Asian Underrepresentation In Film

Alexis Tea

Growing up, I loved movies, and I still do. I especially loved rom-coms, with their lovable, quirky characters and lighthearted humor. But when watching these movies, I noticed one thing: there were hardly any Asian characters on screen, if any at all. And if there were, they were usually portrayed with harmful stereotypes or as side characters with little to no backstory. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved watching these movies. I just think I would’ve been able to connect with the character more and be inspired by them if they had looked like me.

So when To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was released, a rom-com starring Lana Condor, a Vietnamese-American actress, as the lead character in such a pivotal movie, my whole world changed. Suddenly, having a fairy-tale romance wasn’t just for white girls; they were for Asian ones too. This bold decision to cast an Asian as a lead was a huge step in finally representing Asian characters in film. Although there is still much progress to be made, the film industry is getting better at casting Asians in movies and hiring Asians behind-the-screens.

Since the beginning of the film industry, Asian cast and crew members have been seriously underrepresented. According to a study conducted by USC Annenberg, out of the total number of speaking characters in 1,300 popular movies that were studied in 2019, only 7.2% of them were Asian. Compare that to the 65.7% of them that were white. And this issue isn’t new; Hollywood has been making Asians seem invisible for decades. An early example of this is when Luise Rainer, a German-born actress, played an Asian woman in the film Good Earth in 1937, and even went on to win an Oscar for it. Although that happened decades ago, things like this still occur today.    

According to Oxford Languages, the term “whitewashing” means to “deliberately attempt to conceal unpleasant or incriminating facts about (someone or something)”. In film terms, whitewashing means casting white actors to play Asian characters. There are many examples of this, even in today’s media: Scarlett Johansson played the lead character, Motoko Kusanagi, in an adaptation of the Japanese comic franchise Ghost in the Shell; in the movie Aloha, Emma Stone played a half-Chinese and half-Hawaiian character; and Matt Damon played the lead character in the movie The Great Wall. There’s nothing wrong with casting these famous actors or actresses as the leads in these movies; it’s just that by continually refusing to cast Asians as leads, it will soon become “the norm” to not see any Asians on screen. With no Asians in these movies, Asian girls and boys will watch television and have nobody on screen that looks like them and have nobody to look up to. Refusing to cast Asians also sends the message that Asians aren’t good enough or don’t deserve to be cast.

Even Jenny Han, the author of the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before series, had trouble finding a production company who would cast an Asian actress as the movie’s lead. In fact, Han had to work with the only production company that would cast an Asian actress as Lara Jean, the main character, even though Lara Jean is Korean in the book series. Han was scared that the company would change their mind and demand to cast a white actress as the lead even after she started working with them, Han writes to the New York Times.

There are actually many benefits of casting Asians in movies. By giving Asians screen time, you are giving Asian boys and girls role models and giving them a person who they can be inspired by. You are bringing more diversity into the film industry and are enriching your movies with culture. You are showing Asians in a positive way and are bashing negative stereotypes. You are changing the tide and making it “the norm” to cast deserving Asians on and off-screen. You are finally acknowledging that Asians exist and are giving them the opportunities they deserve.

There is still much to be changed, but progress is being made in the film industry; movies and shows like Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off The Boat, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Parasite, and more are breaking new ground by choosing to represent Asians in their cast and crew. Asians have been made to feel invisible since the beginning of film. That can change. Asians exist; it’s time we finally start casting them. 

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