While Asians have been largely missing from strong support or protagonist roles in television and film, recent years have seen an influx of Asian entertainers gaining a foothold in American media. In realms like music and online videos, Asians and Asian Americans are starting to pierce through “the bamboo ceiling” and stand on the stage for Western audiences.
Many everyday citizens are influenced by media and pop culture, from films and television shows to music and celebrity gossip. However, there are certain Americans who have traditionally not been adequately represented in culture – specifically, Asian Americans. Asians are the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S., with 18 million residents as of 2013, yet they also remain one of the least represented demographics in film and television roles.
Additionally, Asians and Asian Americans portrayed on screen are most often denied main roles and relegated to stereotypical roles, such as “the book smart and socially awkward hermit” or “the recluse who whips out his martial arts abilities.”
“It’s kind of sad, you know? When I was younger, I thought that heroic adventures and all of the great things that happened for Hollywood protagonists were limited to just those with white skin – never for Asians, who are often seen as the nerdy sidekicks who need to be rescued or the crazy martial artist who’s often [portrayed as] a villain,” said Jonathan Kim, an Asian American sophomore, in an interview with JSR.
Kim continued, “I think that just goes to show how strong of an influence these movies can be, especially for younger generations.”
Even when Asian actors are cast in dominant roles for a film, they are often reduced to a singular stereotype that pays no attention to the differences between different Asian cultures. Chinese American actress Lucy Liu played a Japanese yakuza in “Kill Bill.” Lee Byung Hun, a Korean actor, was cast in the “G.I. Joe” franchise as a villainous Japanese martial artist whose main opponent is a white man dressed in a stereotypical “ninja” costume. On the MTV Series “Teen Wolf,” Korean American Arden Cho plays a main character whose supernatural powers are derived from Japanese legends of a mythical fox despite the fact that Korea has its own legends of a supernatural fox.
This disconnect between cultures, no matter how similar they may seem to unfamiliar audiences, is quite apparent to those who identify as Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. The need for Asian actors, when cast, to remain within Western conceptions of Eastern culture becomes clear as these film roles adhere to stereotypes commonly perpetuated since at least the 1940s.
Some Asian actors are completely denied the chance to participate because directors choose to cast replacements or “yellow face” actors, who are whites outfitted and made up to look Asian. Many Asians find this a thoroughly insulting representation, since the physical features depicted through yellow-face are often exaggerated and plots are often based on Western preconceptions of Asian culture with racist overtones.
In the iconic 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Audrey Hepburn’s wannabe socialite Holly Golightly has an “Asian” neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi, played by the white actor Mickey Rooney. With false teeth, an exaggerated accent, and an overall bumbling role as an angry Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi is a prime example of seemingly deliberate racism against Asians in Hollywood.
Though yellow face was much more prevalent in the past, it still exists today in works like “Cloud Atlas.” The 2012 movie used a cast of mainly white actors to portray Korean individuals in the city of Neo Seoul. The decision caused controversy among Asian Americans who argued that actors of appropriate ethnicities could have been found for a plot that called for Korean characters.
“21,” inspired by the true story of an MIT blackjack heist team, replaces the Asian Americans from the real life story with a primarily white cast. The two Asian American actors who were cast were relegated to stereotypical secondary roles that featured detrimental characteristics not apparent in the white characters.
Fortunately, Asian American actors are slowly making a breakthrough to more significant roles. Actors such as John Cho and Steven Yeun are making names for themselves as charismatic actors whose characteristics, not ethnicities, define them. Cho has received favorable reviews for his portrayal of Hikaru Sulu in the new “Star Trek” movies, reprising an iconic character whose portrayal in the original series was meant to represent all Asian ethnicities in correlation with the franchise’s theme of universal peace and representation. Steven Yeun joined the cast of the award-winning television series “The Walking Dead” in a main role and is commonly portrayed as heroic and without any stereotypical attributes.
Apart from the main entertainment industry located in Hollywood, Asian Americans have also found a new platform for their creative voices: Youtube. Commonly called “the Asian Youtubers,” a group of diverse creators has formed a community based on their ethnicities. As the voices of a thriving Asian American demographic, prominent Youtubers such as Nigahiga, KevJumba, and Wong Fu Productions have received critical success with content that has its own creative appeal.
“Being Asian American definitely helps us relate to [an American] audience but gives us the advantage of relating to the other side of the world as well. This has been an important part of growing our community,” said Jacob Fu, of the Fu channel, in an interview with JSR.
Creators like Fu have found a way to utilize their ethnicities instead of allowing it to become detrimental to their work. By sharing ethnicities with a largely misrepresented demographic, Youtube creators are able to connect with their audiences and provide voices for their own specific concerns and values.
Eddie Kim, of The Jubilee Project, told JSR, “What we see [are] so many young Asian Americans connecting to our work because they relate to the values and the lifestyle that are unique to the Asian American demographic. One of the biggest reasons the Jubilee Project has become so prominent is because Asian Americans can relate to our work.”
The impact of these video makers is not limited to an Asian audience. Viewers of all ethnicities have been able to watch content created and starring Asian Americans and comment favorably on what they see.
“The Asian community on YouTube is definitely having a positive effect on everyone who knows about it. Anyone can see that there are outgoing, outspoken, smart, funny and cool Asian Americans making money doing what they want,” said Andrew and David Fung, of the Fung Bros. channel, in an interview with JSR.
They added, “It’s clear that young Asians are finally having fun now!”
These successful Asian YouTubers are inspiring a new era of Asian American creators. Eliot Lee, an amateur YouTuber, is one of many who look up to stars such as Nigahiga and Kevjumba and profess to ignore any obstacles about being Asian. Lee, whose videos focus on things that high school students want to say in public but refrain from saying, says he has a made a lot of different “Internet friends” who are not Asian.
Asian entertainers have also been gaining a significant presence in Western popular culture, with genres like K-Pop generating millions or even billions of views on Youtube.
“I really like K-Pop, not because it’s Korean and Asian and something exotic, but because it’s entertainment unlike anything I’ve seen before in America,” said Jenna Lynch, an African American teenager, to JSR.
“K-Pop has a very addicting appeal that might feel a bit strange at first because of culture shock, but there’s no denying that there’s a quality to the videos and the music that’s unlike anything else in America,” she added. “People might write it off as weird and crazy, but I think it’s awesome.”
Psy, with his smash hit “Gangnam Style,” is the best known K-pop star after breaking Youtube viewership records with his hit “Gangnam Style.” In the wake of Psy’s success, and the success of other K-pop stars, Korean pop music, Korean music festivals in Los Angeles are beginning to be filled with audiences of diverse ethnicities.
Chaereen Pak, a Valencia High School junior and a content creator, told JSR, “I often feel some pressure from my ethnicity because I feel like there are a lot of preconceptions that people form just based on my heritage. However, with the help of a growing community of Asian content creators, I feel like this problem is becoming reduced.”
As Asians and Asian Americans become a significant force in Western media, a future generation of Asian American media personalities can hope for a future in which their ethnicities do not inhibit but enhance their work and opportunities.
“I think that at all times, the best content and quality makes its way to the top,” said Kim, of the Jubilee Project.
He continued, “What we need to focus on is what we have to offer and what we can succeed at doing. You all have so much potential. My encouragement is to look deep down and see what you’re called to do and focus on that. It’ll definitely be a lot of work, but the people who can really make an impact are people who do their best in focusing on their work and getting it out there.”
Visit these content creators on Youtube: