The Winners And Losers Of Asian Representation In Hollywood In 2015
The good, the "meh," and the ugly. Major SPOILERS ahead.
This year was a landmark for Asians in Hollywood. TV launched ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, the first sitcom about an Asian-American family since All-American Girl; Quantico, the first primetime drama with an Indian lead; and Into the Badlands, which gave us our first Asian-American action hero protagonist on television.
But there were a couple films that made us collectively go "oof." Aloha featured definitely white actor Emma Stone as a quarter-Hawaiian, quarter-Chinese woman. And No Escape was essentially a yellow peril film that turned Asians into bloodthirsty zombies. (Note: It is 2015.)
Here's a look back at the Asian characters who graced our screens this year, from the ones who challenged stereotypes to the ones who perpetuated them, and some in between.
Jessica Huang (Constance Wu), Fresh Off the Boat
When I first heard that ABC had picked up a show called Fresh Off the Boat, I was nervous...and I wasn't alone. Would this be a white person's interpretation of the Asian-American experience? Would its characters all be depicted as stereotypical immigrants with thick accents, speaking broken English? Would it share the same fate as its predecessor, All-American Girl, which was canceled after just one season? The Margaret Cho series began and ended when I was 4 years old, so I had never seen a family resembling my own on television, nor could I imagine that reality. That's why it was such a relief and delight to see how much the people behind this show and in front of it got it — especially Constance Wu, who plays Jessica, the Huang family matriarch.
At first glance, Jessica seemed like a tiger mom, snappy and unsmiling. But as the series progressed, viewers were able to see her for her brilliance and badassery: She jumps to Eddie's (Hudson Yang) defense after he gets in a fight with a boy who calls him a chink; she eventually aces her realtor's exam after a bit of setback; and, in Season 2, she starts flipping houses to make money. Jessica's proven herself to be much more than just a tiger mom — she's a hustler, which is a pretty accurate representation of many Asian immigrant mothers, if you ask me.
Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), Orange Is the New Black
The only Orange Is the New Black character I'd ever despised more than Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) was the perky and loudmouthed Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn). When she was first introduced in Season 2, it seemed like she served as nothing more than comic relief to counteract the show's heavier moments. The laughingstock of Litchfield, Soso was dismissed and ridiculed by the other inmates for taking a stand against the prison's conditions. But eventually, Soso began to crumble and things were no longer so funny. "I think I'm depressed," she said at one point during Season 3. Suddenly, she became one of the most relatable characters on the show. It's pretty groundbreaking that Soso is given an arc about depression, an issue that's rarely depicted so honestly on television and one so rarely associated with Asians.
Dev Shah (Aziz Ansari), Master of None
There's been no shortage of shows and movies made about millennials in New York City, but we'd never seen that narrative centered on a South-Asian man until this year. In Master of None, Aziz Ansari plays Dev Shah, a first-generation Indian-American who's trying to make it as an actor, despite pushback from the industry and confusion from his parents. The show itself is progressive on many fronts: Its main character is an Indian man, it provides a look into a desi household, and it explores the immigrant narrative. Though Dev is at times frustrating to watch (like, how is he that clueless about his parents' lives pre-America? And about women?), he's a pretty great representation of what it's like being the kid of immigrant parents — sometimes they can be a little self-centered and inconsiderate, but mostly, they love the crap out of their parents.
Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra), Quantico
I was skeptical about Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) when I first tuned into Quantico. Why the Anglo last name? Why the insistence on rewriting Asian characters as biracial ones? Is it to make her more relatable?
It turns out, Chopra's character wasn't originally created for a South-Asian actor at all. But after the Bollywood star landed the part, Quantico's creator and executive producer, Josh Safran, worked with her to modify the role of Alex Parrish, ensuring that the character reflected Chopra's background. And that effort in and of itself is a huge stride.
After watching a few episodes of the series, I realized Alex's background is only one facet of Chopra's complex character — she's friendly with her fellow trainees but distant when she needs to be; and she seems like a coolheaded and capable agent on the surface but breaks down when she uncovers the truth about her father and, understandably, when she's framed for a terrorist attack. Just like my heritage doesn't define me as a person, nor does Alex's.
Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun), The Walking Dead
Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) had The Walking Dead fans in a real tizzy this year when he was shockingly killed off by a horde of zombies — and then revealed to have survived in a later episode a whole month later. Although the devastating fake death messed with our emotions and even caused some viewers to quit TWD, it revealed just how much America loves Glenn. After years of being bombarded with stone-faced martial artists, we finally have an Asian-American lead character who feels like a real person, not just a caricature of a hero. Brave, dependable, and compassionate, Glenn isn't a silent fighter devoid of emotions, nor is he an asexual goofball, which is how Hollywood has portrayed Asian men in the past. But there's nothing stereotypically Asian about Glenn at all. Undefined by his ethnicity — though he does acknowledge his heritage in the very first season — he's a character who just so happens to be Korean. That's diversity on television at its finest.
Ravi Patel, Meet the Patels
I thought my own dating life was rough — and then I watched Meet the Patels, a documentary about Ravi Patel, who's newly single after a split from his white girlfriend...whom he'd dated for two years and kept secret from his parents. Ravi broke up with his ex when confronted with the realization that his parents expected him to marry an Indian woman, ideally a Patel from their hometown. Shot through the lens of his sister, filmmaker Geeta Patel, the documentary follows Ravi on dates around the United States and even out of the country as he attempts to meet the woman of his dreams. It's an all too real film about the universal anxiety of not finding love and being alone forever, but it also taps into the unique experience of wanting something different from what your parents expect, while still loving and wanting to preserve your family's culture.
Sanjay and his father, Sanjay's Super Team
Until this year, the world had never seen a Pixar short like Sanjay's Super Team. And Sanjay Patel, an animator at Pixar and the director behind the short, had never thought that the company would be interested in a story based on his own life. But Sanjay's Super Team, about a boy who prefers watching superhero cartoons to studying Hinduism or joining his father in his daily prayers, really struck a nerve among even us older children of immigrants, who sometimes still struggle to understand and relate to our parents.
Quake (Chloe Bennet), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
It's been a long journey for S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Skye (Chloe Bennet), whose real identity was revealed last year to be an Inhuman named Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, daughter of Calvin Zabo (Kyle MacLachlan). And in 2015, we learned that Quake's mother is actually Jiaying (Dichen Lachman) — making the character half Chinese and the first Asian-American superhero on television with powers! It's an origin story the show's writers carefully crafted, modifying the original character from the comics to reflect Bennet's Chinese ancestry.
The fact that Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen planned for Skye to evolve into Daisy Johnson from the very beginning and that they made her Chinese-American is a huge milestone, especially for an actor like Bennet who personally struggled to find work until she changed her last name from "Wang" to "Bennet." It's a promising indication that things are finally looking up for Asian-American actors.
Mei Chang (Lori Tan Chinn), Orange Is the New Black
There's something that's been bothering me since Orange Is the New Black Season 3 dropped: The episode exploring Chang's (Lori Tan Chinn) backstory is called "Ching Chang Chong." Sure, it may be an attempt at irony, but as someone who has gotten the "ching chong" treatment many times during my childhood, it doesn't strike me as funny at all. Title aside, this episode does a good job of turning the otherwise quiet, "weird" Chinese woman — a one-dimensional character reserved for punchlines — into a character with a history as devastating as the rest of the inmates'.
In Season 3, we find out that Chang's older brother once tried to sell her off as a bride to an older man. But the suitor turned her down after seeing her face, deeming her too ugly to marry. In the end, Chang got her revenge, sending a gang to hunt down the man and cut out his gallbladder. Her story is a "fuck you" to the submissive Asian stereotype: The quiet Asian lady turns out to be a highly capable, self-sufficient badass who's not to be fucked with.
Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
"No, I don't find Asian men good-looking" is something I grew up hearing from peers in my conservative, mostly white town. And for a few years, I believed and internalized those comments because that's also what movies taught me to think. Asian men were never portrayed onscreen as hot. Instead, they were nerdy and socially inept, or meek and effeminate.
But in recent years, actors like Fast and Furious's Sung Kang and Lost's Daniel Dae Kim have broken that stereotype, showing America that Asian men can be suave, emotional, sexually desirable, and also desiring of women. Then, in 2013, John Cho changed the game, becoming television's first Asian-American romantic lead on the short-lived but beloved Selfie. And now, Vincent Rodriguez III stars on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as Josh Chan, a charming yet somewhat dim-witted dreamboat from a big Filipino family whom Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) moves 3,000 miles across the country to pursue. My, have we come a long way!
Whiterose (B.D. Wong), Mr. Robot
Just as the creators of Mr. Robot are working to dismantle the idea that tech is a man's world, B.D. Wong's portrayal as Whiterose on the series shattered the world's notion of what a Chinese person ought to look like. In Episode 8 of Mr. Robot, we find out that the head of the world's most dangerous hacking group is a transgender woman. It's a representation of an Asian-American woman the world has never seen onscreen before.
(Side note: B.D. Wong also signed on to play Hugo Strange, one of Batman's oldest enemies, on Gotham. Hell yeah!)
Sunny (Daniel Wu), Into the Badlands
I've previously written about why I found Into the Badlands' Sunny (Daniel Wu) disappointing and got plenty of hate for it (sup, y'all). I understand that it's a big deal to see an Asian-American man as the lead on an action series, and I applaud AMC for that. But for cripes' sake, can we give Sunny more of a personality and/or backstory? Besides the fact that an Asian man finally, finally gets the girl — and that includes more than just a hug — there isn't much of a difference between Sunny and all the stoic martial arts fighters we've seen before. He's just an emotionless fighting machine (which is a dangerous depiction of Asian men and of men in general). It's hard for me to feel invested in a character when I don't know about where he came from, what he's afraid of, what he cares about, or what drives him. Sure, he vows to protect Veil (Madeleine Mantock) and has been training M.K. (Aramis Knight) so that the three of them can escape the Badlands, but does he do it out of love or a sense of duty? Though the six-episode series has ended, that much is still unclear.
Dr. Ken Park (Ken Jeong), Dr. Ken
I wanted to like Dr. Ken. I really did. In the weeks leading up to the sitcom's premiere, I was excited to see Ken Jeong as the lead of his own show and not only as the weird yet hysterical Spanish teacher or screaming naked dude. I thought that maybe this year, the world would get to see more depth to him. But alas, Jeong is hard to watch as Dr. Ken Park, an uncool father and physician who struggles to balance his home and work lives. It's a pretty standard role and premise, with room for both more development and to tackle larger issues. But the show and Dr. Ken himself fall flat; it's 22 minutes of Jeong being an unfunny funny guy, telling lame jokes, and making exaggerated facial expressions. It actually makes me miss him as the doctor from Knocked Up. At least that guy was funny.
Allison Ng (Emma Stone), Aloha
Cameron Crowe made a movie in which there's a character named Allison Ng who's described as being a quarter Asian and a quarter Hawaiian — and he cast Emma Stone for the part.
No, we will never let Cameron Crowe live this one down. It's a joke that Emma Stone is even on this list. (And one even she recently poked fun at.) Ethnic erasure happens entirely too often in Hollywood, where characters of color are rewritten as white characters, but this was the most blatant and outrageous case of whitewashing we've seen in a while.
Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), The Martian
The Martian was a thoroughly entertaining movie, but Ridley Scott got a lot of flak for changes he made to two characters from Andy Weir's novel, on which the film is based.
And the criticism wasn't unwarranted. In a more subtle case of ethnic erasure, Mackenzie Davis was cast in the role of Mindy Park, who's supposed to be a character of Korean ancestry, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Dr. Vincent Kapoor, whose name was changed from "Venkat Kapoor." Dr. Kapoor is described in both the film and the book as a man with a Hindu father and a Baptist mother, despite Weir's argument that he never assigned an ethnicity to either of these characters.
There are so few opportunities for Asian-American actors and so few films featuring characters written specifically as Asian, which is why it's so disappointing any time these parts are rewritten as non-Asian characters or given to non-Asian actors.
All the unnamed Asian characters in the racist movie No Escape
My colleague Alison Willmore has already covered everything that's wrong with this yellow peril film, how its unnamed Asian villains may as well be zombies, and what it says about Hollywood that a film like this was made. It's some racist bullshit that doesn't deserve to be discussed any further. But clearly, xenophobia is very real, even in 2015.