Quite a while ago, I had a discussion with my cousin about an idea I had for a supernaturally based TV series that would involve an all Asian American cast. As I went on to describe the idea to him, one of the first things that came out of his mouth was (and I’m paraphrasing), “so how would this series have anything to do with the Asian culture?”
At first, I was a little astounded by that statement, because it would be the same as asking, “so how would a show with an all African American cast have anything to do with the African culture?” But as he explained further, the point that he was actually trying to make was this: unless a series had something to do with the Asian culture, why would a production company cast all Asian Americans into a show, when they could just as easily cast non-Asians and probably get more appeal for it?
When he said that, it actually got me thinking quite a bit. Because, for the longest time, there have always been common roles that Asians tended to play throughout American entertainment–roles such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, computer/tech experts, gangsters, and martial artists. Of course, every now and then there would be a few shows or movies that would include Asians in roles that deviated from their normal stereotype. One example that instantly comes to mind was B.D. Wong’s Catholic priest character from the gritty cable show “Oz”. Another, more recent example (though not a perfect one, since it’s still a little stereotypical), is the time bending average joe played by Masi Oka on the TV series “Heroes.” But for the most part, I, along with many of my Asian friends grew up knowing the Asian stereotypes that many Asian actors would play and have grown to almost expect them as a given.
But what would possibly happen if movies or TV shows cast Asians into roles that strongly deviated from the usual ones placed on them by American entertainment? What possible fallout or reception would arise if roles were given to Asian actors that threw Asian stereotypes right out the window? Below are just some examples that I thought up (besides the last one) and some comments on what I think might happen.
1.) Deranged Psychopath
Have a movie come out that involves a typical psycho-killer. The only thing is, the killer’s an Asian with no real connection to his culture (i.e. he doesn’t kill because he’s part of an Asian mafia, he doesn’t kill people with any special martial arts move, there’s no ancient Asian curse involved, etc.). All in all, he kills out of plain psychosis, but he just happens to be of Asian descent.
Possible Reception: If a movie like this came out, chances are, it would either be ignored, depending on how bad it is, or there would be some degree of backlash from the Asian community (because to them it would “portray” Asians as psychopaths, which is a no, no). So, in short, I see one of two possibilities happening: neglect by the general public at best or a political correctness firestorm at worst.
2.) Midwestern Average Joe
Have a movie or show about a simple guy from the Midwest who finds himself in extraordinary situations. This could involve some drama, some humor, but overall it’s a show/movie that serves up a nice hearty slice of Americana. Oh, and the Midwestern average joe’s Asian.
Possible Reception: Critics would probably criticize the film or TV show as being “unconvincing” and “synthetically forced”. I mean, though they exist, but who in the world would take an Asian guy with a midwestern accent seriously? Though I would, but something tells me that most people wouldn’t and I don’t say that to be mean.
3.) Ranch Hand/Cowboy
See “Midwestern Average Joe”.
4.) Central Character of a Sitcom
Years ago, Margaret Cho had one sitcom called “All-American Girl”. This sitcom had it all–a practically all Asian cast, wacky Asian American situations, and a nice dose of Asian American comedy.
Actual Reception: The sitcom failed horribly.
5.) Horror Movie Protagonist
In the recent years there’s been a flood of Asian Horror movies that have been translated to the American silver screen (“The Ring”, “Dark Water”, “Pulse”, “The Grudge”, etc.). In most cases, nearly the entire cast gets replaced by non-Asian actors. But in every case, the main hero/heroine gets replaced by a non-Asian actor or actress. What I’d like to see is an American horror movie, one with no connection to Asian horror themes at all (like an ancient Asian curse or monster), but one with an Asian protagonist who has absolutely no martial arts skill whatsoever (like most Asians in the real world).
Possible Reception: Most likely ignored by moviegoers everywhere. If the movie, however, was well advertised and well executed, it could get more attention, but probably not without some complaints about the miscast of the central character (namely that the central character wasn’t a pretty blonde or a popular Caucasian teen idol).
6.) Central Character in a Medieval European Fantasy
If Tom Cruise can be a samurai and Van Damme and Chuck Norris can beat the snot out of evil Asians using their own martial arts against them, why can’t an Asian guy wield a long sword, wear plate mail, and vanquish evil knights? Yes, the concept has to be way out there to get an Asian into a European medieval setting, but if any production company manages to pull this off with grace, my hat will go off to them.
Possible Reception: Depending on how big the budget and the effects are, some might go to see it out of sheer curiosity or eye-candy, but, for the most part, the reaction could easily degrade into the following consecutive pattern: shock, confusion, denial, and then blinding rage. Yes, this is partially my attempt to be funny, but the main failure and burden of this will probably lie more on the shoulders of stilted logic than on racial stereotyping.
7.) Central Character…Period
Well, this really isn’t anything that hasn’t been done or brought up, but this points to at least one of the major problems that Asian thespians face as a whole. In fact, it’s an issue that greatly affects all the other examples above. Besides the fact that there aren’t enough Asian American actors in the market, Asian performers are rarely cast as central characters in most TV shows and movies in general. This, of course, doesn’t include those movies or shows that have a strong martial arts element, such as the old “Vanishing Sun” series starring Russell Wong. Hopefully, this may change in time, but then again, “hopefully” is the magic word here.
As a movie and TV enthusiast, I always appreciate quality entertainment and actors who can truly deliver in their performance. As an Asian American, I always have the desire to see more Asians on the American screen displaying other dimensions of my community that not enough Americans get to generally see. Perhaps, several years down the road this could change, especially with all the various Asian talent budding here in the states (namely Korean actors and actresses). But overall, there’s always that grip of Asian stereotyping that still clutches strongly onto Hollywood to this very day.
Though I pretty much answered why certain non-Asian roles are hardly given to Asian actors at all, one thing I think is clear–if Asian actors are to break out of the stereotypical roles that are imposed upon them, change must happen gradually over time. There’s no question about it. Whether this change will be driven more by an increase of Asians in the acting business (building the supply) or through the increased infusion of novel ideas into the masses (spurring the demand), only time will tell. But if you’re reading this article and you happen to be in show business, above are some ideas to start with!