“The Great Wall,” a Hollywood blockbuster set in ancient China, was released last week, and Asian-Americans rejoiced at finally seeing their representation on the big screen. While there was no shortage of strong Chinese warriors charging into battle, it was Matt Damon who emerged as the hero. Apparently, within the fictional universe of “The Great Wall,” all of the nation’s greatest were not enough to save the day. China had its pick of Chinese generals, soldiers, warriors, and monks, but ultimately, it chose a single European mercenary to save them from destruction.
The director of the movie, Zhang Yimou, insisted the movie supported Asian diversity in Hollywood by spotlighting Chinese culture and actors. “For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience,” says Yimou. The use of Damon as the movie’s protagonist was an effort to attract Western audiences who might otherwise be uninterested in a movie about Asian countries. This, however, further supports the argument that the white savior narrative is deeply engrained in the film industry, that the use of a white male protagonists is more authentic, more interesting, and very necessary to create a successful Hollywood blockbuster. While Yimou’s effort to promote Asian culture in Western audiences is commendable, the fact that a white character was intentionally written to represent Chinese culture is troubling. All the movie shows is the fact that millions upon millions of Asians are no match for a single white man.
This troubling movie is by no means an isolated case; all over Hollywood, Asian actors are being told they are not capable of carrying a movie on their own. As typified by “The Great Wall,” they are appropriate as a supporting cast, but not as main characters. They provide great background imagery, but at the end of the day, a movie still needs someone like Damon to pull the narrative together. Although Asian-Americans make up 5.8 percent of the US’s population, they are given less than one percent of speaking roles in Hollywood. This is by no fault of Asian actors. Writers and directors are simply not creating lead roles for Asians.
Even worse, the few characters written as Asians are often stripped of their Asian identity. To make them more palatable to a Western audience, writers will make Asian characters as white as possible. For example, Asian characters rarely retain their Asian names. Starting with coming and going extras in shows even as diverse as “Grey’s Anatomy,” we see many Asian patients come in to be examined. But instead of recognizably Asian names, these characters are christened Peterson, Grant, and Dreyfuss. John Cho was cast as Andy Brooks in “Sleepy Hollow.” Hettienne Park was cast as Beverly Katz in “Hannibal.” In a rare moment of insight, Aziz Ansari’s character Tom Haverford in “Parks and Recreation” acknowledges the problematic whitewashing. In the second episode of Season 2, Haverford reveals, “My birth name is Darwish Zubair Ismail Gani. Then I changed it to Tom Haverford, because you know, brown guys with funny-sounding Muslim names don’t make it far into politics.” It seems that the same is true in Hollywood.
In addition, white filmmakers tailor Asian characters for a white audience by packaging them into stereotypes. If they are not whitewashed, they are relegated to immediately identifiable tropes: the martial artists, the social outcast, the STEM nerd. The limited range for these strikingly similar roles for Asians also allows entertainment platforms to pigeonhole Asians. There are countless numbers of television shows and movies that typecast a single Asian character to represent his or her entire race, and this character is often portrayed in a one-sided, if not derogatory nature. This influences the way that adults, teenagers, and even children view people of that race, prompting them to make assumptions that are often negative.
While movie representation may not seem like a pressing issue, the portrayal of Asians as second-class characters in movies is reflective of and contributes to the subordination of Asians in real life. These movies imply that only a white character can achieve the greatest positions within a hierarchy, while creating implications that promote the incompetence of Asians when compared to their white counterparts.
To us, such limited Asian portrayal in Hollywood suggests that Asian identity is not worth representing unless it is overly simplified and in the context of a predominantly white society. Actors and actresses in Hollywood play an important part in shaping everyone — especially children — and their perspectives. Asians need accurate and respectful depictions in the media. If we continue to oppress and smother strong representations of Asian character and Asian culture in films, Asians in real life will continue to be misconstrued as stereotypes, not individuals.
Senna Hahn is a Junior from North Grafton, Mass. Kaitlin Lim is a Junior from Torrance, Calif.