Asian American Discrimination in Hollywood

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Asian American Discrimination in Hollywood

Cherise Chang

April 9, 2010


Period 3

I am an Asian American who has lived in Mountain View, California for my entire life.  Ever since I was little I was one of the many kids in this country whose eyes were glued to watching movies with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan doing Kung-fu karate moves, defeating all enemies that got in their way.  As I grew older I noticed that the media viewed Asian Americans as doctors, geeky students, having bad luck with girls, dumb foreigners, and side characters.  But, all of this stereotyping didn’t matter to me; I was actually one of those people who found these stereotypical portrayals funny, until I saw one of my favorite cartoon TV shows, Avatar: The Last Airbender, become a victim of these Asian American stereotypes. 

Of course, this upcoming film hasn’t been the only example of Asian American discrimination in Hollywood. This act of injustice on Asian Americans and Hollywood’s stubbornness to continue using these stereotypes causes negative consequences to occur on the younger generation, potential Asian American actors, and society as a whole. The negative effects of this problem exist today and have been around for many generations. We can assume that since Hollywood has not been pressured by the public to exonerate these negative stereotypes that we as a nation do not value America’s ideal of equal opportunity for all citizens of the U.S.
All Asian American stereotypes depicted in Hollywood film and the media have one thing in common. Every single stereotype degrades Asian Americans in some way or another, depicting them as inhuman and incapable of feelings. Not as characters who struggle through life, but as 2-D characters that can be replaced by anyone. They are forced to deal with these stubborn prejudices that stem from cultural stereotyping and times of armed aggression between the United States and Asian nations. Hollywood assumes that a white audience will best relate to white characters. Some of the popular stereotypes used are: Martial arts expert, villain, serve Caucasians, nerdy kid, and sexuality of Asian men and women.

Americans assume that since were Asian we automatically are experts in the martial arts.  This is the most popular stereotype that is often repeated in films because it’s the most popular among the audiences in the U.S.  Most Asian actors take advantage of these stereotypical roles because they are the only leading roles available for Asians to act. If decide not to take the role than they may never come across another opportunity like this again. Only here are they liberated from the Whites control from taking all of the leading roles. Asian actors want a variety of roles to play; to express their whole range of talents like any other actor would want. 

  The stereotype that Asians are villains is influenced by the warring conflicts the U.S. has had with Asians countries since 1941, such as in WWII with Japan and the Vietnam War. Some of the characters created from this stereotype were Fu Manchu, Ming the Merciless, and the mad Malaysian run amok.

“…moral, political, and ideological correlations between Hollywood cinema and the United States military engagements with Asia, as images of Asians on the screen rationalized justified anti-Asian policies, or heightened, displaced, or repressed racial fears particularly associated with wartime conflict.” (Glen M. Mimura)

Acting roles like these were influenced from past events.  For example, in 1943 a Batman movie serial featured a Japanese villain. This serial was sponsored by the U.S. government to directly advocate the controversial policy of relocating Japanese Americans to internment camps. One scene in the serial described a Japanese American neighborhood that had been emptied by the internment policy. “This was a part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street.”(Race and Ethnicity in Entertainment qtd. the narrator) The entertainment business tried to convince Americans that all Japanese were evil suspicious people focused on the intent to destroy our country. Their goal was that the audience wouldn’t feel sympathy for the enemy, even if they committed cruel acts of violence against the Japanese.  If there is slightest chance that they have a minor good guy role, they are likely to be spies for the enemy.

If Asians weren’t given martial art roles they were given roles serving Caucasians. This was more popular in the past, but is still prevalent in the cinema today.  “…Hollywood’s perception of the Asian seemed to have been derived directly from the nineteenth-century frontier view of Chinese as a subhuman species suitable for building levees, laying railroad track, doing laundry, or being dangled from trees by those ridiculous pigtails.”(Thi Thanh Nga) “In American movies Chinamen served Caucasians, they were the background, they set the scene, but they never had the chance to be the scene themselves.”(Amy Wu) The only time they had the chance of being the lead actor was when they played in a martial arts film, and even then there was the possibility that they used a white actor dressed in Asian clothes, white make-up, and fake slanted eyes to match what they consider as the definition of Asian.  Caucasians believed that they were superior to Asians and had the right to control their so called subhuman race.  “The Oriental has no capacity for violence; he is mute, passive, charming, inscrutable,” (Glen M. Mimura 3) He is the model minority for all races to follow. But many were considered lucky to even receive roles because most of the time they only got background roles that didn’t even include dialogue to create the foreign setting of the film. But they would replace the important Asian characters with White actors. 

Perceived as the dumb foreigner that can’t speak English well, once again they are belittled by others. Making fun of their accent and how they can’t seem to assimilate into the American culture is a rude assumption to make of the Asian American race. “Portrayed by Gedde Watanabe, “The Donger” is so ethnically insulting as to be cringe-worthy: broken English, bad dental work, nerdy clothes…,” confirms Sam McManis about the common stereotypes of a dumb Asian. Even if an Asian was born in America people naturally assume that they were born in Asia, in other words a permanent foreigner.

“…the dominant culture industries and social discourses continue to reaffirm Asians’ racially coded status as perpetual alien, not simply un-assimilable but incomprehensible - or rather, as Renee Tajima incisively notes, “interchangeable in appearance and name, and…joined together by the common language of nonlanguage - that is, uninterpretable chattering, pidgin English, giggling or silence.” (Glen M. Mimura 4)

The common image that has transcended into societal beliefs and has had the greatest effect on the American people is that all Asians are smart. They can do anything. They have no problems in school. Over the years the stereotype of Asian males has gone from laboring geeks to technical geeks, with the calculator, white lab coat, and glasses. Asians are always looked up to, but in reality we struggle like any other human being. TV shows constantly depict Asians as doctors, lawyers, and mathematicians. In a crime show, like CSI, it’s common to find that the side-character, testing the evidence in the lab, is Asian. This stereotype formed when the second Asian immigrant wave came to the U.S. after the first immigrants helped build America’s railroads. In coming to the U.S. they dominated the fields of science and math. These “positive” stereotypes became binds for many Asians who wanted to express themselves for who they are, but were restricted to what everyone else expects of them. When a classmate says, “you Asians are all so smart,” it makes me boil with anger that they think life is harder for them, while in fact it’s harder for us to fulfill everyone’s high expectations.

Asian women and men have different stereotypes concerning their sexuality. For women, they are seen as very sexual and feminine to the extreme. They are either the dragon lady who will stab a knife in someone’s back or the girlfriend follows the order from her white boyfriend; practically an Asian slave. This common theme in films, were the Asian women in always paired with the white man, has been a long-standing Western cultural tradition. And if they do have relationships with Asian men it’s usually a foreign film that needs English subtitles. But since society accepts Asian women having relationships with White men, they are given more roles than Asian men where the idea of this type of relationship is forbidden.

Men have a much harder time than females in finding roles to act in Hollywood. “If the Asian female is typed as feminine to the point of caricature, her male equivalent has been systematically emasculated by American media. The roles usually associated with Oriental men are feminine ones…,”stated David Hwang. They are constantly seen as eunuchs or castrated men. They are repeatedly placed in roles that depict the Asian male having bad luck with romantic relationships. Sexual roles for men are virtually absent. From this we can infer that Hollywood thinks Asian men can’t have sexual relationships. Roles of any genre of film are hard to come by for men, even stereotypical ones. Society is just accepts Asian women more than Asian men.

These stereotypes have even affected the most famous of Asian American actors. Some of the actors that faced these stereotypes were Bruce Lee, Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong, and Daniel Dae Kim. All of them faced a variety of different impediments because the different eras, races, genders and backgrounds they each came from affected them in a different way.

Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese American actor during the 1910s, was known as one of the first and last Japanese male actors to be accepted for their sexual roles. His movies ranged from silent black-and-white films to color motion picture. The common roles he played were of the “two classic representations of Orientalism: a somewhat effeminate man of culture, and an out-of-control barbarian.”(Matthew Mizenko) His persona was the “cultured, genteel, disciplined, and honourable (bushido) Japanese gentleman who while able to demonstrate a certain degree of Americanization.” These stereotypical characters that were given to him reflected America’s belief that the Japanese were primitive violent men who attacked white women, but ultimately fail at the end to completely succeed control over them. Sessue believed that the actor was the product of his producers, the media, and the societal beliefs of the time in history, which revolved around the politics of race, gender, sexuality, and class. All of these are based on the discriminatory views of the American people of that time. As an actor, there were three important elements that Sessue had to consider. They were called ““Hayakawa’s: “triple consciousness”: his negotiations among his American and Japanese audiences, and within his personal identity, with regard to cultural representation.”(Matthew Mizenko) He wanted to please everyone, including himself, but Hayakawa the person had little control over Hayakawa the actor. He failed to film “realistic” representations of Japan, and was seen as a cultural hero and traitor to his Japanese American and Japanese audiences.

Bruce Lee was known by all as a professional martial artist and a great actor during the 1970s. When he started starring in films that demonstrated his Kung-fu abilities they became a worldwide hit. But later in his career he discovered that Hollywood would not accept him in playing any other types of roles outside of his character. It was then that he began to struggle with his accidental creation of the stereotype that all Asians know martial arts. Facing Hollywood’s discrimination, in the TV series “Green Hornet” “…he only [got] to attack on command from the white man,” (Sam McManis qtd. Chinn). Bruce never was able to become the lead star except in martial arts movies, and even now he couldn’t be the lead actor in movie showing his martial art skills. Steve McQueen and James Coburn were Bruce’s students and both “had told him that he could never reach their star status because he was Chinese.” (Thi Thanh Nga qtd. Steve McQueen and James Coburn) Eventually, he became fed up with the limited roles available in the U.S. and left Hollywood to pursue his career in Hong Kong for two years. There he was able to shine using his true talent. He later came back to the U.S., but died shortly after directing his first film American film “Game of Death” since his return.

Asian Americans in the beginning of his career were proud to see an Asian on the big screen, for he was someone their children could look up to as a role model. They took pride in the fact that Bruce Lee had made it to Hollywood. But at the end of his career he angered many Asians for creating the stereotype that limited the roles made available to them today.

In the 1920’s Anna May Wong was one of the few young female Asian actors that actually made it to stardom. She was commonly portrayed as a woman of mystery and dark sexuality, like in her film “Shanghai Express.” In 1928, one of the scenes in her film, where she kissed an English gentleman, was removed by British censors. They argued that such an event could not have occurred in real life.

“I was tired of the parts I had to play. Why was it that on the screen the Chinese are nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass…We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show those on the screen?” (Thi Thang Nga qtd. Anna May Wong)
That year she left Hollywood stating,
Hollywood claims that Americans want to see the China Doll wearing Chinese looking clothes, in love with a man, but in reality she’s actually a dangerous backstabbing witch. She did not choose to act these characters, but was forced to play these stereotypical roles available to her in order to make a living. Even though it may seem like Asians received many roles in the past, many were restricted to the minor racist roles available.

Actor Daniel Dae Kim is one of the many Asian male actors that struggle against Hollywood’s discrimination of Asian men. He appeared in the ABC TV series “Lost,” as the only Asian American male in a group of airplane passengers that were stranded on a strange island. Race and Ethnicity in Entertainment states that, “Asian characters are frequently “portrayed as inscrutable villains and asexual kind[s] of eunuchs. Kim also notes that he played about 50 roles on TV before he was given his first on-screen kiss; based on his experiences, he asserts that the industry promotes a negative stereotype that Asians are somehow unattractive or incapable of having romantic relationships.”(qtd. Daniel Dae Kim) His experience echoes the voices of the many Asian American men who have given up on ever finding roles that will allow them to act like any other person that can maintain a normal, happy relationship.

An example of a current film that demonstrates the continuation of Asian American discrimination in today’s film industry is the film “21,” released on March 8, 2008. It was based on a true story involving a group of Asian American MIT undergrads who were geniuses in playing blackjack. When Hollywood announced that they would be basing a film off of this story people became excited. This could be the very first film made by Hollywood that had Asian men as the lead actors. That excitement turned into burning hatred when Hollywood announced that the lead actors would be white and there was the possibility of an Asian female in the storyline. “Hollywood’s discriminatory casting process [caused]…over 600 members on a Facebook group [to] have called for its boycott, and…several prominent newspapers and blogs have criticized this movie, with one writer even calling it “moving Asian Americans to the back of the bus.”(Alvin Lin) The weak excuses that Hollywood used to defend their racist decision was that Hollywood was first and for most a business that aims to make a profit from its audience and that Americans won’t accept Asian faces on the big screen. And to prove that they are not discriminating against minorities in leading roles they argued that they made movies like “I Am Legend.” The difference is that Will Smith, the main actor in the film, is African American and has been in hundreds of Hollywood films before. Clumping Asian Americans together with other minorities is not a good excuse. We are a separate race. “I Am Legend” is not an example of an Asian feat. There have been fewer movies made with Asian American leads than African American leads. Hollywood feels more comfortable with casting actors that have played stereotypical roles in the past and using them in films because they know the actor is popular enough to attract a crowd and they have the acting skills. It’s too much of a risk to put an unknown Asian actor as the lead, since they assume that it won’t appeal to the audience.

In the beginning of the essay I was discussing the issue of the upcoming movie “The Last Airbender,” and how it’s one of the many examples of Asian American discrimination in Hollywood today. Many people all over the world are fans or familiar with this cartoon TV series, so when they discovered that they would replace the main Asian characters with White actors’ people became furious just like I had when I viewed the trailer for the upcoming movie and saw white actors replace the Asian characters.  Because of Hollywood’s act of discrimination thousands of members have joined online groups such as Facebook and to make their anger known to Hollywood and the general public. One reason why this movie is a stronger case of discrimination than “21” is that the creators of the TV series actually created their show in order to honor the Asian culture, ideas, and artists that they admired. There was no possible way that the director, M. Night Shyamalan, could have mistaken the characters in the cartoon series as White. There were too many hints of calligraphy, Asian architecture and Asian martial arts moves to indicate that this film must have been set in an Asian world, but Hollywood chose to stray from the authenticity of the TV series, even though this action would likely anger many fans. It’s even worse to know that the “show’s primary target audience is six to ten years old - kids who may not know the specifics of its references but are undoubtedly aware of and attracted to its cultural origins.”(Jeff Yang) The producer claimed that the setting would be diverse, but ignored the concerns regarding a glass ceiling reserving the three primary heroic roles for white actors. Paramount’s letter failed to answer MANAA’s (Media Action Network For Asian Americans) charges of discrimination, racial bias, cultural appropriation, imperialism, and the production’s use of culturally ignorant language to justify the film’s casting practices. The casting directors once again had the chance to make history and choose lead Asian actors, but they blew their chance and decided to go with the norm and chose White actors. Even worse, they decided to choose an Asian (Indian) actor to replace the White actor that was originally going to play the villain, keeping in tradition with the stereotype that Asians are villains. Organizations for Asian American rights argued for changes in the cast before the cast was finalized, but the producers did not listen to the American voices. In my survey that I conducted at Mountain View High School 15 out of 15 students said that there were potential Asian actors that could have played these characters. Some people have decided to boycott the film to protest this act of discrimination, but only two out of 15 people in my survey are willing to protest against this racist film.

Asian Americans should not only fight for their right to have equal opportunity in Hollywood roles, but to prevent the negative effects of Asian American discrimination on society and potential Asian actors. “…Films and TV shows often promote negative stereotypes of racial and ethnic groups…Audience members might absorb those stereotypes and accept them as true, and thereby develop real-life prejudices based on what they see on screen.” (Race and Ethnicity in Entertainment) Even though these stereotypical portraits are fictional, they can cause harm by damaging real-world perceptions of racial and ethnic communities. Hollywood’s primary goal is to support their director’s intentions before society’s problems. This shouldn’t be the case. Hollywood first needs to think about the serious consequences they could make by releasing one of their stereotypical films to the entire country. What Hollywood is actually demonstrating is that the foreign discrimination used in their films reflects the local fears in America more than the actual facts of the country they are portraying.

The younger generation is in constant danger from Hollywood’s bigotry. Children are at the stage where they are still developing a sense of morals and ethics. They are susceptible to the images that Hollywood portrays in their films and believe that what Hollywood shows them must be reality. American children begin to believe that the stereotypes in films are actually true and treat the Asians that they come across in real life like those stereotypes are actually real.

“Society…tells we young Asian Americans “sorry you’re not right for Hollywood, but Wall Street and the national Institute of Health are waiting.” As a result of her past experience, what she has been exposed, and what she is encouraged and discouraged by her parents and American society, has tragically influenced her perceptions of her abilities, herself, and her culture.” (Amy Wu)

With no Asian role models to look up to in the entertainment field, young Asian Americans decide they will be more likely to succeed in life if they become doctors, businessmen/business women or lawyers. Potential young Asian actors are discouraged from even pursuing an acting career even though they have the talent. This makes the myth about Asian Americans not wanting to become actors become reality, leading to the decline of Asian actors. Amy Wu says that Hollywood’s counter argument is that “how can we hire Asian Americans if so many of them go into the science, math, and business?” Just like the chicken and egg theory, Hollywood’s acts of discrimination causes the decrease of Asians wanting to become actors because they know that it’s likely that they won’t make it anywhere in that field. In a way it’s true that casting directors have a small selection of Asians to choose from, but they are responsible for this occurrence.

While a new generation of Asian actors is being prevented from forming, the older generation of Asian actors is dying out. The only Asian actors accepted in Hollywood are like Jackie Chan and Jet Li because Hollywood claims that they are more familiar with their acting skills since they have used in previous films. Good acting skills are necessary in an actor, but we need to force ourselves to find actors that have the talent and are not being supported by Hollywood. Hollywood only takes the risk of finding new actors among Whites. If we don’t push for Hollywood to search for Asian American actors then Asians will continue to not be represented in the cinema.
All Asians, including Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Philipino, and others must band together and end Hollywood’s stereotypical ways. Our individual missions are preventing us from solving the common goal: to see Asians represented in the film industry and the media. There have been few protests against the norm, but we must support these few changes for the better of the Asian race. Just like in the interview of Mako Iwamatsu by Jeff Adachi, Mako said that we must “keep not accepting what we have today, but keep trying to improve that…” We can’t let Hollywood continue to say that Asians can’t act.

In 2002, the movie Better Luck Tomorrow was one of the first movies to prove everyone that you can make it big with an all unknown Asian American cast. Director Justin Lin first started out playing minor roles, like being the food delivery man. When he was given the opportunity to direct a film he decided to make one against the typical Hollywood stereotypes and have an all Asian cast. The movie he directed was about a group of young Asian men struggling with the Asian stereotypes that exist in today’s society. He stated that:

“…the movie world hasn’t depicted the lives of Asian Americans – people who speak unaccented English, people whose lives are informed by race, ethnicity and family but aren’t reduced to those issues. In other words, no mainstream film has shown us the way we see ourselves: people, not a people, with individual quirks and dilemmas not accorded to characters forced to “represent” (positively or not) ‘their community.’” (Noy Thrupkaew qtd. by Justin Lin)

The characters that Justin created were fleshed out, three dimensional people. His work overcomes both stereotype and counter stereotype. Justin and others who share his ideals are waiting to see if his film will start an Asian American film revolution, bringing roles that transcend kung-fu mastery, hoochie-mama appeal and the golden handcuffs of “positive-portrayals.” Taking Justin’s example we must learn to fight against the stereotypes and show America that we consider ourselves more American than Asian.

We Asians should be fighting for our own rights, not letting others do the work for us. It’s ironic that most of the people protesting against “The Last Airbender” film are white, black, and Latino. In this day of age we actually have the resources available to us in order to promote the Asian American race.

One reason Asian American haven’t increased their numbers of Asian actors in films is because we are not fighting for it as one group. We are not making an effort to make a change. According to Jeff Adachi, “Is it really a battle outside of ourselves” (qtd. by Bruce Lee) Sam McManis encourages the idea to “[tell] Asian American men that they need to become screenwriters and directors to tell their own story…a better strategy than merely waiting for those already in power to act.” (qtd. Jeff Adachi) It’s important to take advantage of all resources to make our talents known. The internet can be used to advertise our acting skills to the public, bypassing big companies we used to depend on to promote our skills to the public. We deserve equal opportunity in all careers, like any other citizen should have in this country. Support people like Justin Lin, Frank Chin, Philip Gotanda, and David Henry Hwang that create films representing Asians for who they really are. We must start the Asian American film revolution today.

Glen M. Mimura author of Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video claims that “Asian Americans have long participated in the making of the United States, yet their ubiquitous representation as perpetual foreigners regardless of generational status persistently repressed their historical significance.” We helped build the railroads, the infrastructure of this country. According to the U.S. Census the Asian American population in the U.S. is 15.2 million and around 5 million in just California alone.  Is Hollywood claiming that we don’t deserve to have our race positively portrayed in films that billions of people watch, even though we’ve been living and contributing to society for generations?

Hollywood and the media represent are society’s ills. This should be a warning to all Asians that we must solve this issue not just because it has been going on for centuries, but because of the negative effects is has on our society and the future generation. America was founded on the ideals of equality for all, but we haven’t proved that we fully accept this ideal for all people regardless of race. We must prove to everyone in this world that the time is now, that our generation is the one that can fix this problem that has been continuing on for too long. Activists continue to battle the demeaning portrayals and by preventing films and TV shows from depicting Asian American stereotypes we could finally fulfill our country’s ideal.
Works Cited

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Hwang, David. "ARE MOVIES READY FOR REAL ORIENTALS?(Arts and Leisure Desk)." New York Times 11 Aug. 1985. Student Resource Center - Gold. Web. 4 Apr. 2010. 

Jeff Yang. “'Avatar' an Asian thing- why isn't the cast?” San Francisco Chronicle 9 January 2009: E-1. 18 March 2010. <>

Lin, Alvin. “Opinion: ‘21’ Discriminatory Casting Unjustified.” The Tech. 25 February 2010: 128-15. 10 March 2010. <>

Mimura, Glen M. Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film And Video. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009

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Mountain View High School Students. Personal interview. 20 March 2010.

"Race and Ethnicity in Entertainment." Issues & Controversies On File: n. pag. Issues & Controversies. Facts On File News Services, 24 Aug. 2007. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <>.

The Slanted Screen. Dir. Jeff Adachi. Perf. Mako Iwamatsu, Frank Chin, Bruce Lee. Asian American Media Mafia, 2006

Thi Thanh Nga. "The long march from Wong to Woo: Asians in Hollywood." Cineaste Fall 1995: 38+. Student Resource Center - Gold. Web. 4 Apr. 2010.

Thrupkaew, Noy. "Filmic face-lift: Better Luck Tomorrow makes over Asian American cinema. (Film)." The American Prospect 14.5 (2003): 41+. Student Resource Center - Gold. Web. 10 Mar. 2010.

Wu, Amy. "Chinamen in Hollywood?" Chinese American Forum. 9.3 (1994): Print. 10 Mar. 2010.

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