchange student who spoke stilted English, made inappropriate social observations due to naivete, and engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior. Watanabe’s character spawned a generation of nerd cliches and insulting references to ‘Donkers’ in junior and high schools,” a phrase inspired by Long Duk Dong’s behavior (Chow 1).

Another example includes Lilly Onakuramara from Pitch Perfect (2012). In that film, Lily is a Japanese singer who can barely speak, is painfully shy, and whose shyness translates into visibly eccentric behavior. Like Long Duk Dong, Lily’s social awkwardness made her more seemingly an “other” (Lim).

When Asians were not playing stereotypes, they were often denied roles all together. Similar to earlier attempts at yellow-face in the early 20th century (when white actors would put on yellow makeup and tape back their eyes to form slanted “Asian eyes” (Kates)), some modern movies have engaged in “whitewashing” i.e. casting white actors to play originally Asian characters. In 2017, Scarlett Johansson was cast to play the role of a Japanese general in the movie Ghost in the Shell (Hess) because she was perceived to have a bigger box office presence (Mazzucato).

Today, Asian American actors are fighting against this lack of more diverse, meaningful representation by Asians in American cinema and have taken to social media for their cause (e.g. #StarringJohnCho — Asians can “look” the part too!), negotiated more assertively with production companies on salary, and worked with organizations like the NAACP and other media activist groups to protest (Lopez).

Link to full Present Day Problem Essay — https://docs.google.com/document/d/1XaDVi4-XozcISGBCI6FOm1Hy0wtQ8UXrLPUIZ5w_o5M/edit?usp=sharing

HOW CAN YOU HELP?

Every one of us can help. First, it is important to become educated on Asian misrepresentation (or lack of representation) in film. To witness the issue firsthand, the next time you turn on the T.V. and watch a show, count the number of Asian actors/actresses there are and note the types of roles they play. Be actively aware. Another way to help is by watching and supporting movies that cast Asian-American actors so that it sends a message to directors that Asian actors have box office draw too. Years ago, Sessue Hayakawa started his own film company in order to create films dedicated to Asian actors and Asian stories (Tseng). If possible, try to support fledgling companies who are trying to do the same.

Link to full Solutions Essay — https://docs.google.com/document/d/1L3sxZfrJfwOzLq1gMDWPfzCoM-FyZ3IE5GJpAB8RBYk/edit?usp=sharing

SOCIETY’S PROGRESS

Society is making some progress on this issue. Recently, social media campaigns like the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has encouraged Hollywood to make their movies casting actors more reflective of our society (Markus). Last summer, the movie Crazy Rich Asians made a successful debut with an all-Asian cast representing diverse and richly drawn out characters. And John Cho was the lead character in the 2018 movie, Searching. The best part about that? Cho’s role had nothing to do with his Asian identity — it was an all-American role that could have been played by an actor of any race, but which was given to Cho simply because he was a good actor.

Link to the Bibliography: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GokLWyDP4bbFl3DsH2BPvbxxvmxVUSD8lUEUQa9HUJg/edit?usp=sharing

Feel free to add a comment down below!

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COMMENTS: 12
  1. April 26, 2019 by Asta.Sjogren-Uyehara

    your video might be my favourite thing in the entire world it’s the best video ever

  2. April 27, 2019 by bryent.takayama

    Hey Charles! I loved reading your presentation. As an Asian-American myself, I was not privy to the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood until I watched Crazy Rich Asians–a brilliant film! In my US History class right now, we are learning about the “race war” of WWII and the discrimination of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. I hope to see more movies cast Asians with lead roles in the future!

  3. April 28, 2019 by Manasi Garg

    Hi charles,
    I loved your presentation because I think this is so important right now. I didn’t realize how far back this topic went and that was really interesting to hear. Love the visuals and the effort is visible! great job!!

  4. April 28, 2019 by Jenny.Zhao

    Hello! Really really interesting, detailed and thorough investigation of this issue. Being asian, I found the information presented here really accurate and I learned many new things as well. Good job!!

  5. April 28, 2019 by Karin.Noskova

    Hello Charles, I love how much effort you put into researching this topic. I really like that you included links to extensive essays if anybody wants to know more information. Since I am not from the United States, this topic was very new and interesting for me. Great Job.

  6. April 28, 2019 by Madi

    Hey Charles! This is an amazingly well thought out and researched project. I was drawn to it as I am half Chinese. For a part of my life I didn’t want to be associated with that because I never saw it in media. Asian had all these stereotypes that I didn’t identify with and I only ever saw the media portray these stereotypes. I’m so glad that you made this project. The in depth research paired with engaging videos that made me very proud of my heritage and the steps that have been made in the representation of Asians in media.

  7. April 29, 2019 by Ashli.Jain

    Hey Charles! With Crazy Rich Asians recently coming out, this was a very well-timed presentation! As someone who is Indian, I think of film representation as Bollywood. It was interesting to consider this issue from a different Asian perspective!

  8. April 29, 2019 by Hanan Sherka

    Charles, this was amazing to see! Especially the final video with the cast of Crazy Rich Asians. I also appreciated that you highlighted Hayakawa’s film company, it made me want to look more into that!

  9. April 30, 2019 by Samira.Kethu

    You did a great job on your project Charles! I love how you shed light on such an important issue. I truly believe that Asian Americans are underrepresented and are never correctly portrayed. I love that your project bring awareness to this issue!

  10. April 30, 2019 by Erica

    Hi Charles! Thank you so so so much for picking this as your topic. It warms my heart in ways you cannot understand as this is something that I, as a young Asian American, have always noticed and struggled with. I think I had fallen into the rut of just talking about needing change, but not knowing how to do that. Now thanks to your presentation, I have a few more ideas!

  11. April 30, 2019 by Crystal Land

    Charlie: Excellent research and presentation. I learned a lot from your statistics and perspective. Nicely done.

  12. May 02, 2019 by Hana.Himura

    Hi Charles,
    I love how you presented this very important topic with thorough research and explanation. I love the number of visuals that you included, which made the page more interesting! It made me want to look more into the representation of Asians in the media.

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