Asian women making their mark in Hollywood

By Severina Chu

Growing up as a Chinese-Canadian, it was often a struggle to see characters I could relate to on screen. Either casted in stereotypical roles or not casted at all, the image of Asian women that was pushed by the media made me want to stray away from my culture. When Hollywood fails to accurately represent your stories, it impacts the way we see ourselves. However, the industry is slowly changing its ways and letting the voices of Asian women be heard, providing representation that will impact the younger generation.

On March 30, Sandra Oh became the third Asian woman to host Saturday Night Live in the show’s 44-season history. Born in Ottawa, Oh touched on her Asian-Canadian roots in her opening monologue as she also celebrated her one-year anniversary of American citizenship. However, one of her best moments of the night came at the very end. As she closed the show, Oh was seen wearing a shirt with the quote “It’s an honour just to be Asian,” taken from her famous moment at the 2018 Emmy Awards.

Photo courtesy Paola Kudacki via iamsandraohinsta on Instagram

Oh is best known for playing Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, and more recently, Eve Polastri on Killing Eve. Both of these characters are intelligent, ambitious women, and Oh is often who comes to mind when one thinks about the impact of Asian women in Hollywood. These strong characters are who Asians want to see on screen, though, this representation hasn’t always come easily.

When it comes to casting Asians, Hollywood has always struggled. According to the Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA, Asians made up only 3.1 per cent of 2016’s top film roles. With Hollywood’s history of whitewashing Asian roles, this underrepresentation is no surprise. The tendency to cast white actors in Asian roles, such as Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell or Emma Stone playing a part Chinese, part Hawaiian woman in Aloha, is an issue that’s hard to ignore.

When Asians are given the chance, it’s often in roles that reflect a stereotype. Time and time again, we’ve seen common characters like the model minority or the foreigner with broken English. Especially when it comes to Asian women, their most common tropes are two extremes – the submissive “China Doll” or the aggressive “Dragon Lady”.

It seems Hollywood has a certain image of Asians etched in their minds that they can’t quite stray away from, but recently, our stories are starting to make a name for themselves in the industry. With the success of Asian actresses like Oh, the surge of Asian leads in romantic comedies, and the overall growing interest in our stories, the industry is taking steps towards the accurate representation of Asian women that we desperately need.

Making our stories heard

One of the biggest film stories to come out of 2018 was Crazy Rich Asians. Based off the novel by Kevin Kwan and directed by Jon Chu, it was the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993.

Constance Wu plays protagonist Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor. The film follows her relationship with Nick Young (Henry Golding), a man who turns out to be from one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. Despite obstacles like Young’s disapproving, traditional family and Chu’s personal identity crisis when it came to her Asian heritage, the core of the film is the love these two have for each other.

When it comes to romantic relationships, Asian women are often subject to fetishization in the media. They are seen as exotic or submissive partners, such as Kyoko in the film Ex Machina, a robot who is created to look like an Asian woman and is programed to serve her owner through domestic chores and sexual favours. However, Crazy Rich Asians shows a healthy relationship with Asian characters without resorting to these stereotypes. Chu is portrayed as a determined woman, and the film makes her Chinese-American heritage a part of her without turning it into a personality trait.   

In terms of more local projects, Kim’s Convenience has been running on CBC for three seasons and renewed for a fourth. The sitcom follows a Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store in the Moss Park neighbourhood in Toronto, and the storefront used in the show can be found on Queen Street East near Sherbourne Street.

Janet Kim, played by Andrea Bang, embodies many aspects of the lives of second-generation immigrants that aren’t always discussed on screen. Kim is a photography student at OCAD University, and she struggles to gain her parents’ acceptance for her art as a result of their traditional look at life.

Andrea Bang as Janet Kim in   Kim’s Convenience  .

Andrea Bang as Janet Kim in Kim’s Convenience.

The desire to follow a passion that strays away from our parents’ expectations is a narrative that many Asian-Canadians can relate to, and when we make up over 12% of Canada’s population, it’s a narrative that needs to be told. For years, the idea that Asians are model minorities has been pushed in the media, making the thought of disapproval or failure much harder to accept.

However, Kim’s character shows that it’s OK to take a risk and follow a passion. Having these kinds of stories told in the media is the representation that will influence the younger Asian-Canadian generations to come.  

In the animation world, Pixar short film Bao found great success, winning the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the 91st Academy Awards. Directed by Chinese-Canadian Domee Shi, it makes her the first female director for a Pixar short. Set in Toronto, the story follows a Chinese mother who deals with empty nest syndrome and tries to come to terms with her only child moving out.

When first released, Bao was met with mixed reactions. Using food as a metaphor, the film incorporates an integral part of Asian culture to tell an emotional story, but some were confused by one particular moment. Outsiders might have laughed it off as a humorous twist, but for almost every second-generation Asian, the complex parental relationship that moment represents is one that hits too close to home.

Though the themes in the short are universal, it’s refreshing to see this story play out from an Asian perspective. In a culture where emotions aren’t usually discussed, the short proves that Asian women can show vulnerability without being deemed weak.

Steps in the right direction

What all of these works have in common are their realistic portrayal of Asian women, building them up to be more than just exotic beauties or fragile dolls. These characters can come from all walks of life and possess their own unique personalities, being able to incorporate aspects of Asian culture into these stories without being reliant on stereotypes.

Though there is still a long way to go, Asian women are slowly making a name for themselves in Hollywood. From portraying strong characters to the creative minds behind them, Asian women are finally getting the opportunity to tell not only their stories, but the story of many others who have been misrepresented by the media for years.