John Oliver Santiago. Photo by Prumsodun Ok.
In today’s culture, media contributes so much to our daily lives. Mainstream media is dominated by films, TV shows, and music. And, for all of these forms, it is the goal of the entertainer to create reality. We as audiences watch and internalize what we see and hear, mirroring and shaping our lives accordingly.
Now, Asian, is one of the preeminent constructs of the modern world. By this one word, a vast space that covers almost half the planet is simplified to one entity. From India to Korea, a large swathe of culture and diversity is summed down. But what does American media have to show for it? Nothing short of portraying Asian Americans as second-rate citizens, of course. With an Asian actor as the lead, many films today fall into stereotypical categories: a martial arts action movie, a fish-out-of-the-water comedy/drama, and an exploration of the stereotypical Asian culture.
This isn’t a diatribe on the Jackie Chans, the Bruce Lees, the Lucy Lius, the Gong Lis, the Michelle Yeohs, nor the Lou Diamond Phillips. Instead, it is a criticism of contemporary American popular media. The aforementioned, and many more, have paved the way for Asian Americans to be in the mainstream. In some respect, the audience takes joy in seeing a reflection of themselves on the mainstream consciousness. But so far, this reflection has only been for White Americans.
The old guard of American media has always been White actors. Starting midway through the 20th century, Black and Latin actors have made headway into being part of this standard order. Granted, Caucasian, Latin, and African Americans make up a major part of the United States population. But as the Asian American population grows in number and contribution, they lack the same level of recognition in American media.
The media has come to portray the Caucasian, Latin, and African cultures as inherently Americans — a stew of immigrants and their own idiosyncrasies. Their cultures are American. As such, they’re the only actors that deserve to portray American storylines. This might seem confusing, but follow this example. Look at sitcoms. Everyone is fond of Full House. Who can forget about Saved by the Bell? Home Improvement? Not just the TGIF shows. Who can forget about Seinfeld? Or Frasier? Who can forget about Ted Bundy and his bunch in Married with Children? This is by no means an exhaustive list but a general sample.
Now, who remembers Pat Morita’s Mr. T and Tina, which aired in 1976 with the first Asian lead? What about Margaret Cho’s 1994 series All American Girl? No? In an 18-year skip, both these shows suffered the same fate — cancelled after the first season. The shows mentioned in the above paragraph had American storylines, an examination/satire/parody/story of American idiosyncrasies and values. But when it comes to an Asian American family, the shows are short lived. There might be debate whether they could’ve been as appealing or as well-written, but then, couldn’t there have been newer shows that were written so? Take this to the big screen.
Why can’t Asian Americans be written in roles with American storylines? This is not a call for complete cultural abandonment. Rather, it’s a call for the mainstream media to assimilate Asian Americans as something they’re already called, Americans. Why can’t Asian Americans be written into more realistic storylines? Storylines about people, storylines that’ll engage the audience as would a White/Black/Latino lead would.
How can an Asian American feel American if all they see in the media are Asians in stories about martial arts? Or a movie about how an Asian deals with being foreign to America? Or a movie featuring an ethnographic analysis of the Asian culture? Does everything that involves Asian Americans have to be so deeply cultural? Does everything have to be about how they’re different from basic Americans? Does everything have to be about how their American experience is about being Asian? Granted, these earlier storylines paved the way for Asian Americans to be out in the mainstream, but when do we draw the line between introduction to exploitation?
Thanks, to shows like Glee and Lipstick Jungle for having Asian American leads in American storylines (a high school dramedy and a Sex and the City clone, respectively). But to hell with the casting department of movies like The Last Airbender, an M. Night Shyamalan film based on a kids’ animated show featuring an obvious amalgamation of Asian cultures (Tibetan, Japanese, South Asian, and Inuit). This is so obvious, in fact, that the casting department decided to cast White actors and actresses to the Asian leads — save for the main antagonist, the sole Asian American in four leads tailor-made for Asian American (or Asian) actors.
Some might call this to be a simple oversight. Simple oversight? No. Not when the casting calls specifically for “Caucasian and any other ethnicity.” They did mention any other ethnicity, so that means that they were open to having Asian leads, right? People are not dumb. The above quote, straight from the casting calls, imply as blatantly as possible the bias and intent of the casting department.
So long as mainstream media insists on portraying Asian Americans as second rate citizens, there will always be an untapped audience of millions that flock to Youtube to subscribe to WongFuProductions, JustKiddingFilms, KevJumba, Nigahiga, CommunityChannel, and Timothydelaghetto2. Those are among the most popular Asian American celebrities on Youtube. This lack of representation has transposed millions upon millions of subscribers to these celebrities. This is as rich of an audience as the tons of oil in Alaska is perhaps the largest untapped resource the U.S. has.
Official trailer of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.