Los Angeles – Here is an unsettling fact, and one that underscores how much more work Hollywood has to do in both recognizing Asian actors and in addressing stereotypes of Asians on film: Until the 93rd Academy Awards were held last month, more white actresses had won Oscars for playing Asians than actual Asian actresses have won.
Luise Rainer won the Oscar for best actress in 1938 for playing — in yellowface — a Chinese woman named O-Lan in the film version of Pearl A. Buck’s “The Good Earth.” Decades later, in 1984, Linda Hunt won best supporting actress for playing a Chinese-Australian man in “The Year of Living Dangerously.”
It’s now tied up at two apiece: This year, Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung won best supporting actress for her portrayal of Soonja, a free-speaking, beloved grandmother in the critically acclaimed film “Minari.” She became only the second Asian actress to win an Oscar since Japanese American actress and singer Miyoshi Umeki won in the same category in 1959 for her performance in “Sayonara.”
In 2007, Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi came close to an Oscar when she was nominated for her work in the film “Babel,” but lost that year to Jennifer Hudson who took the supporting actress prize for “Dreamgirls.”
Fourteen years of limited progress later, this year’s Academy Awards nominations recognized a greater diversity of stories told on film and the actors and directors who helped bring those stories to life. This included Chinese-born director Zhoe Chao, who went away with two Oscars — one for best director and the other for best picture as part of the team that produced best picture winner “Nomadland.” Korean American actor Steven Yeun and director Lee Isaac Chung were both also nominated for Oscars, but did not win.
This is progress to some extent. However, after a year marked both by the spread of COVID-19 around the world and by a rash of anti-Asian violence in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and elsewhere, we must not ignore the negative stereotypes of Asians that foster such hate and Hollywood’s role in creating them. The U.S. film industry has long depicted Asian women as dragon ladies, timid butterflies or dangerous seductresses, and Asian men as effete, inscrutable or sinister (and, sometimes, all three at once).
As Japanese American artist and activist Drue Kataoka and I wrote recently in NextShark, a media platform focused on Asian American news, the reality is that deeply racist stereotypes abound even in Hollywood’s most iconic films. This includes Mickey Rooney’s egregious depiction of Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese photographer in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” In this classic, Audrey Hepburn delivers a career-defining performance while Rooney gives us fake buck teeth and taped eyelids so as to appear “Japanese.”
Old boy networks and outdated views on what audiences want led then and now to stereotyped roles, dwindling opportunities and closed doors. The result remains a lack of representation and recognition for Asian talent both in front of and behind the camera in the United States.
This includes underrepresentation among Hollywood’s decision-makers as well. According to the Washington Post, UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report found 91% of executives at major and mid-level studios were white, while the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found just 3.3% of directors of the 1,300 most popular films released between 2007 and 2019 were of Asian descent.
A connecting line can be drawn from Hollywood stereotypes to the “otherness” and “perpetual foreigner” stereotyping that has contributed to the sadly all-too-real images today of deadly attacks on Asians — from an elderly Thai grandfather in San Francisco to Chinese and Korean immigrant women in the Atlanta area in Georgia.
America’s film industry must now do its part to push a long-term solution by increasing Asian representation and including Asian people in conversations and actions about diversity. Japanese filmmakers and the Japanese film industry might likewise pause for a moment of introspection and ponder its portrayal of non-Japanese Asians, as well as of women and minorities, on film.
Social media campaigns and hashtags — including #StopAsianHate and #RepresentAsian — have helped build awareness of both the abuse that Asians in the United States have long faced as well as the need for a more representative picture of Asia and Asians on-screen and off. The reality of Asians in America today, according to just released U.S. Census data, is that of a diverse and complex community of 23 million people that includes 1.5 million people who can trace their roots to Japan.
Six groups of Asian origin — Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese — accounted for 85% of the Asian population in the United States as of 2019, according to a Pew Research analysis of the census data. Yet, few of their stories will ever make it to the Hollywood screen unless there is a concerted effort for diversity.
The month of May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the United States. It’s a chance to look back on trailblazers such as Japanese actor Sesse Hayakawa, one of the most popular actors of Hollywood’s silent film era of the 1910s and ’20s. Or Anna May Wong, who appeared in more than 60 films and is considered the first Chinese American movie star.
It is also a time for Hollywood to recognize the too often unheralded contributions of Asian Americans to the industry today and, most importantly, to look forward and commit to both advocacy and fundraising against Asian hate as well as ridding the screens of Asian stereotypes.
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of the advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.