Addressing Asian American Representation in the Media by Monica Chen

The recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy—addressing the fact that there were no actresses or actors of color in the recent 2016 nominations—has brought to light an issue that has long been present in United States: racial representation in media.

In terms of Asian American representation, only 44 Asian and Asian American films, actresses, actors, directors, screenplay writers, films, costume design teams, and others have won awards in the history of the Academy Awards. No actresses of Asian descent have won Best Actress, but Miyoshi Umeki won Best Supporting Actress in 1957 and Haing Ngor won Best Supporting Actor in 1985 for his work in The Killing Fields. We must consider the long history of the Academy Awards when we think of this small number of winners. We must also look into the systemic issues fostering this problem of representation in film as an explanation for the lack of Asian American Academy Awards winners and nominees.

The term “bamboo ceiling,” coined by executive coach Jane Hyun, refers to the struggles and limitations that Asian Americans face in corporate settings and in the workplace. More recently, some news sources and organizations have been referring to the “bamboo ceiling” in the media, specifically focusing on the discrimination that Asians and Asian Americans face when attempting to enter Hollywood and the acting, directing, screenplay writing, or producing fields. The organization New American Media addresses this in an article entitled “The ‘Bamboo Ceiling’: Hollywood Shuns Asians, While New Media Embraces Them” by detailing the difficulties of Asian American representation in Hollywood, not only in Asian American actresses and actors finding work, but also in finding Asian or Asian American roles that are not stereotypical or caricatures of Asian culture. New American Media suggests that this discrimination serves as the reason for why so many Asians and Asian Americans are becoming YouTubers (and successful ones at that) as a response to the discrimination faced in Hollywood.

The topic of Asian American representation is very important to me. As an Asian American, film and television viewer, someone interested in possibly writing film or television scripts, and someone who is a part of this society that is so influenced by the media. Even as I child, I remember seeing stereotypical depictions of Asians or Asian Americans in television shows and movies—the perpetual foreigner, the socially inept geek, the sexually exotic deviant, and the submissive housewife are just a few examples—but they were nothing more than topics to make jokes about or to rant about with friends. Upon entering college and taking classes pertaining to Asian American history, I have been able to learn more about the history that influences the way Asian Americans are represented as well as where these stereotypes come from and why they exist.

Taking the Ithaca Pan Asian American film festival course and helping plan the festival have provided me with the opportunity to study the issue of Asian American representation in film through an academic, visual, and film watcher’s lens. After only three weeks of class, I have already been exposed to Asian American films that I have never heard of, the racist and sexist portrayals of Asian culture in films,  and how the depiction of Asian Americans with certain characteristics was a strategic method used the United States government during conflicts with certain Asian countries. The festival itself is a great way for to address the experiences of Asian Americans in this country and face the problem of representation in the media.

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