Asian American Representation in Film
Despite the growth of diversity in the film industry, people of color, like Asian Americans, remain relegated to the sidelines in movies to this day.
With Asian Americans, it is often the same script. We are seen at the back of the classroom, correcting a teacher. We are the taxi driver or the grocery store owner. We are the comic relief, the funny best friend. Asian Americans in films have constantly been cast in the same roles: villains, foreigners, sidekicks, nerds, etc.—but never the lead.
In regards to why this might be, we can go all the way back to when the first Asian characters appeared in western media. Since the birth of characters like Fu Manchu, an evil Asian mastermind, Asians have been defined as “the other,” different, and almost threatening to white society. Meanwhile, Asian women have been written off as “exotic” beings, and given roles like “the dragon lady,” which is most commonly defined as a manipulative and cunning Asian woman. These old film stereotypes have been around seemingly forever, and are still present in the industry.
In modern media, all of these old stereotypes translate into pushing Asian Americans to the side in films or portraying them quite negatively, establishing them as separate from the lead characters or not worthy of having a story dedicated to themselves.
A recent film, Eric Stoltz’s Class Rank in 2017, references the Indian side characters in a stereotypical way, calling them the “Bollywood Crowd” and showing them as nerdy girls, sitting around with nothing to do but discuss the lead characters’ romance. Others films, for example Scott Derickson’s 2016 film, Doctor Strange, whitewash the leads. In this case, the movie erased the Asian background of The Ancient One, despite efforts to dissolve Asian stereotypes in the movie. Rupert Sanders’ 2017 film Ghost in the Shell, based on a Japanese manga, cast Scarlett Johansson in the lead role—originally meant for an Asian woman.
In many other films, such as various Marvel movies, The Spy Who Dumped Me, and Murder Mystery, Asians and Asian Americans are sidelined, stereotyped heavily, or made out to be a joke. For example, Hasan Minhaj’s character in The Spy Who Dumped Me, is an annoying background character and written mostly as comic relief at more than one point of the movie. Despite the enjoyable nature of many of these films, it’s hard to ignore how these roles negatively impact the Asian community.
These harmful portrayals perpetuate the idea that Asian Americans are somehow different and don’t belong in blockbusters’ starring roles. This is dangerous to continue because the general, non-Asian, public will be used to seeing Asian Americans in the background and continue to associate them as “the other.” This idea makes it seem as though Asian Americans have no stories to tell of their own, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Today, however, we are finally nearing a point in which Asian Americans can tell their own stories or be included in less stereotypical ways. The biggest recent film, with an all-Asian cast, was Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians in 2018. The story follows an Asian romance, has interesting lead characters, and well-developed side characters, all without perpetuating the same ancient stereotypes of other films.
Along with this movie, which inspired and touched many Asian Americans, came more like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Yesterday, Searching, Blinded by the Light, and Always Be My Maybe, and others. These films all have Asian Americans in leading roles, as well as a few Asian American side characters, showing the leads falling in love, following their dreams, or solving mysteries.
This almost makes me wonder what it would be like if Asian Americans were always on screen for an hour and forty minutes. It makes me look back on my younger self, one who grew up seeing white princesses and non-Asian action heroes, and wonder how a younger Asian American may feel going to see a film like Crazy Rich Asians today. This new era of film that is slowly approaching, one that lifts up Asian Americans rather than pushing them aside, gives me hope for a future in which Asian Americans can finally shine under the lights of Hollywood and inspire the younger generation watching.