by Michelle Aviles and Monica Petrucci
How has representation of a certain group improved in TV and film? What can be done better?
In the eyes of Hollywood, all Asians are the same. It doesn’t matter that I am Korean; in the film industry, my identity is no different than that of any other Asian. In the minds of casting directors, it is easier to hire a white actor, put on little bit of prosthetic makeup, and create what they believe to be an accurate portrayal of an Asian person.
No Asian actress has ever won Best Actress in the Oscars, but in 1937, White actress Luise Rainer won the award for her blatant yellowface role as O-Lan in The Good Earth. As outrageous as it might sound, yellowface continues to permeate films to this day. It’s become more subtle with American live-action remakes of animes like Dragonball Z, Ghost In the Shell, and Death Note, which are all notable for having a white actor play a Japanese character. Even the thought of Disney’s upcoming remake of Mulan keeps me up at night.
Some argue that this practice is not racist because the actors are just doing their jobs. In fact, white actors that put on yellowface are taking away roles from actual Asians who deserve it. It makes being Asian just a set of physical traits rather than a complex identity. It invalidates a culture, without even acknowledging that “Asian” is not a single cultural experience. This has been going on so long that I had lost all hope that Hollywood would ever break the pattern.
Then, a few of weeks ago, director Neil Marshall announced a Hellboy reboot. According to the cast list, Major Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character in the comic books, was going to be played by Ed Skrein, a white actor. No matter how many angry tweets, Instagram comments, or Facebook rants, Skrein was still going to appear on screen and there was nothing I, or anyone else, could do about it.
Suddenly, something spectacular happened. Ed Skrein stepped down from the role. At first, I was sure it was a hoax. However, Skrein posted an apology on his Instagram that read: “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts.”
Daniel Dae Kim, a Korean-American actor, was cast as Ben Daimio not too long after the announcement. This was the first time I have ever seen someone listen to the frustrations of Asian-Americans and do the right thing even if it meant losing a great role.
Of course, Ed Skrein didn’t cure Hollywood of its racist tendencies, but his actions are a step in the right direction. Yellowface and other racist portrayals are by no means dead, but ethical responses of the part of white actors can be the beginning of a shift toward a more diverse Hollywood. This incident proved that by speaking out, individuals can affect change, even if it is on a small scale. Though it requires a sympathetic ear, there are those who are listening, and there is hope for Hollywood yet.
Minority representation in television has come a long way over the past few decades. Today, shows featuring powerful women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks in leading roles are becoming a more common occurrence. This shift in the mainstream narrative helps normalize and give a voice to historically marginalized groups.
The LGBTQ community, specifically, has made major strides in the entertainment industry. As reported by the Washington Post, 4.8 percent of primetime television characters identified as queer, the highest percentage ever. From Will and Grace to Pretty Little Liars, complex representations of gay and lesbian characters are increasing in popular TV. Despite this major step forward, portrayals of bisexual characters lack substance.
Certainly, there are a few cases that represent bisexual people accurately. Characters like Callie Torres on Grey’s Anatomy, Nolan Ross on Revenge, and Ilana Wexler on Broad City are some of the most realistic representations on TV. But for the most part, the TV industry continues to invalidate this community through inaccurate, two-dimensional portrayals.
Bisexual characters, mostly portrayed by women, are almost always hypersexualized and exist purely as a turn-on for men. For example, Daenerys Stormborn from Game of Thrones has relationships with women that are purely sexual, and only her relationships with men are portrayed as romantically legitimate. In House, Thirteen’s relationships with women are constantly discussed as a way to excite the male characters.
Male characters in this category are rare; there are only half as many bisexual men as bisexual women on TV. Even on Glee, a show that supposedly accepts people from all walks of life, bisexuality is described as “a term that gay guys use when they want to feel like a normal person for a change.” This contributes to bi erasure, where bisexuality is ignored, delegitimized, or even totally denied. When bisexual men do appear on screen, they’re often seen in a negative light. For instance, House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, despite his sexual encounters and relationships with men and women, refuses to directly acknowledge his sexuality. Underwood also contributes to the evil bisexual trope, in that his sexuality is directly linked to his villainous and manipulative character.
Representation in the media matters when kids struggling with their sexuality see slanted and stereotypical depictions of what it means to be queer on their televisions. What we consume in the media is more powerful than mindless entertainment—it shapes how we see the world and ourselves. We shouldn’t be satisfied until all perspectives are shared and understood.