Asian Americans in Hollywood

Will we ever get the representation we deserve?


Photo courtesy of Todd Heisler

From left: Daniel Dae Kim, Aziz Ansari, Constance Wu and BD Wong are among the selected few that are lucky enough to make it in the entertainment industry.

Since the first movies and television programs were revealed to the American people, intentional diversity has not been a factor in the casting process. According to a University of Southern California study, Asians made up just 4.4 percent of speaking characters across last year’s top 100 grossing movies. It has been 20 years since a show with a predominantly Asian-American cast had aired on television (New York Times).

Mickey Rooney mocks Asian Americans by using yellow face to portray a Japanese man.
Photo courtesy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Mickey Rooney mocks Asian Americans by using yellow face to portray a Japanese man.

Whitewashing and racism have become frequent motifs in American society, and it is reflected in our entertainment. In 1961, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released, and it became an “American Classic.” However, instead of casting an Asian man for the role of Mr. Yunioshi, they chose Mickey Rooney, a white man. In this film, Mick Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese man is extremely racist; he essentially uses yellow-face to act and look stereotypically “Asian.”

People can argue that this movie was created several decades ago, and that racism and discrimination was much worse back then than it is now. However, racism is still extremely prevalent in current films. Doctor Strange, set to arrive in theaters late on this year, casted Tilda Swinton, a white woman, as a Tibetan monk. This casting decision sparked outrage within the Asian community because an Asian was supposed to be casted for that role, like in the comics.

Another example would be the movie The Great Wall. The setting of the movie is based in ancient China. It is common sense to cast an all Asian cast for this movie to satisfy historical accuracy; however, the directors chose Matt Damon as the main character.  He “plays a warrior defending the landmark against ancient Chinese monsters” (CNN). Constance Wu, star of Fresh off the Boat, also expressed her strong opinions regarding the cast of this movie on her Twitter. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,” she wrote.

Since Asian Americans only occupy 5.8 percent of the United States population, it is understandable why so little roles are given to them (Pew Research Center). However, it doesn’t make sense when roles that are obviously meant for Asians are played by white people. Society has already implemented this idea that white people are superior to people of color. So naturally, all the lead roles are given to white actors. Asian Americans do not usually get speaking roles in Hollywood, but when they do, it’s as a stereotype.

Society needs to get rid of the “math genius” and “nerdy gamer” stereotype for Asians so they can actually obtain lead roles in movies and TV shows. John Cho, a Korean American actor, says that “maybe we need to get more pissed” (Fast Co Create). We need to stand up and protest for equal representation in not just in Hollywood, but in society too. It’s sad that young Asian American children do not have a large selection of idols they can relate to on TV.  Luckily, shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken are relatable to Asian American families. These shows allow for young Asian Americans to be inspired and pursue the entertainment industry too.

Chloe Bennet is the main character of the show "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." where she plays Daisy Johnson, an Asian American superhero.
Photo courtesy of ABC
Chloe Bennet is the main character of the show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. where she plays Daisy Johnson, an Asian American superhero.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a great example of the  evolving entertainment industry. Chloe Bennet plays the main character who happens to be both female and Asian-American. Ashley Bui-Tran (10) is a very big fan of this show. “I like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. because it has a diverse cast,” she says. “It showcases that anybody from any race has potential to make it in the exclusive industry of Hollywood.”

However, Chloe had to change her last name from “Wang” to “Bennet” in order to be noticed by casting directors. “The first audition I went on after I changed my name, I got booked,” she said (The Daily Beast). This is due to the discrimination towards Asian American actors. It’s almost as if being Asian is a Hollywood handicap that doesn’t allow someone to have the same opportunities as white actors because of the way we look.

America has taken huge steps towards diversity compared to the past, but until the entertainment industry intentionally allows for people of color to star as lead roles in movies, American society will never be able to achieve the equality we so desperately need.