I had to stifle a mirthful laugh last year when the movie "Aloha" was released amidst outraged criticisms of its casting. Critics griped at the lack of Asian main characters in the film despite the fact that it was set in Hawaii (a place swarming with East and South East Asians), but the main issue concerned the casting of Emma Stone - a blue-eyed and occasionally, blonde red-headed Caucasian woman - in the role of a mixed-race Asian woman.
Naturally, I understand the sentiments - Asian-American actors are discriminated against in film and television (although this past year has seen a significant improvement) in that so many Asian roles are implicitly racially demeaning, Asians have been largely absent from lead roles, and, of course, some roles are whitewashed. The favourite argument given for this state of affairs is that Asians actors (particularly men) cannot carry a lead role and bring in major returns, or that there simply are no well-known Asian-american actors who can carry these roles - of course, not being given opportunities may contribute to the fact that there so few well-known and bankable Asian actors.
Yet, I could not help but wonder if the actions of some Asian-Americans in the industry might be damaging the credibility of these complaints aimed at white film makers. The reason I say this is that some Asian-American film-makers are doing a piss-poor job of doing the very thing that they demand of white film-makers. Of course, I am speaking specifically about Asian-American female film-makers whose record when it comes to diversity considerations may actually be far, far, far worse than that of white film-makers.
As I wrote in a previous post - here - a study of largely independent films made by Asian-Americans (both male and female) reveals that whilst Asian male film-makers create content that provides significant opportunities for Asian female actors to gain experience and showcase their talents in lead roles, Asian female film-makers do the exact opposite. I found in my study that Asian female film-makers follow the same standards of discrimination of white film-makers - Asian men are largely non-existent in lead or romantic roles (an important point since many of themes of their movies are of a romantic nature), and are thus not afforded opportunities even by their own community to showcase their acting abilities and hone their acting skills.
Even worse, although white film-makers have a poor track-record when it comes to providing non-demeaning roles to Asian men, I found that in cases where white film-makers created serious content about Asians, they provided more opportunities for Asian male actors than Asian female film-makers. Hence, my laughter about the "outrageous" crime of Cameron Crowe in giving the role to Stone instead of an Asian woman.
In short, it is hard to take such complaints seriously when Asian female film-makers adopt the same approach to their craft as the racist white male dominated mainstream in which white men are afforded starring roles whilst minorities are somewhat relegated to the periphery. Furthermore, there seems to be little meaningful pressure within the Asian-American community to change this proclivity to uphold white racist practices in the film industry amongst Asian female film-makers.
I don't see it as unreasonable to expect Asian-American film-makers - many of whom seem aware of the discrimination faced by Asians performers - to do their utmost to provide the platform that would give Asian actors (of both sexes) the opportunity to showcase their talents. If we don't offer that to our community, then who will? Most importantly, if Asian female film-makers have no problem with maintaining the racist status quo, then how can we demand that white film-makers use more diverse casting? Why are they obliged to cast Asian leads when Asian female film-makers feel perfectly justified in imitating this discrimination in their own projects? It naturally follows that white film-makers have no obligation to make their casting practices more diverse - particularly when it comes to casting Asian-Americans.
What has become apparent to me is that there may be a fundamental difference between the genders in Asian-America on what they want from the film industry - Asian men seem to want to see an improvement in representation for both Asian men and women so that neither are demeaned or discriminated against. Asian women in the industry seem more interested in maintaining the status quo.
Equally problematic is the silence of Asian-American actors and others in the industry who participate in projects - both in front and behind the camera - that contain racially dehumanizing content. Two recent shows come to mind here; Make It Pop, and Dads.
Make It Pop garnered considerable controversy when its producer apparently exclaimed during a boardroom meeting that having Asian guys on his show was "not gonna happen" even though the show is inspired by K-Pop, and half of K-Pop artists are Korean men whose predominantly non-Asian female fans drive the industry's success. The show has three Asian-American female leads, and Asian males in supporting roles, but no leads as such. The show "Dads" was met even more hostility as it seemed to set out to racially provoke minority audiences. Although it was criticized for its general insensitivity to race, Asian-Americans objected to the show for its racialized sexism and its demeaning jokes on Asian men's penis sizes.
I have come to expect the white media to propagate demeaning and dehumanizing stereotypes and depictions of Asians, but it is the reaction of the Asians involved in these shows that disappointed. As far as I know, not a single one of the actors involved in these two projects opted to make a stand against the racism in their productions. Worse still, they ignored or defended their shows and their participation in them.
Speaking about the criticisms of her show, Make It Pop lead Megan Lee had this to say....
As for the Asian male lead, I heard some things about that and some people kind of misunderstood and got slightly offended. We do have Asian male characters in the show, I want to make that clear, we might not have an Asian male lead, but that was not specifically cleared out that way. We're not trying to exclude Asian males in any way. The casting kind of went that way. It was an open-ethnicity casting call. It was not even meant to be three Asian female leads either. It was all open ethnicities and, from what I've heard, whoever portrayed the role right got the part. It's not specifically "This is a Caucasian role, this is an Asian role, this is a whatever role."To paraphrase, Lee pleads ignorance - she only "heard" some things about the producer refusing to entertain the idea of an Asian male lead - and then outright contradicts the straightforward statement of the show's producer when he said he would never have an Asian male in the show. That's quite a remarkable set of comments considering that on the one hand Lee claims to have only "heard some things about that", yet she is able to make specific claims about about the casting process. In short, Lee's defence/explanation of the producer's racist comments seemed like mere dismissive excuse-making.
Seth Macfarlane's "Dads" presents those Asians involved in the project with a far more significant problem. The show was overtly and unapologetically racially provocative - not provocative in any positive sense, but only in an ignorant, childish way. Two issues in particular raised concerns amongst Asian-Americans: firstly, an Asian-female lead, Brenda Song, was deemed to have been racially stereotyped and hypersexualized by being made to wear a "Japanese school-girl" outfit; secondly, Song's race became a running joke throughout the series, and, of course, the infamous gratuitous scene in which Asian men were sexually denigrated
It is worth noting at this point, that this kind of sexual denigration is not only racially dehumanizing, it is actually sexist. This is a remarkable phenomenon that rarely gets noticed; Asian men are regularly the object of sexist denigration in American culture and are subject to a sexual mockery that would not be accepted if it was applied to women of any race. This fact alone should warrant some serious discussion, but the fact that none of the Asian actors (not just the two Asian female leads - Song and Vanessa Lachey - but also the Asian men who had bit parts in the series) spoke up about either the racial jokes about Song, nor the racialized sexism directed at Asian men.
I've said it before, but it apparently needs to be said again - Asian-American efforts to end discrimination against Asian actors and racially demeaning stereotypes are pointless unless Asian-Americans in the industry draw a line in the sand and refuse to participate in these kinds of projects. It's not an unreasonable suggestion - Native-American actors walked off the set of an Adam Sandler movie recently complaining of racially denigrating depictions of their characters.
So why do Asian-American actors continue to legitimize these racist projects not only with their continued participation but also with their lack of condemnation? Doesn't it make sense that if Asians consistently refuse demeaning roles that the industry would stop creating them? Wouldn't it have sent the strongest message to the industry if Song, Lachey, and the other Asian bit part actors had simply refused to be racially demeaned and had chosen instead to simply walk off set? If they don't advocate for better depictions for themselves and others, then why should the industry bother changing?
Sadly, Lachey seemed to make no comment on the issue at all, whilst Song actually defended the show's casual racism. Talking to Audrey magazine, she had this to say....
“With the controversy, I found it interesting,” says Song. “People took a 30-second bit and, in my eyes, blew it out of proportion. Our show isn’t for everyone; that’s why I was so attracted to the character of Veronica. On a show like that, we’re able to poke fun at stereotypes. It’s empowering to get ahead of the joke......Something I might find funny, my dad may not find funny,” she adds. “But we’re not out to please everyone.”The problem here is that Song has actually defended every racially demeaning stereotype ever produced by the white racist media as though somehow, it is the duration of the racism that gives it its dehumanizing power. In fact, it is certainly not one single brief racist scene that is the problem, it is the fact that there exist a multitude of such brief media moments that together amount to a cultural norm. Stereotypes and demeaning slurs are designed to be a kind of shorthand dehumanization, a condensation of profound philosophical racism into a single word or idea that expresses the most fundamental idea of racist thinking; that non-whites are lesser beings and not worthy of consideration as individuals.
It is the brevity of such stereotypical depictions that prove the pervasiveness of the racist thinking they have distilled. The ideas expressed are common and widespread - they wouldn't have meant anything to anyone if the ideas being expressed were vague and not widely known and it only takes a brief moment of airtime to remind audiences of a wealth of racist ideas and beliefs.
Yet, Asian actors - as Song does later in the same interview - continue to wonder why they cannot get better roles. I would say that if they continue to help create the demand for demeaning roles by participating and then defending them, then producers will be unlikely to be motivated to change their attitudes.
If Asian-Americans want to overcome media racism (both in its portrayal of Asians and its discriminatory casting habits), we have to hope that those Asians already in the industry stop defending demeaning depictions. Most importantly, we have to hope that female Asian-American film makers stop adopting white racist practices when it comes to casting otherwise they continue to undermine the demand for diversity and equality in film and television.