Side Eye from the Sideline
When you think of Asian and Asian American celebrities in television and film, who do you think of? Jackie Chan? Bruce Lee? Lucy Liu?
This pool is limited in both quantity and scope. There aren’t very many famous Asian American actors, and those who exist are consistently relegated to roles that are sidelined, demeaning, and/or stereotype-enforcing. This skewed form of representation is nothing new. Throughout history, Asian Americans have been stereotyped in racialized and gendered ways. Asian American women are either the conniving, manipulative Dragon Lady or the sensual and hypersexualized China Doll waiting for the White man to whisk her off to a better life, while Asian American men are emasculated and cast as asexual sidekicks. Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee both became popular because of their martial arts prowess; Lucy Liu often fills the role of the sexy sidekick, but rarely the star. These sorts of roles have barely changed over the years, and most roles available for Asian American actors have relied upon these stereotypes. Furthermore, they represent only specific ethnic groups within Asian America, specifically East Asians. South Asians are frequently excluded from dominant narratives of Asian America and are not represented alongside East Asians in media that supposedly features Asian Americans. Within this narrow scope of representation, Asian America is misrepresented and distorted. For individuals who grow up Asian American in the US, identity development is easily stunted as the messages from the media contradict their lived experiences. The media’s caricatures of Asian Americans thus create more confusion than clarity.
This pattern is a problem. In only portraying Asian Americans in certain racialized and gendered roles, Hollywood plays a part in reinforcing stereotypes about Asian Americans. This in turn influences everyday perceptions of Asian Americans among all racial groups, but especially within the ways Asian Americans perceive themselves. What does it mean when there is such a limited group of Asian Americans in media and, furthermore, that they are constantly playing the same types of roles?
One of the authors of this article remembers how the cafeteria workers at her elementary school chose to ignore her name displayed on the cash register each day and instead called her Lucy Liu. At the time, it seemed to be an honor to be equated to Lucy Liu, the beautiful and underrated character in Charlie’s Angels. This same author, inspired by Mulan—the only Disney character whose physical characteristics resembled her own—decided to cut her own hair (mirroring the scene in the movie) in the hopes that she would become as brave and respected as Mulan. She ended up with a disgruntled mother and a yearlong bowl cut. However, shared physical features and surface-level associations did nothing to elucidate or guide the construction of Asian American identity. With so few examples, the author idolized these characters, heralding them as what she should strive to be. The subsequent years spent trying to live up to and “earn” the superficial greatness attached to these names were detrimental in creating only a shell of a perceived identity, whose foundation for its characterizations was built upon stereotypes. Though she did grow up to become less dependent on media representations of Asian Americans for her own identity development, the impact and influence of Hollywood was undeniable.
Even now, as people are raising their voices about this issue more often, and media representation is slowly changing, we (the authors of this article) as Asian Americans often feel disconnected from or not represented in media that supposedly portrays our race or our culture .
Disney recently announced that it will be releasing a live action remake of Mulan. This announcement has garnered excitement among fans of the movie and speculation about who will play each role. A recent Buzzfeed article titled “Here’s Our Dream Cast for Disney’s Live Action ‘Mulan’” is currently a top post, boasting over 820,000 views and the “FAVE” and “YASSS” stickers. The article enumerates who the author thinks should play each role, ranging from Constance Wu as Mulan to Tzi Ma as the Emperor. But the article’s tone and rationale for its choices are troubling. Authors Sam Stryker and Matt Ortile, both white men, justify their choices with descriptors such as “bae,”, “homegirl,”, and “everyone’s fav.” The subsequent tone seems to reduce these actors to puppets with personality, closing the article with, “Did we nail it? Or do we deserve all the dishonor in the world?” Though the article may have been meant to be fun, it turns the roles into a farce and comes off as condescending. This feels tokenizing and exploitative.
Why do we feel so uncomfortable with this “dream casting”? It feels like these choices of actors are not our own. And this feeling is not just because they are celebrities who don’t inhabit our world; it is also racialized. It seems unlikely that Stryker and Ortile would call Nicole Kidman or other respected white actors “bae” or “homegirl”, so the fact that they choose to address Asian American actors this way is unsettling.
This discomfort comes on top of the fact that Mulan as a movie puts forth problematic representations of Chinese people and culture. The dragon Mushu constantly references Chinese food (really, Americanized Chinese food) as part of his schtick, while the Emperor plays the role of the wise man spouting Chinese proverbs. The aesthetic is filled with lanterns and exaggerated Chinese dancing. What message is Disney trying to portray? Are these few elements sufficient to represent an entire Chinese history and culture to the outside viewer population?
But maybe we should just be excited (or thankful ?) that there is going to be a live action Mulan remake. It represents opportunities for a lot of Asian actors to be featured in a film—not just as an exoticized , Orientalist backdrop for a story about a white character, such as the recent Netflix series “Marco Polo”, but a story centered on Chinese characters. Considering the frequency with which Asian people are cast as sidekicks and supporting roles, this remake has potential.
Similarly, the new ABC show “Fresh off the Boat” is heralded by some as finally being a true representation of Asian American experiences on mainstream television, but criticized by others for its reliance on tropes and stereotypes. In thinking about this show, we would like to think about its intended audience. Although this show is a representation of one family’s Asian American experience, does it find its success and an accompanying audience in white viewers at the expense of other Asian Americans? Or is it meant to be relatable to Asian Americans? These are questions we don’t have answers for, but make us feel uncertain about what the role of this media should be in relating back to our own lives.
Writing this article was difficult at times because we weren’t sure how to be critical of media that supposedly features people who look like us. We weren’t sure if we were even allowed to be critical. That we still felt conflicted about whether we should critique the existing Asian American representation in media, that there isn’t necessarily an expectation for something better⎯something more genuine and accurate—reflects a lot about the impact of this oppressive pattern in media. Critical examination of how often Asian American stories are silenced in favor of more familiar and more “comfortable” or “palatable” stereotypical narratives reveals a dangerous pattern of downplaying the lived experiences of an entire group of people, sometimes to the point of invisibility. Starting the conversation about the evident disparity in Asian American portrayal in media is a first step, but we deserve more than just being grateful to see ourselves on the screen; we deserve to be heard.