Have Awards shows changed the way we view Asian Americans?

Tamlyn Tomita shares her career experience as an Asian American woman working in Hollywood.  L-R: Janet Yang, William Yu (founder of #StarringJohnCho) and Tamlyn Tomita. Photo by Gil Asakawa, AARP.org/aapi
Tamlyn Tomita shares her career experience as an Asian American woman working in Hollywood. L-R: Janet Yang, William Yu (founder of #StarringJohnCho) and Tamlyn Tomita. Photo by Gil Asakawa, AARP.org/aapi

In many ways, Sunday’s Emmy Awards showed that a shift has taken place in Hollywood since the Oscars, just seven months earlier. As Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari accepted the Best Writing trophy for Master of None, Yang stole the show with his heartfelt tribute to immigrant parents and call for more young Asian Americans to pursue careers in entertainment—a far cry from the ridicule of Asians during the Academy Awards. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite became a household phrase leading up to the Oscars in February, but for many Asian Americans, the catalyzing moment happened during show itself, with a series of racist jokes. First, host Chris Rock brought three Asian children onstage, joking about math stereotypes and child labor, followed by Sacha Baron Cohen’s crude one-liner alluding to yellow people’s genitalia.

However, even during the Emmys, feelings of invisibility lingered among Asian Americans; as Fresh Off the Boat’s Randall Park and Constance Wu took the stage to present, Park asked with wide eyes if they were going to receive their award later. Fans latched onto the moment, creating the #JusticeForConstanceWu hashtag on Twitter, feeling like Wu had been snubbed for a nomination in the acting category.

But even host Jimmy Kimmel’s awkward attempts to make light of his own white, heterosexual male privilege—joking about “too much diversity” and asking whether Jill Soloway’s call to “topple the patriarchy” was a good thing for himself—were far more palatable than the usage of Asians as punchlines at the Oscars.

In February, producer Janet Yang watched the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony at home. “My jaw dropped,” says Yang of the jokes about Asians. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.” Yang, a veteran filmmaker in the US and China, whose credits include The Joy Luck Club and Empire of the Sun, is also a member of the Academy. In a packed ballroom at the Asian American Journalists Association convention in August, Yang describes how the awards show prompted a movement among Asian Americans in the Academy: “It definitely was a lot of pent-up frustration that all converged on this one incident.”

April Reign, creator of #oscarssowhite.

April Reign, creator of #OscarsSoWhite.

So Yang started writing an editorial. At the same time, other Asian members of the Academy had similar ideas. Yang ended up signing the letter spearheaded by documentary producers Freida Lee Mock and Arthur Dong and Hollywood public relations executive David Magdael. Since the Academy roster has traditionally been closely guarded, even members were unsure of exactly how many AAPIs were in the ranks.

Together, they pinned down about 50 Asian Americans they knew to belong to the Academy. Half of them signed, including actors George Takei, Sandra Oh, and Nancy Kwan, directors Ang Lee, Chris Tashima, and executives Marcus Hu and Teddy Zee. “I had never seen anything happen so quickly,” says Yang. “This moment in time is truly radical. What I’ve seen again, this year more so this year than any other time, there is a common interest.” The letter expressed disappointment over the “targeting of Asians” and the “tone-deaf approach” to portrayals of Asians on Oscars Night, especially in light of pressures to increase diversity in the Academy.

Much of that media interest has been prompted by social media. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was started by April Reign, a Black woman, and the movement gained traction in large part due to outspoken African Americans on social media. “I am grateful for Black Twitter because it is a real force,” says Gamechanger Film’s Mynette Louie. “I’m glad that underrepresented voices finally have platforms through which to express their opinions.” Reign, an attorney-turned-editor of Broadway Black, a website focused on African Americans in theater, describes tapping out a tweet early one morning in 2015, dismayed by a news report announcing the nominees for the year’s Best Actor or Best Actress awards—all of whom were white.

One year later, the hashtag took on a life of its own, when the 2016 list of nominees was announced—and again, no actors of color were nominated. This time, #OscarsSoWhite went viral, prompting celebrities such as Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee to call for boycotts of the awards show and earning coverage across the US and as far away as Ireland, New Zealand and Australia. While much media coverage has focused on the lack of Black representation in the awards, Reign stresses that her goal was always to include all marginalized communities, inclusive of race, sexual orientation or ability. My goal was always to include everyone who has been traditionally underrepresented. And that definitely includes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” Reign said. “If you look at the numbers AAPI are even less represented than some other minorities.”

This year’s controversies have prompted more discussion than ever, not only with the lack of diversity among Oscars nominees, but also in casting choices that whitewash Asian roles. Most notable: the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton as a character originally written as a Tibetan man in Dr. Strange. But the question of Asian American representation in Hollywood is as old as Hollywood itself.

Beginning in the 1930s, white actors were routinely cast in Asian roles. “The practice of having white actors play people of color in blackface, yellowface, brownface, redface comes from minstrelsy, which was highly popular even before the advent of film,” says says Biola University sociology professor Nancy Yuen, who is the author of the upcoming book Reel Inequality (Rutgers Press, December 2016).

Emma Stone in Aloha (left) next to Michelle Villemaire on the right in the Correcting Yellowface project. Photo by Matt Dusig.

Emma Stone in Aloha (left) next to Michelle Villemaire on the right in the Correcting Yellowface project. Photo by Matt Dusig.

During the 1930s through most of the 50s, the Motion Picture Production Code (or “Hays Code”) contained an anti-miscegenation clause forbidding portrayals of actors of different races in romantic relationships. “This further justified yellowface performances,” explains Yuen. Classic movies such as Charlie Chan, The Good Earth, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s all included white actors in yellowface—with wigs, makeup or prosthetics to create sometimes grotesque interpretations of Asian facial features. Blogger Michelle Villemaire recreated many of these old movie stills in a viral photoessay titled Correcting Yellowface.

Other online movements, such as the hashtags #whitewashedOUT, #StarringJohnCho and #StarringConstanceWu that followed #OscarsSoWhite also show that Asian Americans can mobilize with social media to make their voices heard for better representation in Hollywood.

The last large-scale protest over Asian Americans in entertainment took place over 25 years ago. In 1990, whitewashing on Broadway was the target. “Miss Saigon was the last time Asian American artists rallied against whitewashing—when white British actor Jonathan Pryce was cast in an ‘Eurasian’ pimp role,” Yuen said. “The protests led the Actor’s Equity to try to bar Pryce from the New York production of Miss Saigon, but ended when Cameron Mackintosh cancelled the production all together.” Although the protests did not prevent Pryce from playing the role, subsequent castings of the same character went to Asian actors.

Nancy Yuen

Nancy Yuen

A few years later, many Asian Americans celebrated the production of the big screen adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, which was produced by Janet Yang. “They were all saying in 1993, this is going to forward Asian American stories,” says actress Tamlyn Tomita, also speaking on the panel at the AAJA convention. “Yeah, it was just a major blip in that point.” But Tomita and others believe that that this year’s activism is more than a temporary blip, noting that past attempts to widen diversity in Hollywood have not gained the traction of this current round.

Within the ranks of the Academy, other individuals have attempted in the past to advocate for more inclusion. Actor and director Chris Tashima was inducted into the Academy after winning the 1998 Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film, for Visas and Virtue. He brought up the topic of diversity at an Academy-wide town hall meeting in the late 1990s. “I’m sure that I came across as a little bit angry. I probably offended some people,” Tashima recalls. “White people totally take it personally, because they’re not used to talking about it. They (assume) you’re saying, ‘ You’re racist’. Asian Americans and people of color grew up with race as an issue. I immediately got shut down.”

Visas and Virtue won an Oscar in 1997. Chris Tashima, who directed/produced and starred in the short film, is a long-time member of the Academy. Photo by Dennis Mukai.

Visas and Virtue won an Oscar in 1997. Chris Tashima, who directed/produced and starred in the short film, is a long-time member of the Academy. Photo by Dennis Mukai.

This year’s letter, signed by 25 prominent Asian American artists, have finally caught the attention of the Academy’s leadership. The Academy’s lukewarm initial response prompted even more outrage, leading to a meeting with the heads of the organization in late March to form a strategy for increasing membership and visibility and giving Asian Americans more of a voice in the organization. Yang and Tashima both note that current Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson are placing a high priority on diversity. This summer, the organization made its the biggest membership changes to date. This year’s 680 new invitees to the Academy include over 80 Asian Americans, one-eighth of the new class. New members include familiar faces such as James Hong, Elizabeth Sung, and David Henry Hwang and newer names such as Sanjay Patel, whose Pixar film Sanjay’s Super Team was nominated for Best Animated Short.

Tashima, who has been a member of the Academy’s executive committees, says that in the last five years, he’s seen people higher in the ladder talking about race and diversity. But the social media campaign, starting with #OscarsSoWhite, is what catalyzed the recent changes. “It gave them a reason to really accelerate all of their efforts,” Tashima said. “With the recent list of invitees, it’s doubled the number of people of color in some places, literally overnight.

While most industry insiders say this year’s changes are a good start, they are also realistic about how much more is yet to be done to achieve parity. “It only moves the needle a little bit,” says Reign. “The Academy is still 89 percent white, 73 percent male, the average age in the sixties. There is still much more work that needs to be done.”

Mynette Louie

Mynette Louie

Many Asian American filmmakers also note that changes to the Academy are only the tip of the iceberg. “There is homogeneity in every part of the cycle,” says Louie, a 2016 inductee to the Academy. “Producers, financiers, and distributors all need to get on board with diversity for Academy members to even have the option to vote for films that are by and about and starring white people.” Louie’s Gamechanger Films funds movies directed by women.

Globalization of the filmmaking and movie audiences might seem like the key to better representation of Asian Americans onscreen, but the growing economic power of the Chinese box office presents complications of its own. As shown by the recent flak over the casting of Matt Damon as the hero who saves China from invaders in the upcoming movie The Great Wall, simply having Asian producers or investors doesn’t always change the narrative. Yuen describes Asian American actors as being a double bind: not Asian enough for audiences in Asian countries, not white enough to play ‘Americans’. “The casting of Matt Damon may seem perfectly fine to Chinese producers in China—where Asian leads are the norm. White Hollywood producers also find this unproblematic,” says Yuen, noting, “Asian Americans find this highly problematic since they are largely missing from film and television.”

Yang, who is now managing director of creative content and production with TANG Media Partners (which is backed by Chinese investors, including the Internet giant Tencent) admits that she has many friends involved in The Great Wall. “There are five heroes, Matt Damon is only one of them,” Yang explains. “The trailer that’s coming out is going to show Matt Damon because he’s the only global star.” She acknowledges that attempts to create films that will be appealing to both Chinese and US markets will be awkward and difficult, but is hopeful that Asian American actors may finally get more opportunities. She notes that mainland Chinese are beginning to take an interest in the Asian American experience. “I’ve never heard this before. Everyone in China is looking for a way to understand America better.”

Tashima says the focus on whitewashed films like The Great Wall limits the conversations. No one ever attacks Woody Allen films or other “regular” Hollywood films and they need to be scrutinized too, he said. “Films like Lord of the Rings, The Big Friendly Giant, Woody Allen films, are almost all white,” he notes.

Part of what made this year’s earlier efforts more effective was working together. As Yang points out, the Asian American Academy members had never worked together in a concerted way until the Chris Rock and Sasha Cohen jokes on live television. Yang now considers this year’s awards ceremony as “a blessing in disguise,” saying that without the controversy around this year’s program “we never would have come together in that way.”

Some people on Twitter critiqued the AAJA panel, during which Reign was not mentioned as the founder of #OscarsSoWhite, even though the panel name included the hashtag. And many of the Twitter users who critiqued the panel seemed unaware of the letter that 25 Asian American members of the Academy signed. *AAJA has since apologized and addressed this issue in a public statement, and has reached out to Reign via e-mail.

Reign, on her part, has stated on Twitter that she does not need to be invited to be on every #OscarsSoWhite panel, which is what some Twitter users argued, but that there needs to be overall awareness. And, working together should be the larger goal.

“I continue to welcome collaboration on part of other communities,” Reign said. “We are stronger together.”

It’s a sentiment repeated by many Asian Americans in the entertainment industry. They’re tired of being invisible and want better representation–for themselves and others. “Anytime an underrepresented group—be it black or women or Latinx or whatever—achieves mainstream recognition or gets equal opportunities, it’s a boost for all other underrepresented groups,” says Louie.

For the Asian American Academy members, they’ve grown into a larger group, named Asians in Hollywood, and have continued to advocate in this realm, and have been active on Facebook and Twitter.

(For this story, we reached out to we reached out to Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who declined to be interviewed, as well as the Emmy and Golden Globes organizations, which did not respond).

“It’s really important that the public continues to participate,” Tashima said. “That’s why social media is such a great thing. It’s a really key factor in seeing change in the industry. I’ve been at this for 30 years. If something goes viral, that’s an amazing tool. That’s the public. Everyone wants to know what the public wants to see. It’s important that all of us give both our disapproval and our praise, when it does happen.”

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Grace Hwang Lynch is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance journalist and essayist, with a focus on race and culture. Her work has been published by PBS, PRI, Salon and Library Journal. She also blogs about mixed race Asian family life at HapaMama.com. Follow @GraceHwangLynch on Twitter.

Additional reporting by Momo Chang.

*This article was updated on 9/23/2016 with a link to AAJA’s response.