Time for Hollywood to do away with Asian stereotypes and underrepresentation

Image supplied by: Nahira Gerster-Sim

Asian voices are minimized and silenced in mainstream media.

In 2018, Crazy Rich Asians appeared in movie theatres. The film scored 91 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and was the first major motion picture to feature a mostly Asian cast since the 1993 film The Joy Luck Club.

Over-the-top extravagant lifestyles and quirky behaviours of the old-money Singaporean family drew hundreds of thousands of viewers to the cinema, entertained by a wedding story and the dysfunctional drama of the Asian 0.1 per cent.

Asian protagonists—let alone all-Asian casts—are few and far between in the media and entertainment scene. The year before Crazy Rich Asians was released, only four of the highest earning films featured Asian protagonists. Across all the top-grossing movies between 2007 and 2019, of over 50,000 speaking characters, only 5.9 per cent were of Asian American or Pacific Island descent.

This underrepresentation extends beyond Hollywood films. In Canada, Asians constitute less than 10 per cent of actors in the five principle broadcasting programs.

As an Asian immigrant and adoptee from China, I often struggle with a conflicting sense of identity and uncertainty of how I relate to my surroundings—and I know many others do too.

While Asian culture is rich with history and tradition, many customs are contradictory to Western societal norms. From the food that’s served, to the expectations of how children and elders interact, it seems Asian and Western convention differ in most respects.

It shouldn’t be difficult to honour both cultures in my life. Growing up with a Caucasian mom and an Asian dad, I’ve experienced the best of both worlds. But without role models in the magazines I read or the shows I watch, it sometimes feels challenging to appreciate all the aspects my Asian side has to offer.

While there’s been tremendous progress, Asians have typically been cast as caricatures or stereotypes in film and TV. In the fan favourite Gilmore Girls, Mrs. Kim was portrayed as the obnoxious Korean misfit of Stars Hollow, forcing her daughter to habitually lie to blend in with her peers and have a normal teenage life.

Crazy Rich Asians had a commendable balance in its portrayal of Asian characters. While it included a strict and unrelenting Asian mom, there were many other down-to-earth individuals.

The stereotypes typically portrayed in Asian characters aren’t entirely inaccurate—I can attest to their accuracy based on the many family functions I’ve attended—but reducing our culture to these often-unlikeable characters is degrading.

It’s important not to typecast Asian actors, not to reserve their roles for comedic plot devices defined by an accent and over-the-top mannerisms. It’s time to integrate Asian characters seamlessly into stories without exaggerating their cultural peculiarities.

Rather than a movie about “crazy” affluent Asians, have us be your friendly next-door neighbour, best friend, or secret crush. Maybe even a main character.

I’d definitely watch that.

Nahira is a third-year global development student and The Journal’s Opinions Editor.


AAPI, Film, representation, TV

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