One writer’s perspective on Asian progress on the Silver Screen. This piece also appeared in the Fall 2009 issue.
By Fay Gan
Many Asian Americans have become frustrated with Hollywood’s method of casting typically Asian roles. There is a growing argument that non-Asian actors have no right to play Asian characters because it pushes the smaller segment of aspiring Asian actors to the wayside. Usually, those who support this idea refer to movies whose origin is Asian-influenced, like “21” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” but the majority of the cast is not. In reality, this argument is more likely the dying cry of the Asian Americans of Generation X, rather than what is reflected in today’s entertainment industry.
It is difficult to solely blame the casting tendencies of Hollywood for Asians that are cast in movies and shows, when the producers are usually following demographic trends in society. Take a closer look at today’s pop culture and you can see that an Asian face is not as exotic as it once was, say, in the 1950s and 1960s. On the same note, there are many more Asian Americans today than there were back then, and their depiction in American society has changed since then.
The most important aspect of Asian American progress in the TV and film industry is the roles they embody. The portrayal of Asian Americans in movies have changed to more positive and accepting, rather than limiting Asian Americans to roles that make them appear foreign or alien. For example, compare Pat Morita’s role as Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid” (1984) to John Cho as Harold in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004). Mr. Miyagi was a symbol of something mysterious and mystical to Americans. Harold Lee, on the other hand, was more familiar and relatable. Character Harold Lee had values, goals, fears, whereas Mr. Miyagi “waxed on, waxed off” into history.
Today, many popular TV shows feature Asian or Asian American actors as main characters in their casts. Characters played by Masi Oka (“Heroes”), Sandra Oh (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost”) and Aasif Mandvi (correspondent on “The Daily Show”) are some examples. In film, actors John Cho and Kal Penn have helped dissolve some stereotypes applied to young adult Asian Americans, and then there is also Jordan Nagai who was cast as Russell in “UP!”.
So what if non-Asians have dominated film and TV for decades? After simply thinking of a few popular shows and movies from the past couple of years, the list of Asians on TV is significant and growing. Despite some who call Hollywood’s discriminatory casting process offensive, it seems that Asian actors and actresses are still able to establish their presence in mainstream media as multi-faceted characters.