Are Asians really not well represented onscreen?
Constance Wu is pretty damn awesome. I can’t remember a time when an Asian actor working in America spoke out about the industry the way she’s doing right now. She’s honest and passionate, and most importantly, she’s actually being heard. And we’re not just talking about re-tweets on Twitter, we’re talking about full interviews and features. What’s distinct about her presence in American media is that she refuses to be popularized because of stereotypes. Sure, one could argue that she’s only ‘famous’ because of her role as a stereotypical Asian on a stereotype-driven television show. But some would argue that Fresh Off the Boat is purely satirical and not stereotypical at all. While I’m not in full agreement with this sentiment, my argument is a different one. Fresh Off the Boat definitely plays to stereotypes no matter how to spin it, but she doesn’t play into that stereotype off camera.
I'm generalizing here, but I think it's safe to say that most Asian celebrities are pretty complacent when it comes to interviews with the Hollywood press. And I'm not judging them for that. When they're invited to a talk show or asked by reporters to promote their work, it's natural to do just that. Everyone in Hollywood - regardless of their ethnicity - does the same thing. But I suppose the situation is different with Asian celebrities because there is this unspoken angst about their representation in Hollywood. From as early as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, it's always been an issue. And now that Asian actors and directors are gaining more mainstream recognition, there's more opportunity for them to engage in this discussion, should they choose to do so.
And Constance Wu chooses to speak her honest mind while doing press junkets and promotional tours for Fresh Off the Boat, making her the 'it' girl on the subject. And while I agree with her for the most part, I'm also a bit hesitant to fully embrace her views. I'm hesitant because I feel as though Asians are represented well onscreen, you just have to shift your attention to Asian cinema. Now, a couple of points about myself. I'm Canadian, was born and raised here, and personally identify much more with Western culture than I do Asian culture. So that's where I agree with Constance Wu and her campaign for Asians getting better and more prominent roles within Hollywood films. Asians are living and immersed within North American culture, so it's important to see that reflected in the popular media as well.
But having said that, I personally just don't feel that there's a true lack of Asian representation in movies because I'm also fully immersed in Asian cinema. **for the purposes of keeping things simple, I'll just transition into a focus on movies and leave television for another day** If you actively watch and follow movies from Hong Kong, China, South Korea, etc., you'll have no problems agreeing that Asians have roles that are equivalent to any Hollywood A-list thespian. And as much as I feel the lacking of Asian representation in Hollywood, that feeling is eased by this whole other side of me that knows they are being represented well in Asia. Now, I understand we're kind of comparing apples to oranges here, and the cultural and geographical context is both important and relevant, but I do think there's value in making such a comparison. And if Asians living in North America were to embrace Asian cinema itself, I think they would agree with me.
Which brings me to one of my biggest vices in life - Asians (from North America, anyways) don't really care about Asian movies. It's a blanket statement that might not apply to everyone, but I think it'll ring true for many people reading this. I'll be upfront is stating that a majority of my friends are Asian (just a product of growing up in Scarborough), but very few of them keep up with Asian cinema. And again, I'm making a generalization here, but most of the younger Asian generation I know and meet nowadays is on that same boat. They're fully immersed in American cinema and television, but put little stock in the film industries out east. Sure, access might be a problem sometimes, but isn't so much of an issue today with the onset of the internet and certain film distributors working in the North American market (ie. Well Go USA). Asian film festivals running at most major cities are also another avenue into the foreign movie market.
So the bottom line is, if you're making an argument that Asians aren't being represented well in the North American media culture (with movies and television being a major driving force behind this), then I think you're absolutely right. But if you're saying Asians aren't being well represented in movies and television in general, referring solely to the medium and art form itself, I would say that you are dead wrong. They are, and most Asians growing up in North America simply ignore what's out there. Now, this is all from the perspective of a viewer, and I understand that as an actor, it's different. Having not grown up in Asia, there might be a major language barrier when it comes to finding work out East. So the struggle that actors like Constance Wu go through is a whole different can of worms. And yes, the idea of not being equally represented onscreen for them is quite real. But as a general audience member, you don't have that issue! Get used to reading subtitles if you have to, and start watching Asian movies.