Fun fact: I’m mixed race! I am proudly half-Filipino and half-white. Growing up, it was difficult trying to find characters who looked like me in media. All I wanted was to have a character that I looked like and I could dress up as for Halloween. Everyone else got to dress up as their choice of Disney princess and get told that they were that princess’ twin; I just wanted the same. At that time, I had two options – Jasmine or Mulan – both not Filipino, which made me feel like an imposter (being half-white also really added to that feeling but that’s a whole other topic). And that was it. That was all the Asian representation I could see on screen. All the shows and films I ended up watching always seemed to have main characters blonde or brown hair and light eyes and were pretty obviously white – if there were any Asian characters on screen, they were relegated to just a side character or they were saddled with stereotypes.
But, at least Asian representation has gotten better….maybe?
In the early days of film, minorities were stereotyped and quite often played by white actors. The practice of a white actor playing an Asian character is referred to as “yellowface.” These characters often spoke in thick, heavy accents with exaggerated, slanted eyes. The most famous example of “yellowface” during this period would be Mickey Rooney, a white actor, playing Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (dir. Blake Edwards, 1961). Rooney wears makeup and prosthetics to completely change his look to that of a Japanese man and then uses heavily accented English. He is a complete caricature, used as comedic relief. It is racist. Decades later, the backlash was finally addressed, with the producer blaming the director and the director saying that he regretted the casting.
Despite that, Hollywood still continued with racist caricatures, albeit with less yellowface. Stereotypes of Asian characters were still prevalent in film, if they even decided to feature Asian characters at all. Let’s take Sixteen Candles (dir. John Hughes, 1984). The film literally had a character named Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), which makes fun of Asian names. His appearance in the film is even accompanied by a gong sound! Watanabe, despite being born and raised in Utah, puts on a heavy accent and speaks in stilted English – on one hand, it makes sense as he’s supposed to be a foreign exchange student but, on the other hand, his accent and dialogue are so exaggerated and used as a joke that it comes across as simply making fun of Asian exchange students. Dong is enamored by American culture, wide-eyed at the sight of conventionally attractive high school girls and American food. The use of his character throughout the film also perpetuates more Asian stereotypes. Dong’s love interest is a much taller, conventionally attractive girl. Next to her, Dong looks smaller and weaker – supporting the stereotype that Asian men are weak and submissive.
Because of the stereotypes and caricatures presented in film, Asian people in real life are stereotyped and expected to act like what is seen on film. Film and real life are intertwined, with one influencing the other and over and over so much so that we think that film acts like real life. And these stereotypes most affect Asian teenagers. When Bruce Lee became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, Asian students were called Bruce Lee, even though some were not the same ethnicity as Lee. When Pretty in Pink was released, Asian students were then called “Dongers” and expected to act like Dong – weak, attempting to be a party animal, stilted English, comedic relief.
Unfortunately, though Hollywood has been doing well in trying to reduce racist Asian stereotypes, there are still issues with Asian representation in today’s films. Now, we have whitewashing – a term in which what is supposed to be an Asian character is played by a white actor. It is almost like “yellowface,” except there is no makeup used to make the actor look Asian. Examples include: The Last Airbender (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2010), based off of a popular Nickelodeon animated show which directly alludes to the characters being Indigenous (possibly Inuit) or Asian but casts the live-action actors as white; Aloha (dir. Cameron Crowe, 2015), which cast Emma Stone, a white actor famous for her red hair, as a white but part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian character named Allison Ng; Doctor Strange (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2016), which saw Tilda Swinton, a white Scottish actor, cast as The Ancient One, who is a Tibetan man in the comics; and Ghost in the Shell (dir. Rupert Sanders, 2017), which is based off of Japanese manga with Japanese characters, cast Scarlett Johansson as Major Mira Killian/Motoko Kusanagi. With all these films, the directors and actors apologized for their mistake but always used some random, flimsy excuse to try to justify the casting. The fact that its happened as recently as 2017 shows that Hollywood still needs to actively work on diversity.
But, because of how high profile some of these films were, imagine how casting an Asian actor in the role would have changed the film. It would have provided opportunities in a big budget action film for Asian actors – that might’ve been their big break into being the next major action star. It could have been an opportunity for an Asian actor to have a main role in a Marvel movie, the biggest franchise in the world! So many ifs and could haves and hypothetical situations, all shot down because white actors were cast instead. These casting decisions belittle the hard work of Asian actors, further not allowing opportunities to see themselves on screen, and further perpetuating the idea that Asian stories and Asian characters are not that important.
Luckily, there have been positive representations of Asian characters in the media recently! It’s not enough, nor is it comprehensive enough to also include South/Southeast Asian actors (as most simply focus on East Asian representation), but it is a start. The characters have been well-rounded, free from stereotypes, and celebrate the cultures that they come from instead of making fun of them. Hopefully they have helped combat the stereotypes enough to influence people’s perceptions of Asian people in real life.
2016 saw Disney release Moana (dir. Ron Clements), which had a Polynesian protagonist and characters. 2018 saw the release of Crazy Rich Asians (dir. Jon M. Chu), marketed as the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast. Yes, it took until 2018 to feature a Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast. Based on the book of the same name, the film showed a larger portrayal of Asian culture as Asian-American characters revisited Singapore and the audience got to experience the country and their cultural traditions through their eyes. The same year, Netflix premiered the first film in the trilogy To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (dir. Susan Johnson), which centered on a Korean-American girl and her family. In 2019, The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang), featuring an all-Asian cast and based on a true event in director Wang’s life, premiered to critical acclaim (in my humble opinion, it was one of the best films of the year). Besides their live-action Mulan remake, Disney has also scheduled their newest animated film Raya and the Last Dragon (dir. Paul Briggs & Dean Wellins, 2021…maybe), based on Southeast Asian culture, written by Adele Lim and featuring the voices of Asian actors Cassie Steele and Awkwafina!
Asian representation in media is far from perfect. There is still so much to be done and to advocate for. Ideally there would not only be on-screen Asian representation, but off-screen as well! More opportunities for Asian directors, who could help tell and represent Asian stories and Asian cultures, is the ultimate dream. But here’s hoping that, not too far in the future, every kid will be able to see a character on screen who looks just like them. A simple hope.