The growth of Asian American representation through streaming TV

April 9, 2017, 7:16 p.m.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a season two episode of “Friends” in which Ross comes back from China and gets together with a former friend, Julie, who is Chinese American. She doesn’t have an accent and, outside of being envied by Rachel, she’s an average human being on a show that is very, very white. I waved my hands excitedly at the screen — she reminded me of the entertainment industry’s favorite Asian female, Lucy Liu, mostly because she looked like me. She was Asian.

I never watched television when I was little. Our family had a small TV set that we never used because we didn’t have cable, so it sat decomposing in our basement. When I was a sophomore in high school, my family finally got cable, so every day after school I’d sit, flip on the TV and watch whatever was on, which was usually “Friends.” After that fateful season two episode, I quickly and covertly blasted through every single episode of “Friends” — now lovingly called binge-watching. I sat silently after I watched all the hundreds of episodes, eyes numb but mind forever opened to this magical new world of television.

Comic book fan that I was, I proceeded to watch, first, all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, then the short-lived Marvel series “Agent Carter” starring Hayley Atwell. I was then told about the series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which featured not one, but two Asian leads and eventually later in the series, more and more roles given to people of color of African American, Middle Eastern and Hispanic descent.

I frowned. How odd. One of the main characters, Agent Melinda May, consistently applauded as “the most badass female on television” by essentially every entertainment source, is played by Ming-Na Wen, an American actress born in Macau, whom most may recognize as the speaking voice of Mulan and one of the leads in “The Joy Luck Club.” She’s fierce, clever, and smart — the best agent and fighter on the show. But even though May is an immensely talented fighter, she does not evoke the stereotypical kung-fu Asian character with the accent at all. She’s subdued, quietly powerful and humble.

The other character of Asian descent is Skye, now known as Agent Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet). Bennet is an American actress with a white mother and Chinese American father. (Side note: Bennet’s birth name is Chloe Wang and she pursued a singing career in China under that name before moving to Los Angeles to act. Unable to secure any acting jobs, she changed her last name to Bennet — a nod to her father, Bennet Wang. She secured a role after her very first audition with her new name and soon after joined Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ) At first glance, Bennet does not look particularly Asian. But a Google search reveals her Asian heritage and her outspokenness in discussing it. Plenty of Asian American female actresses of both fully Asian and half-Asian descent — Olivia Munn, Maggie Q and Lucy Liu among many — have been told that they are simply “too Asian” for the entertainment industry. Similarly, Bennet constantly talks about how she was teased when she was little because she “looked too Asian” and had “Asian eyes.” But now, she’s reclaiming her Asian heritage on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” with the character’s backstory being retconned and rewritten to include an Asian mother, played by the Australian actress Dichen Lachman of German and Tibetan descent. Another thing to note about “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is the third-billed showrunner, producer and screenwriter Maurissa Tancharoen. Tancharoen herself is of Asian descent, and although there have been few direct mentions of her involvement in promoting diversity on the show, it’s worth simply recognizing how her presence in the show’s production along with the two Asian American actresses go together.

A feeling of elation swept over me. As a half-Asian individual myself, I felt so proud. Someone like me for the whole world to see. Fast-forward from then to my current self — someone who has grown to surround herself in media in every single form, desperate to find some inkling of myself in it all. There’s a whole hidden world out there of immensely talented Asian Americans just waiting to be discovered.

Now, if you haven’t been hiding in a hole, you obviously know the whitewashing scandals involving countless films, particularly the arguments surrounding marketability of Asian American actors. Philip Wang, co-founder of Wong Fu Productions (an LA-based production company that focuses on putting Asians on screen) released a revealing YouTube video on whitewashing called “Don’t just TALK about Whitewashing.” The key to his argument was the creation of content — that Asians and other people of color cannot wait for their turn to be at the forefront of arts and entertainment. Wang explains that while people may be mad at a predominantly white industry for not giving them roles, it is, in a way, kind of understandable why there are fewer roles for individuals of color. White writers do not write roles for people of color because they simply don’t know how to write them, since people tend to write what they know. With so many racist portrayals of individuals of color in the past, they don’t want to create an inaccurate portrayal, either. Wang says that the best way to get more individuals of color on screen is to get more behind the camera, writing and creating and directing and producing. That way, the creation of roles is natural.

I’d like to highlight a distinct difference between telling an Asian or Asian American story and just putting Asian actors in roles that are designated as “color-blind.” These two fields have also been slowly blending as more content is created by Asian Americans who have grown up in the U.S. but still identify with their Asian heritage. Wong Fu creates content that fuses both, typically using stories that will be extremely relatable to any audience but including elements that many Asian American young adults will immediately recognize and smile about from a mile away. This is what makes Wong Fu Productions stand out — their stories are often universal, but having audiences see individuals of color, people just like everyone else, onscreen silently pushes them forward as the norm. When we think about a doctor, or a lawyer, or an actor, we probably think of a white man. By placing an Indian man or a Hispanic woman or an Asian teenager on screen, Wong Fu Productions tells us that people of color can be what we think of when we imagine anyone in our minds.

As Alan Yang said when he and Aziz Ansari accepted their Emmy for best writing in a comedy series for Ansari’s popular Netflix series “Master of None”: “If only Asian parents gave their kids a camera instead of a violin, we’d probably have more Asian roles on screen.” Ansari previously commented that Netflix was a great platform for his show because they ordered his show immediately to series, with Netflix equipped with a solid group of subscribers. Since most pilots never get ordered to series, the Netflix model allowed the “Master of None” story to be greenlit without so much riding on its pilot success. Netflix also encourages binge-watching, which, from my experience, forces the viewer to become very, very emotionally attached to a show and its characters — vital for shows with diverse casts that would never have made it on network or cable television.

Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project” began airing new episodes on Hulu, another streaming service. Wong Fu’s newest venture, a YouTube Red series called “Single by 30,” features the Costa Rican American actor Harry Shum, Jr. of Chinese descent and singer-songwriter Kina Grannis of half-Japanese descent, amongst a very diverse cast. Netflix’s new Marvel venture “Luke Cage” utilizes the talents of Mike Colter, Simone Missick and Mahershala Ali to tell the raw, relevant story of a haunted, heroic civilian who is also a black man. “Orange is the New Black,” another immensely popular show, consists of so many incredibly talented actors of different ethnicities. Some of these shows simply use actors of color in the work and avoid discussing his or her ethnicity, and that’s fine. Some of these shows dive deep into their characters’ backstories that involve fanciful tales about their family and their history of their culture, and that’s fine too. Some shows do both. At this point, we need anything we can get. But at the same time, because society needs to come to acknowledge, however grudgingly, that there is no singular American story, stories that involve individuals of color, whether they discuss their ethnicity or not, are important.

Stanford alums and comedy writers Amy Aniobi and Tracy Oliver, who are both African American, visited Stanford halfway through fall quarter. One thing from their talk stuck with me: With the advent of YouTube, creating something, anything — is easier than ever, because all you need is your phone. The amount of content on YouTube is overwhelming, and everybody already knows that people have made careers from YouTubing. So many YouTubers of color are incredibly popular, like the Asian American ones I know and love — Anna Akana, Ryan Higa and Timothy DeLaGhetto. Creators of color have such rich stories to tell, and every culture and community has its own relatable themes and experiences, so it’s perfectly understandable why these YouTubers are popular. It’s obvious why shows that are diverse are so popular — people like to see themselves on screen. It’s healthy. It’s natural. People like seeing their own stories told, and art is meant to evoke emotional experiences and empathy — the easiest way to get a viewer to relate is if something that’s like them is on screen. If you can’t find something to relate to, the creator has done something seriously wrong.

It’s not that other platforms don’t provide individuals of color to showcase their work, but it’s that streaming and online services provide a much more open platform. Stories that are told because they’re deemed “unmarketable” or “unpopular” before they even air can now be told via different places that can properly showcase the unique stories and perspectives of those involved in the creation of the show. Now, when I watch streaming shows, I see individuals on screen who look like me, and for people everywhere, that’s more important than I can state. As a society, we once focused so heavily on erasing color, creed and culture rather than embracing it and treating it as another characteristic that simply must be respected in its own right. That’s the one thing about color-blind casting that gets me — it is so hard to be strictly ignorant of ethnicity and rely on this method to get more people of color on screen. Then again, the catch-22 is that strictly limiting a role to non-white people is dangerous. Color-blind casting may work in general for creating a diverse cast, and has notably been successful in casting shows such as Shonda Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy,” but in this day and age, writing on-screen roles explicitly for certain ethnicities will certainly help. Understandably, this is restrictive in nature, but having a mix of the two will hopefully result in what can be deemed as progress.

In the simplest terms possible, it ultimately comes down to creating opportunities for oneself. We’ve always been told that if we can’t find a way to carry out a project, then we do it ourselves. If actors can’t find roles, they write them for themselves. In the same vein, if individuals of color can’t score on-screen roles, then we’ll be creating them ourselves.

For Asian Americans, we can’t solely rely on the few like Lucy Liu, Ming-Na Wen, John Cho or Maggie Q to hold us up, however much we love and admire them. Liu found her own success as the token Asian female in white-dominated film and television like “Ally McBeal,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Kill Bill.” Wen and Cho have successfully navigated and straddled the border between film and TV in both parts that are strictly Asian and parts that are strictly color-blind American. Q has already established herself within narratives that were always strictly considered “all-American” or rather, white, such as simply taking a generically-written character and placing an Asian American in the role. It’s still important to note that despite their incredibly extensive filmographies, none of them have achieved the success that experienced or even young, rising white actors have — but the future of people of color in the industry depends on the efforts of the younger generation of collaboration by creators and performers in any capacity. Breaking out of this “token person of color” role is the first step that new and up-and-coming artists spearhead. No matter who you are, no matter your background, no matter your ethnicity, if you can fund a project, fund it. If you can watch a piece, watch it. If you can promote work, promote it.

So as I began my journey from television noob to TV-obsessed nerd, I didn’t expect that I’d find myself become increasingly more curious and eager to push for Asian American presence and representation along the way. For me, it’s interesting to think about how I ultimately never considered a lack of non-white representation in television until I saw a person of color on screen. There have been plenty of incidences involving whitewashing or stereotyped roles in film, but beyond correcting this, we must change this default by breaking out and actively working to create roles for Asian Americans and people of color alike. With limited resources, it looks like the easiest way is to approach it from a low-budget, accessible angle online, via social media or picked up by streaming services that allow for subscribers to watch at any time. People of color have been fighting with film and television executives who claim people of color and Asian Americans aren’t profitable, so in fact, it’s practically favorable to be releasing content on non-traditional sources if it’s going to take too much time for film to start giving out more roles to people of color. If one tactic doesn’t work, it’s time to go another route. Because it’s about time for change. It’s about time.


Contact Olivia Popp at opopp ‘at’

Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.

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