When Will kindly asked me to guest blog about Asian representation in the film industry I was a little hesitant. It’s a subject that I’m close to which means I’m definitely biased. Maybe I can’t see the forest for the trees, maybe I allow emotion to cloud my judgment. Plus working in the industry also means I have a vested interest in the outcome, which in some ways, means this blog post is a little selfish. Not to mention it’s a complex topic, and I can’t hope to cover the breadth and depth in one post. I’m merely scratching the surface here. Hopefully my simple words encourage more conversations.
But I do think representation is important. Art. Good art, should both reflect and critique life. Well, at least I think so. And that isn’t to say that every film needs to pose deep philosophical and intellectual questions, I love Fast and Furious as much as the next guy. But at a certain point, what we see and what we read starts to inform our view of the world, consciously and subconsciously. So I think it’s important for people, all people to see themselves on screen.
The truth is, I’m cautiously optimistic. Progress is definitely being made. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to see. The statistics aren’t pretty. Asians make up just 5% of all speaking roles across film/tv. 40% of films in 2014 didn’t feature a single Asian actor and only 8% of tv shows had more than a single Asian actor. And that’s just the broad figures, the quantitative data. The next set of questions being, what were those roles exactly and how significant/complex were they? How many of those were stereotypes? How many of those were Doctors, Lawyers, Lab Techs, Accountants etc whose sole purpose was to provide exposition? How many even had names?
(If you want to see what that like this, check out Kal Penn’s twitter).
Then of course we had #Oscarssowhite. Ghost in the Shell. Dr. Strange. Iron Fist.
So. Why do we care? And is it hypocritical of us to argue that The Ancient One and Major Kusanagi should retain their ethnicity while at the same time arguing that Danny Rand should be Asian American? I don’t think so. Because it’s a question of equality vs. equity.
It’s about opportunity. Returning to the statistics, there are fewer Asian roles out there, so when you have a character like Major Kusanagi, which is a great, complex leading role, you want to hold onto that. The truth is, if more roles were available, we probably wouldn’t care. If you have to eat oats for 99 meals out of 100, you’re probably going to care a great deal about what you get for 100th meal. Similarly I think we’re looking for opportunities to make a positive and interesting change. I think Iron Fist could have been one of those opportunities. Not only to subvert the trope but it might have also helped differentiated the narrative from say, Batman Begins, Arrow, Dr. Strange. Ultimately, I think it’s important to look at these things on a case by case basis. I love Seven Samurai, I also love the original Magnificent Seven. Now some could say that’s whitewashing. But I think the difference is that is a wholesale adaptation. Imagine if the Magnificent Seven was set in Japan, the villagers and villain were still Asian but the 7 were white. That would tell a very different story. Which I think is part of the problem with Ghost in the Shell. I also think we need to be clear about the distinction between Asian actors and Asian American (Canadian, Australian, British) actors.
No analogy is perfect, but I think this one works (at least to some extent). There are two children, Lucy and Peter. Peter has 95 chocolates, Lucy has 5. If you take one chocolate from Lucy and give it to Peter, that really, noticeably sucks for Lucy. But if you take one chocolate from Peter and give it to Lucy, not only is Peter largely unaffected, you’re really going to make a substantial difference to Lucy’s day. Yeah it’s a little simple but I think it helps illustrate the Ancient One vs Iron Fist issue.
So why am I optimistic? Because for what seems like the first time, these issues are making headlines, they’re being discussed and they’re being considered. And that is definitely a step in the right direction. Short of bloody revolution, change rarely happens overnight. And even then, revolutions usually start with a conversation; you usually have to plan them after all. I would like to take a moment to thank people like April Reign (creator of #Oscarssowhite), William Yu (creator of #Starring JohnCho), critics like Valerie Complex and Rebecca Theodore, organizations like Geeks Of Color and Nerds of Color, guys like Shaun Lau, whose tireless advocacy has been instrumental in starting and continuing these conversations.
I can also confirm that (at least in my experience) these conversations are impacting the way production thinks. I rarely audition for Asian specific roles. I’m both grateful and lucky. Casting are willing to give me the opportunity to read for a range of things, roles that Asian actors probably wouldn’t have been considered for in the past. We talk about limited opportunity now but I can’t imagine what is was like coming up back in the day. I can’t even begin to express the respect I have for people like Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Joel de la Fuente and Tzi Ma. But sometimes it is disheartening though, you know? I went out for a series regular earlier this year. The show is being adapted from a Korean drama. The role was written for a Latino. Then they changed it to an Asian. In the end it went to a white guy. I’m not saying I should have gotten the role. Not at all. But you honestly mean to tell me there were no Latino or Asian guys good enough for the role? I saw some of the Asian guys I was up against and they were serious, talented and experienced guys. Guys with proven track records. But then again, I guess I think about casting a show as sort of like cooking. Peanut butter is awesome but I suppose you can’t put peanut butter in everything no matter how damn good it is. I mean, I love pineapple on pizza. Who knows? But I do think we need to be given the opportunity to develop.
So what next? Well, we keep talking because hopefully these conversations raise awareness. We can all be guilty of the echo chamber, of only seeing things that directly impact us or not seeing things because we’re all slaves to our existing perspectives and prejudices. But change is possible. What else? We support diverse content and voices. To some extent we already are (Fast and Furious, Rogue One, Get Out, Moonlight, Hidden Figures) but I think it will take continued results to prove diversity sells. Because I think people (all people, including me) tend to see what they want to see. They can be quick to write successes (and failures) off as outliers and exceptions. Don’t let them.
About the Author:
Lee Shorten is an Australian actor with South Korean roots. You can see him in action on Amazon’s smash hit The Man in the High Castle as Sergeant Yoshida and the brand new comedy Ask Will. Check out his IMDb profile to see where else you can check out this talented actor.
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