By Sarah Feng
In the spring of 2017, the anime-adapted film Ghost in the Shell, based in cyberpunk, futuristic Japan, became a 60-million-dollar failure at the box office. Its effort to understand its roots fell short, casting Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese woman and prompting outrage and talk of boycotts online.
The response carried a distinct warning to Hollywood producers: whitewashing may not be as acceptable as they thought. Soon, shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” appeared to form the lucrative paradigm for cultural appreciation. It seemed as if the movie industry’s profit-driven nature would encourage it to diversify.
But Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) remain marginalized as tokenization –– putting minorities in TV shows and movies for the sake of doing so, without a full effort to represent their cultures –– has become more prevalent.
Representation is limited. Shows set in AAPI-dense cities often fail to accurately reflect their demographics. San Francisco-based “Fuller House” does not have an AAPI regular, despite the city’s 33 percent AAPI population. “Grey’s Anatomy,” which takes place in 14 percent AAPI Seattle, no longer has an AAPI regular after Sandra Oh’s departure. The pattern repeats itself in New York, Los Angeles and Hawaii.
Even when AAPI people are represented, their identity is often tokenized. According to the Los Angeles Times, AAPI people receive less than one-third of the screen time that their white counterparts receive. This, combined with the oversimplified narratives written for AAPI people, reduces AAPI people to mere accessories, erasing diverse narratives and promoting negative stereotypes.
There are many ways in which this over-simplification happens. “Tokens on the Small Screen,” a study by professors from various California universities published in September 2017, finds that stereotypical occupational roles and the lack of relationships between AAPI characters and other characters are common.
AAPI careers in TV shows are dichotomized: they either exemplify the model minority myth or represent menial positions, with little grey area. According to Jennifer Lee, a sociology professor at Columbia University, fast food chefs, scientists and factory workers comprise a dangerously brief and misleading list of AAPI television roles.
Relationships are another area in which AAPI characters are misrepresented. According to the 2017 study, “[AAPI characters] average one-third as many familial and romantic relationships as white counterparts, and their romantic prowesses are stereotyped and fetishized.”
Men are often emasculated, such as Korean character Han Lee on CBS’s “Two Broke Girls,” who is mocked for his failures in the pursuit of romantic relationships. Women are exoticized, such as Japanese character Mariko Yashida on “The Wolverine.” The object of the protagonist’s savior complex, she is often portrayed kimono-clad, pale and slim, a typical female warrior from a manga. This trope of submissive Asian women, as exemplified by Madame Butterfly and Suzie Wong archetypes, has recurred in Western media since the 1950s.
To be fair, the show “Master of None” exemplifies the struggles and successes of an up-and-coming Indian actor named Dev. The character has ambition, personality, friends and romance. But in the broader scheme of AAPI representation, this is rare.
Shows that promote three-dimensional AAPI characters, such as “The Walking Dead,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Master of None” should be praised. Shows that cookie-cut AAPI characters for the purpose of emphasizing diversity are more noticeably superficial than their producers may like to believe.
“We’re cast as ninjas, monks, nerds, the third, fourth, fifth best friend who is a nerd, killers, doctors and for women, the sexy Asian woman who’s dating a white guy,” said Lewis Tan, a part-Chinese Singaporean actor who plays Zhou Cheng on “Iron Fist,” in an interview with CNN. “Asian actors want to play the lead, the romantic character, the hero, just like everyone else.”
Contact Sarah Feng at sarahfeng55 ‘at’ gmail.com