In the past couple of months, the hashtag #StopAsianHate has been trending consistently on the internet. The spark of the event was ignited due to the increasing crime rate against Asians on American soil and the recent vicious attack on the elder Asian community in some of the cities. One of the reasons for the rocketing crime rate is due to the former president, Donald Trump, dubbing the COVID-19 virus as something racially insensitive such as the “Kung flu” or “the Chinese virus”, which leads some citizens to believe that it is the Asian’s fault to blame for their scrapped holiday, decreasing job opportunities, and the painfully long nationwide lockdown.
Though, if we were to look back, the discrimination against the Asian community has been something that always been there, but usually overlooked and never been acknowledged upon. The hate crime at issue does not have to be a brutal beating, but it can also be something as little as a misrepresentation and stereotyping that has been presented in several media. Since the start of the twentieth century right up to the present time, Asians in the Hollywood industry and films have been subjected to under-representation, and sometimes when we finally get the representation we think we deserve, our portrayals are presented with unfair stereotyping. In this article, we have picked some of the films that presented offensive Asian stereotypes that we have endured over the era, the reasoning behind the event and the consequences that follow the stereotypes presented that may cause a harmful effect on the Asian community. With a bonus series of films that did a great job presenting a fair representation of Asians.
Bad: Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
The classic 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is one of the most well-known romance-comedy movies ever. Starring Hollywood’s sweetheart at that very moment, Audrey Hepburn, as the main character. But even with all the glitz and glamour of the movie itself or that famous beautifully-made black satin Givenchy dress could not hide Mick Rooney’s racially inappropriate performance as Mr. Yunioshi in the said film. The depiction of Holly Golightly’s landlord and exasperated upstairs neighbor is the reflection of anti-Asian racism following the World War II event as it displays racist stereotypes toward Japanese people with all the Engrish speaking, exaggeratedly slanted eyes, thick glasses, and clumsy behavior. And to make matters worse, the character is played by a white American actor donning a yellow face. It is widely confirmed that characters of color in 1960s Hollywood films were usually played by white actors in order to increase media consumption due to the belief that whiteness is more acceptable and is the default race.
Bad: Lana Condor as Lara-Jean Covey in “To All The Boys I Loved Before”
Next on our list of problematic Asian representations is also a film, a trilogy film to be precise, in the romance-comedy genre. Though compared to the one above, this one is way less controversial, but still, perplexing nonetheless. This time the problem did not lie in the Lara-Jean character, but rather the casting (or miscasting). Lara Jean Song Covey is the main protagonist of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy, a daughter of Daniel Covey and Eve Song which supposedly makes the character a half Korean and half Caucasian young woman. But somehow the casting director decided to cast a Vietnamese-American as a half Korean character… and it makes me feel even sadder when the movie has a lot of Korean cultures and representation in it that should have been represented by a Korean actress. It is not like that Hollywood lacks the actress of Korean Ethnicity or anything, but it is still a mystery why they did not accurately cast the character. Hollywood seems to have this habit of indiscriminately casting an Asian actor in any Asian role. Even though Asia is made up of plenty of nations, each with their own culture and traditions, this perpetuates the misconception that Asia is a monolith of interchangeable cultures. This problem seems to be carried out in real life too. When you introduce yourself that you’re Asian, some people automatically assume that you’re from China and start greeting you with ‘Ni Hao’…
Good: Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu in ‘The Half of It’
‘The Half of It’ is a 2020 American coming-of-age comedy-drama film directed by Alice Wu, a director of ‘Saving Face’ (2004); a first Hollywood movie that centered on Chinese-Americans since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. The storylines of both Wu’s movies focused around immigrant mother-daughter relationships and closeted Chinese-American lesbian love. The film is about Ellie Chu, an introverted high school girl who helps the school’s bumbling jock to win the popular girl’s affections through love letters, and later realized that she’s also falling for her too. The film may have been good on its own for just having a Chinese American protagonist at the core of an otherwise familiar coming-of-age drama, but issues of LGBTQ sexuality, race, and religion throw the story into an unexpected mix. The film also explores the relationship of Ellie and her immigrant single-father, who still have to watch old movies at night to improve his English. It really did a great job presenting the struggles of immigrants.
Bad: Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin in “Tomorrow Never Dies”
A 1997 version of a spy film series “James Bond” British secret service agent also known by the code number 007, featured Pierce Brosnan as the fictional MI6 agent named James Bond, the 2nd James Bond actor. The story follows Bond as he attempts to stop Elliot Carver, a power-mad media mogul, from causing a war between China and the UK in order to obtain exclusive global media coverage to initiate World War III. Another recruited character is Wai-Lin, played by Michelle Yeoh, a spy for the Ministry of State Security of the People’s Republic of China. She would later be a part of Bond’s ally and become his lover at the end.
In the film, the Wai-Lin character is not only have been miscast (the character supposed to be a Chinese woman played by a Malaysian actress) but also viewed as problematic with the colonialist and imperialist perspective that Asian women were seen as exotic beings. For instance, the way her character dressed clearly demonstrated the “difference” from the Western. Wai-Lin doesn’t quite blend in at a gala with her high-collared dress as compared to the white guests, and it’s also form-fitting and revealing a typical Chinese dress that has been changed to fit the lens of sexualized renditions of the Western male gaze, as seen in the ballroom scene. Wai-Lin character also fits the Dragon Lady trope that stereotyping certain East Asian as strong but deceitful, bossy, mysterious, and sexually seductive which greatly affect Asian women in real life
Good: Riz Ahmed as Ruben in “Sound of Metal”
Sound of Metal is a 2019 American drama film directed and co-written by Darius Marder. The film is about Ruben, an American rock drummer with a recovering addict, who loses his hearing unexpectedly, disrupting his work schedule and personal life, making people prompt to try to convince him to join a group to learn how to deal with his imperfections. The film explores a variety of viewpoints, including disability existentialism and the Christian view of individuality. The focus of this film is not on something specifically related to Asian culture or history, but the lead character played by Riz Ahmed, a British Pakistani actor who played a character that didn’t show its character ethnicity which nearby roles are mostly reserved for white actors in the film. This makes another representative that South Asian or Asians actors could also be the main lead in a movie that does not necessarily have an Asian background storyline, only related to Asian stories or two-dimensional stereotypes. Making this film is another reflection of South Asian representation, as well as a separation between an actor’s ethnicity and the quality of roles they are given.
Bad: Constance Wu as Rachel Chu in “Crazy Rich Asians”
Crazy Rich Asians is a 2018 romantic comedy film based on the novel with the same name by Kevin Kwan. It’s about Rachel Chu, an ABC (American-born Chinese) professor flying to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick Young to meet his family which is Singapore’s only 1 percent billionaire. The film highlighted the extra privilege, immigrant striving, and the disconnect between Asians and Asian Americans.
In the film, Rachel is presented as the perfect girl and the perfect daughter that every Asian parent wants. She is good at math, working in the STEM field, being an economics professor at a famous University, attending elite universities, and being affluent and successful. However, this one also an example of a conceptual framework that has characterized Asians as ‘being other’ and Model Minority Myth. The Model Minority Myth portrays Asian Americans as an inherently extremely high achievers, hard-working, and high-income earners, law-abiding group that has outperformed the general population due to some natural talent brought on by race and culture or “smart rich Asians. Superficially, some might think that this stereotype is good for the image, but on the other hand, it makes Asian-American struggle with their identity and belonging, with pressures of achievement and family honor.
Although the film is very successful in terms of new wave and new representatives of Asian Community that performed by Asians, directed by Asians in Hollywood. But in fact, it’s one of many films in the market that present another story of Asian billionaires that are currently the trend of Asian representation films these days. It reinforces the illusion that has a negative effect on Asian people living in America.
The movie presents the lavish life of billionaires, portrays Asian society as an idealistic American success, ignores the fact that everyone is different and obscures the class diversity of a population that includes immigrant and working-class, continuing to blurred Southeast Asian identity into a whole bunch from East Asians or Chinese descent in Southeast Asia country settings.
Furthermore, this myth partakes in the role that could lead to a physical threat to Asian Americans from making Asian American to be seen as perpetual foreigners and the fact that the American public has certain perceptions that Asian are smart, rich from their descent or assume that they are paid in higher rates, that they were selfish, prioritize money over anything else and stole their work opportunity which is false. These assumptions increased the number of hostility towards Asian Americans from being the scapegoat for both the virus and increasing tensions with China.
Good: Awkwafina as Billi in “The farewell”
The farewell is an American comedy-drama film written and directed by Lulu Wang, which is also based on her own life experiences. The movie is about good liars, Billi’s parents tell her that they’re going to fly to China to see her grandmother and celebrate Billi’s cousin’s wedding. However, the real reason is that her grandmother is dying. Her family has decided not to tell her of her diagnosis which contrasts with Billi’s ‘the ethics of lying’ pragmatism. The main of this film shows differences and similarities between Chinese and Chinese Americans, family relationships through the language barrier and cultural barrier. The film is a great authentic presentation of Asian Americans’ migrant experience and also Billi’s character represents the diverse perspective and identity of authentic Chinese Americans.
In the end, the media do have an incredibly powerful way of influencing people’s thoughts (soft power!). Not everything presented to us by the media is accurately correct, so we should have a good judgement, and not come to the conclusion about someone because of their races.