How do Stereotypical Portrayals of Asian Characters Through Film Feed Society’s Negative Perceptions of the Asian-American Identity?

“We’re not some foreign entity here to take over your land in some way. We’re part of America. Asian American history is American history. And now it’s time to learn that history”

Jonathan Murray Chu

Link to my personal interest essay

CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT OF 1882

During the start of the Gold Rush in 1848, many Chinese people traveled to America to join the California Gold Rush in search of a better life for themselves and their families (Zhang). Chinese immigrants were considered hard-working, unobtrusive, peaceful and frugal due to their willingness to take low-wage jobs that many Americans perceived as dirty and incompatible (“Chinese Immigrants”). Chinese presence in the United States brought excitement, and many Americans were thankful as Chinese immigration settled the state’s labor shortage (Kanazawa). According to Historian Gunther Barth, Jon McDougal, the second governor of California wrote in 1852 that the Chinese “were one of the most worthy classes of our newly adopted citizens, to whom the climate and the character of California were peculiarly suited” (McDougal qtd. in Barth). However, the acceptance of Chinese people was short-lived. As the gold mines began to deplete within a few years of its discovery, many miners recognized the dirty, low earning jobs reserved for Chinese workers, were now desirable (“Immigration to the United States”). Immediately, the attitude towards Chinese people changed, as they were seen as competition and were accused of stealing jobs from Americans (Kanazawa). Anti-Chinese sentiment grew in the United States, and eventually culminated into the Chinese-Exclusion Act of 1882, which sought to end immigration of Chinese people by refusing citizenship to all Chinese immigrants in hopes of obtaining more job opportunities for the Americans (“Chinese Exclusion”).

Link to my historical background essay

Posters exclaiming Mayor Weisbach’s call for a mass meeting to consider the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

HOW DID ANTI-ASIAN HATE CULMINATE IN FILMS?

Eventually, the growing hatred for Chinese immigrants began to appear through films, including Hollywood’s 1932 production, “The Mask of Fu Manchu.” The storyline casts a White actor, Boris Karloff, playing the role of an “Asian” villain whose goal was to destroy the West, reflecting white America’s sentiment towards Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush (Accomando). This film horribly represented Asians in many ways, as the depiction of Fu Manchu as a white actor playing an Asian character blatantly shows the misrepresentation and exclusion of Asians through the cinematic industry. Not only were Asian characters subjected to stereotypical roles, Hollywood films would also physically retouch the appearance of White actors playing Asians characters. This practice was called, “yellowface,” a common utilization that would imitate the appearance of an Asian person on a White actor by using yellow colored makeup to resemble more of an Asian look (“Yellowface”). Due to rising Anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the Gold Rush, negative stereotypes formed around the Chinese race, which led to the misrepresentation of Chinese characters through Hollywood’s films, as they were predominantly portrayed as villains bent on exterminating the White race. 

American Actor, Boris Karloff, in Hollywood’s 1932 production “Fu Manchu.”

THE CURRENT ISSUE OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST ASIANS IN FILM

For decades, Asians have been subjected to stereotypical “Asian” formatted roles, or often replaced by a Caucasian actor. Hollywood’s history of casting American actors in Asian roles throughout 20th century films has not yet come to an end, and has recently been utilized in Hollywood’s 2017 remake of the Japanese anime classic, “Ghost in the Shell.” The movie features American actress, Scarlett Johansson, as Major Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyber-enhanced character devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals (Rosenburg). Once again, this movie adds to the ongoing discrimination that Asians encounter, as “casting Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, a role that could have been a chance for an Asian-American actress to establish herself as the backbone of an action franchise,” was instead stripped away (Rosenburg). These stereotypes are not only presented on screens, but outside the realm of television as well. For example, films such as Hollywood’s 2015 TV series, “Fresh off the Boat,” not only takes a humorous look at the lives of Chinese immigrants living in America, but is also accompanied by exaggerated accents and stereotypical jokes of Chinese culture. Although Hollywood’s effort to produce an all-Asian TV series was exciting, the incorporation of stereotypical humor and heavy accents thoroughly contradicted its importance. Thus, it heavily influenced the ways society views people of Asian descent, as the TV series feeds the belief that all Asians are still foreigners in America. 

SHINING AUTHENTIC LIGHT

However, while many Hollywood films portray Asians in stereotypical roles, the most recent premiere of “Crazy Rich Asians,” directed by Jonathan Murray Chu, portrays the Asian-American community in a more authentic light than ever before. Chu  wanted to shift the ways society perceives Asians. Ss he once said, “we’re not some foreign entity here to take over your land in some way. We’re part of America. Asian American history is American history. And now it’s time to learn that history” (Jon Chu qtd. in Sze). “Crazy Rich Asians” stars Asian-American actors Constance Wu and Henry Golding as Rachel Chu and Nick Young, a longtime couple traveling to Singapore where Rachel quickly finds out the struggles that come with meeting Nick’s incredibly wealthy family. The release of “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first all-Asian film since the premiere of “The Joy Luck Club” 25 years ago, which was an exciting change and well received by the Asian audience. Unlike other Hollywood productions, “Crazy Rich Asians” breaks down numerous stereotypes, adjusting the ways society perceives Asians, as this movie depicts them as a more superior and wealthier figure rather than the inferior, nerdy, and clueless character that Asian actors are normally cast in.

Link to my current problem essay

Hollywood’s 2018 production “Crazy Rich Asians” directed by AAPI director, Jonathan Murray Chu

WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP

To prevent and combat the stereotypes against Asians, the need for an authentic representation of Asian culture through film has to be prioritized. Therefore, it is imperative that more AAPI directors and producers create films, as they can identify with and genuinely promote Asian culture and the meaning of what it is to be Asian-American without negative stereotypes. Not only will the use of AAPI directors mitigate the stereotypical portrayals of Asian minorities, but resources such as social media can raise awareness and educate others about the ongoing issue and eventually, reduce society’s discriminatory perceptions of Asians that consistently play out in films.

The diversity gap in the Academy Awards (1927-2015)

FEEDBACK

Please feel free to leave comments down below! I would love to hear any feedback or suggestions to how we can incorporate more AAPI directors and actors into filmmaking and how we as a community can work together to end discrimination against AAPI (Asian Pacific Islander) characters and actors in film once and for all!!

Click here for my works cited

10 Comments
Kaela_126

Kaela_126

Student at Head-Royce School, Oakland, CA USA

10 comments

  1. I loved your project, Kaela! The specific examples of films that reflect demeaning stereotypes and those that are directed by AAPI directors and don’t do that are really informative, and the “Diversity Gap in the Academy Awards” infographic were really persuasive!

    1. Thank you Dr.Bradley!!

  2. Hi Kaela, I really liked your page, especially the infographics and visuals you included in each section! I agree that AAPI stereotypes and discrimination are extremely pressing issues in our society, and I thought the large scale solutions you presented were well thought out. As for individual action steps, educating people and spreading awareness on these issues in general are great first steps in contributing in our communities.

    1. Hi Isabel! Thank you for your comment! Yes, Asian discrimination is extremely pressing in our society, and I am glad that you are considering my solutions to help educate others on this issue!

  3. Hi Kaela – thank you so much for your insightful project! I really enjoyed how you included both graphics and data to accompany your points. I think your project comes in an extremely timely manner, seeing as the Academy Awards are approaching. As a Chinese-Canadian myself, many of my identity issues were rooted in Hollywood’s ineffective media portrayal of Asian-Americans. By characterizing Asians as either hard-working or geeky individuals, I felt increasingly isolated from my culture. Not only do these stereotypes hinder the public from having accurate representation, but they also led me down a path where I was unsure if I was not “Asian enough”. Ultimately, I wonder how we can encourage AAPI actors to begin speaking out against harmful acting roles, while also not risking their future in the profession.

    1. Hi Stephanie! Thank you for sharing the experiences you encountered with Hollywood’s ineffective portrayals of AAPI characters in film. Many need to be aware of the impact Asian-American audiences receive due to the demeaning roles AAPI characters are shown in on television. I encourage you to share your experiences with others, as it is a prime example of how negative media portrayals of one’s own culture can reflect one’s well being.

  4. Hi Kaela! What a in-depth and topical project you’ve created! I agree that the media we see profoundly impacts our society. Movies are more than just entertainment, they shape our cultural narratives and perspectives. Great work!

    1. Hi Rosemary! Thank you for your feedback!

  5. Hi Kaela, great job on your project!
    It was interesting to learn more about anti-Asian hate and the effect the portrayal of Asians in films or tv shows has in the real world. After watching your video, I thought about the several times I would speak English and people would be surprised at how good my English was, being an Asian. Stereotypes are something that become rooted in us because in a way it becomes ‘normal’ and I think your solution to get a better representation of Asians is an effective idea. Something we can all do would be to speak up and say something when we think that something is stereotypical, offensive, and continue to educate ourselves and others to decrease these stereotypes.

    1. Hi Asako! Thank you for your thoughtful feedback! Likewise, I have experienced numerous times where people would be amazed to how well my grandmother would speak English, which blatantly reflects the idea that we are still foreigners in America. A majority of this idea comes from the representation AAPI characters receive through film, as we are almost always portrayed with overly exerted accents. I encourage you to share your story with others, as many need to be aware of the demeaning stereotypes many of us encounter through our daily lives, due to the mistaken portrayals of AAPI characters through film.

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