“We believe what girls tell us, what the movies tell us – that we're not supposed to be leaders, we're not masculine and we're weak, all those things.”
--John Cho (a total hottie)
Asian representation in the media has, since the dawn of opportunity, been a subject of much strange taboo and misuse. At Geek Girl Con, three women – Meris Mullaley, JC Lau, and Kristine Hassell – got together to discuss the issues surrounding inclusion, representation, and fair treatment of the Asian and mixed-Asian face on the screen.
The panel opened with a quick rundown on the treatment of on-screen Asians in the past decades, starting with Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa, two prominent actors in the early 1900s who were denied honors of credit and co-racial casting. This was especially so in “The Good Earth”, where Anna May Wong was offered a background role for the lead roles being taken by two Caucasian actors. Hint: “The Good Earth” was about a Chinese farming village in China. The two who were given main roles wore “yellowface”, a term meaning prosthetics or makeup to make a non-Asian individual look like an Asian.
Sessue Hayakawa was as well treated poorly in the industry, and sick of roles where he was negatively sexualized or criminalized, he made way for Valentino to gain fame when he turned down a role during the peak of his acting career. Throughout the room as Hayakawa and Wong were discussed, there was a gradual realization that this was the beginning of a long history of struggle but slow progression.
And progression indeed. After discussing many more movies, even those dating into the present like “The Martian”, “The Last Airbender”, and “Dragonball Evolution”, the panelists began covering shows and titles that featured Asian actors like “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Mullaley mentioned briefly how the mixed Chinese actress on S.H.I.E.L.D. In fact portrayed a mixed Chinese woman – a big success to those of us on the lookout for not only representation at all, but correct, diverse Asian representation even within the minority that it already is in primetime media.
Midway through the panel, this infographic was shared. Of the primetime scripted TV shows investigated, only 6.6% of involved actors were Asian. And of those shows, there were nine which included Asians in their main and side casts – three with lead characters.
Some talk was also passed around regarding Asian presence in these TV shows. J.C. Lau noted that many of the primtime TV shows took place in New York City, notable for having an incredibly high population of Asians. Yet, the representation of Asians within those shows were so low. In a post-apocalyptic movie placed in San Francisco, as well densely populated with Asians, there was one background character of Asian descent. “Asians don't really seem to exist in the apocalypse,” Kristine Hassel noted.
“I think one of the things to take away is that we all watch media to escape,” Hassel noted later on, just as the panel was ending, “And not to have this mirror turned in on daily life which can be shitty. But to young people who can see themselves on screen and getting that validation and that impact, they're affected by what they see, like John Cho not knowing he's attractive or people not seeing themselves on screen. So seeing yourself on screen...how many little girls are going to say 'That's me!' and how awesome would it be?”
And it would be awesome indeed. In time and with much perseverance, Asians may not only be invited into more roles, but representation of Asians in media may finally diversify, complexify, and become ultimately what they're supposed to be – Correct.