Being an Asian in American Film Ain’t Easy

“When was the last time you saw an Asian play a lead role in an American movie?”

To gather information for the pilot episode of our podcast, “Identity Crisis”, I asked this probing question to students on campus last week. Unsurprisingly, most harkened back to actress Michelle Yeoh’s outstanding performance in the 2022 film “Everything Everywhere All at Once”. The film’s historic success at the 2023 Oscars was one of the clear highlights of the year, especially for Asian Americans who have endured pandemic-induced anti-Asian hate. While we should indubitably celebrate and look forward to a brighter future for Asians in American film, it’s just as imperative that we confront the harrowing history of Asian representation, too. One cannot fully appreciate how momentous Yeoh and Key Huy Quan’s Oscar wins are for the Asian American community without acknowledging the hardships that Asian actors and actresses have faced throughout the last century. More importantly, understanding how Asian representation in the media has evolved can help us find how to preserve the inspiring legacy that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has left in Hollywood. 

Historically, American filmmakers and directors have been skeptical about starring Asians at all; some of the most jarring depictions of Asians in American films have resulted from the use of yellowface. White actors and actresses would often portray stereotypical Asian characters through “Oriental” clothing, facial features, hairstyles, and mannerisms. A striking example of the use of yellowface appeared in the 1939 mystery film “Charlie Chan in Honolulu”: the main character, Charlie Chan, was played by Sidney Toler, a white man. With highly-raised eyebrows and slanted eyes, Toler’s character wholly embodied the quintessential “Oriental look.” Chan’s absurdly choppy speaking tone, alongside his excessively stiff mannerisms and countenance, only reaffirmed degrading stereotypes. 

This concept of false representation isn’t a thing of the past, though. A more recent example arose in the 2017 thriller “Ghost in the Shell”. Scarlett Johansson was controversially cast in the Japanese lead role as Motoko Kusanagi because she was ironically seen as the best “fit.” Sporting a head of short, wispy hair and a ghostly pale complexion, Johansson’s appearance was clearly manipulated to seem more “Japanese.” 

While the humiliating white castings in “Charlie Chan in Honolulu and Ghost in the Shell” have generated indignation among Asian audiences, the use of yellowface has also implicitly perpetuated the pernicious notion that Asians are inferior and less human. In taking extraordinary measures to make white actors and actresses seem “Asian” while denying ethnic Asians the right to play Asian characters, Hollywood has dismissed Asian talent. Furthermore, these measures are taken to such an extreme that the characters often end up looking alien and acting robotic, disconnecting any threads of relatability between the character and the audience. Consequently, when Asian audiences view films incorporating yellowface, there’s a ubiquitous sentiment: “That isn’t me.” By stripping away humanity and misrepresenting Asians, yellowface effectively reinforces Asian invisibility. 

Even when Asian actors could star in a role, their characters were still often dehumanized, and the actors themselves often felt claustrophobic in their own roles. Throughout the 20th century, actress Anna May Wong played many degrading “Oriental” roles such as the character Lotus Flower in the 1922 film “Toll of the Sea”. Also, actor Bruce Lee never played a romantic lead and was rarely more than a supporting martial arts virtuoso. The depictions of Wong and Lee on screen contributed to the dehumanization of Asians in American films — Wong was objectified and often portrayed as subservient, while Lee displayed little emotion and intense discipline. A relatively more recent illuminating example of Asians being restricted in their roles is Margaret Cho’s experience as the star of the failed TV show “All-American Girl”. According to Cho, the show was too carried away with representing Asian America, and the cast consequently “never really had the chance to find out who [they] were as characters.” Moreover, Cho stated that there was paranoia around the question of “[a]re they Asian enough” on set. Cho’s account suggests that the show’s intense focus on highlighting Asian authenticity actually made her feel more confined within her own role. To her, the portrayal of her Asian identity was seen as a marketing ploy rather than something she had artistic control over.

To remedy these long-standing issues of Asian misrepresentation in American film, we believe that Asian actors and actresses should have more agency over their own roles. Instead of white American directors deciding how Asian Americans’ Asian and American identities are depicted on screen, the actors and actresses themselves should choose based on how they feel about their own identities. This way, we can permeate empathy in a frequently cutthroat industry and empower Asian actors and actresses to pursue their individuality. After all, the use of yellowface and experiences like Margaret Cho’s reveal the utter domination that white people have had over something as personal as Asian identity. We also believe Hollywood would greatly benefit from “narrative plenitude,” a proposal by novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. In the film industry, having narrative plentitude entails displaying a gamut of Asian experiences. Even generally well-received contemporary films like “Crazy Rich Asians” still stir up controversy among the Asian American community — the film was criticized for misrepresenting the less wealthy people of Singapore. With a multitude of films featuring Asians, one film won’t possess the burden of being the sole beacon of Asian representation. 

Unfortunately, narrative plenitude is hard to achieve when Asian actors and actresses are still in the minority. Nevertheless, considering the magnitude of impact that films like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” have had on the Asian American community and the film industry, we are confident that we will see more Asian representation on screen in the near future. 

The episode is posted on my SoundCloud: