With Moonlight’s win at the Oscars this past Sunday, it felt like a great boundary had been crossed. The win was incipient: A contemporary love story about a black, gay man had won Best Picture. What more blisteringly real and diverse films would this open the floodgates for? Yesterday, I published an editorial column about the victory of Moonlight over La La Land feeling like a subversion of the presidential election — a grand comparison, but also one rooted in familiar themes: A modern movie about minorities won out over one about white nostalgia for an idealistic past.
It is easy to look at this win and feel like justice has been served, that the film industry responded to the #OscarsSoWhite debacle and that progress is the only way forward. But the fact is, these waves of progress are exactly that — waves. There will be good years and bad years, and until the tide changes then nothing will. The systemic nature of Hollywood inequality is made even more explicit when one looks at the constant either under-representation or misrepresentation of Asians and Asian Americans in film. It’s not a coincidence that stereotyped depictions of Asians onscreen make their way into the cultural lexicon. These tropes, passed down through film history, filter themselves into instinctive societal perceptions.
Emma Stone, who took home this year’s Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for La La Land, was deeply criticized in 2015 for her portrayal of a character named Allison Ng in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha. (Allison is a quarter Asian, Stone is not.) But she moved on, took a role from the plethora readily available for her, and took home her Oscar for it. Truthfully, I don’t think Stone’s involvement in Aloha propelled her career, but it was still one step forward to her Oscar. Imagine what that could have done for an Asian American actress. One step forward.
When it comes to diversity in film and television, it is sometimes difficult not to adopt an “I’ll take what I can get” attitude. Last Sunday, Moonlight’s win felt like an undeniable triumph, a feeling of joy that soars over that attitude. But at the end of the day, things were still bittersweet. Watching the black community celebrate triumphs like Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures fills me with both thrill and longing.
I share every ounce of their joy. But a part of me still longs to know what it feels like to be proud of a prominent Asian American actor, a groundbreaking Asian American film. Is there a community of like-minded people out there? Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like it. I knew more Marvel-loving film students willing to defend the decision to cast Tilda Swinton in her traditionally Tibetan role in Doctor Strange than I knew those willing to fight it. More willing to designate this casting choice unavoidable due to political reasons or allegiance to the source material, than one of blatant and ridiculous anti-Asian discrimination.
Maybe these are tricky waters to enter. It’s not like there are a finite number of films that can be made in any given expanse of time. When the medium is imagination, why shouldn’t we demand fuller diversity? One more picture about Asian Americans will not take away the spotlight from anyone else. There is no limit to human creativity and empathy in this world.
Representation is the only way to widen the way people think about each other. And sometimes it hurts to say this, but even stereotyped depictions are better than no depictions at all. Because how else will I see another Asian American onscreen, even if he or she is forced into the kung-fu master/wise sage/dragon lady/nerd box? How else am I to know that I exist in the public conscience?
That is how bad this gets: that we demand Asian American representation, even in these roles that so plainly demean our existence. If movies are mirrors then that is how desperate we are to see ourselves in this reflection of society.
I’ve been told not to make a big deal out of whitewashing, that the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Asians and Asian Americans in film is not a pressing issue. But how can that be true when an Indian man was killed in Kansas last week in a xenophobic hate crime?
I grew up in a community where the most exposure people got to Asian Americans was through TV, a medium in which we are repeatedly and dependently caricatured. My childhood was marked by an othering so severe that the alienation settled inside myself, lay the groundwork for some of the insecurity I still feel to this day. But in some cases, like in Kansas, this othering is violent and fatal. And I dare you to look me in the eyes and tell me that film and television play no part in perpetuating these stereotypes. The ideas that those who are yellow and brown are necessarily foreign, inherently un-American, and do not hold a place in our society.
When it comes to diversity on-screen, we have a long way to go for minorities of all races. When it comes to Asian Americans, there is a specific and urgent need to depict them in ways that include them in the fabric of this country. I am tired of seeing myself on-screen cloaked only in accents and tropes. I am tired of fighting to see myself on-screen even in these demeaning and generalized forms.
And the truth is, I cannot imagine watching a film where every lead looked like me, being able to do so freely and without feeling like I need to account for the actions of every Asian or Asian American person onscreen. I do not know how to watch Doctor Strange without my heart falling at the depiction of the simple-minded, buffoonish Wong, reading the script for Crash and feeling disappointed that the Asian character is called “the chinaman” the entire time. I don’t know what that’s like, to be thought of as a “default” American and person.
If Moonlight’s win taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as a niche story. Not when a movie is good. As long as a story portrays emotions realistically and tangibly, it can appeal to everyone. And I demand more Asian stories in cinema. I demand someone to be proud of and a role model for myself and my future children. I want a character to whom I can hold not hesitant allegiance, but blistering pride: an Asian American hero.
Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Wide Shot,” runs Wednesdays.