Asian Actors and Actresses: An Identity Unfit for Western Hollywood Film Culture

The production of films have been around for over 100 years. With the rise of movie productions in western popular culture, there also comes a rise of popular western actors and actresses. However, due to the dominating western system within the film industry, not everyone can be casted as a part of the leading roles. One specific identity that appears to be continually manipulated by Hollywood, the center of the American film industry, is the Asian-American identity. The lack of Asian-Americans in many movies’ leading roles attributes to the movie industry’s perception that they are unfit―the reasons ranging from being less masculine, less known, to less skilled than non-Asian actors and actresses―for casting.

One of the worst movies in 2010, a movie awarded with the worst movie of the year by Golden Schmoes Awards, is “The Last Airbender.” The all-white casting of the three major leading roles in the movie clearly indicates how the industry sees Asians as unqualified for such positions. Viewers who have seen the “Avatar the Last Airbender” cartoon will instantly see the lack of Asian-American cast as the major roles. In comparison to the T.V. show, only a few Asian characters were casted, and the Korean-American born actor named Randall Duk Kim played the minor role as the old man in the temple. By mainly casting minor characters as ethnically diverse actors and actresses, the movie isolates Asian actors and actresses from playing the leading roles. The Last Airbender had an enormous budget of $150,000,000, and the productions did not report any effort for looking for diverse actors and actresses for the leading roles. By casting white characters as the leading roles, people have questioned the validity of the casting process within big movie productions; as a result of these questions, the favoring of non-Asian actors and actresses may imply that there aren’t skilled Asian “youth” actors and actresses specifically for this movie.

The movie “Kubo and the Two Strings” manifests the media’s continual preference towards casting non-Asian actors and actresses; in the movie’s credits, most of the actors listed were mostly white. Everything else in the movie, the animation and the characters, were Japanese-based. The only notable Asian-American was George Takei, and he played one of the villagers who appeared for only a few scenes in the movie. As for the main villain who was an all-powerful Japanese grandfather, Laika Productions casted Ralph Fiennes, and his character appeared much more frequently than Takei’s character. The casting choices Laika made stirred up “whitewashing controversies,” or the idea of casting mainly white actors and actresses to appeal to the masses. With only one Asian-American voice actor among many other white actors, one can assume that the productions didn’t find Asians appealing enough, or they were simply unfit, or not qualified, for the voicing roles. The majority of the actors such as Art Parkinson came from successful shows and movies like “Game of Thrones.”

Last year, Marvel Studios released Doctor Strange which raised casting controversy surrounding Tilda Swinton’s cast as the “Ancient One,” a character who is supposedly a Tibetan monk; by casting a white female as an Asian character, Marvel Studio sets up problematic questions whether they view Asians as masculine as other white actors or not. Instead of the Tibetan monk as described in the original comics, the movie portrays an androgynous character, Tilda Swinton. Other than Swinton’s controversial casting, Benedict Wong is the only “major” Asian character in the movie. He becomes a sorcerer to Dr. Strange, but in the comics, he is simply subordinate to Dr. Strange. Even though Marvel Studios casted an Asian in a somewhat important role, one could question why the productions didn’t cast an Asian for the Ancient One? Marvel Studios didn’t hold any sort of casting audition for the Ancient One, but the productions simply invited Swinton to take the role. Without showing any large efforts for a diverse cast including Asians, Marvel Studios’ actions show how the Asian identity is continually shadowed by white lens.

Going further back into Hollywood’s history, it’s essential to understand the media’s initial perception of casting Asian actors and actresses. A case study “Asian American Actors in Film, Television, and Theater” written by Joanne Lee assesses that, “Asian faces and more significantly Whites playing Asians in major roles have been a part of Hollywood films for over a century” (177). She justifies this long debate due to the fact that “media culture [is] rooted predominantly a Western/European/White matrix, the opportunities for Asians, or any minority, to play the leading roles are limited just because that is the way things are” (177). Even within this constricted structure of the film industry, Lee does suggest a solution to overcome the barriers for Asian-American actors and actresses. She specifically states that, “[to] overcome the barriers within the system, one needs to change the existing structure and environment” (184). The environment, or film industry, can only change if the film industries change their perceptions of Asians’ masculinity and qualifications. Compared to today, Lee’s statement of the western white matrix remains prevalent and true to a certain extent. White actors and actresses may be more appealing and masculine to the masses throughout history; in Doctor Strange, we can assume this reason for Tilda Swinton’s character who is a Tibetan monk and for Benedict Wong’s minor role as a sorcerer.

Another individual named Philippa Gates provides an interesting viewpoint when he states, “[in] Hollywood film, there is a distinction between “Asian” as a racial category and “Asian American” as an ethnic one – the former being often criminalised for their cultural autonomy while the latter were lauded when they assimilated into mainstream American culture” (19). Regardless of what Asians try to do within the film industry, Gates basically states that Asians are trapped regardless of their distinctions. Later on, Gates discusses about an actor named Charlie Chan who embodies the “Asian” which is the term criminalised for its cultural autonomy. Gates then goes to discuss how “the stereotype of the Hollywood “Asian” solidified in silent American films [where Chinese laundrymen, laborers, and etc. were portrayed as cruel]” (20). Furthermore, Gates believed that “the concern about race for Classical-era film producers was less race and more cultural or national difference: the Asian American detective is regarded as less “other” and less threatening to the American way of life than the foreign-born Asian detective played by white actors” (37). From this statement, Gates summarizes that “Asian” was more detrimental to the film industry than “Asian American” is to it. By analyzing the patterns among films such as “The Last Airbender” and “Kubo and the Two Strings,” the difference that Gates describe may actually be synonymous today. Asians are simply regarded as unpopular, unfit, and less-masculine than white individuals. Perhaps the media has in mind that casting popular white celebrities will be more successful because they appeal to the common audience.

One research article suggests a different Asian perception of the film industry by analyzing Rush Hour 2 which stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. “Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy: Asian, Black, and White Views on Racial Stereotypes in Rush Hour 2,” suggests a possibility in “[arguing] that the growing number of comedies starring racial minorities has facilitated racial tolerance, as well as the acceptance of Asian men, in particular, who have been consistently marginalized from mainstream cultural representation in the United States” (157-28). However, the article goes on to state that the, “characters consistently conform to negative minority stereotypes that can be deemed racist. In other words, while such films have increased racial tolerance, the films’ characters are ironically portrayed as stereotypical. Nonetheless, the research concludes that “racial stereotypes in comedy are problematic precisely because they help validate racial differences through rumor, thus rendering them natural and unchallengeable” (173). The three movies, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Doctor Strange,” and “The Last Airbender” are recent productions that differ from the acceptance of Asian men. They differ in the fact that Asian men aren’t all that accepted due to modern film industry’s perception that they are not so masculine and are unfit for leading roles. Although Rush Hour 2 made some changes through comedy during its time period (2000s), the recent movies discussed indicate how Hollywood hasn’t changed its perception of Asians.

Overall, from analyzing how Asian-Americans are casted in popular movies and their brief history with Hollywood’s initial casting perceptions, it’s apparent that movie productions view Asians as simply unfit for leading roles, whether the reasons be the lack of talent, masculinity, or popularity. In Joanne Lee’s article, her arguments revolve the current perception of Asians today in movies around the dominating white complex. With the historic mention of Classical Hollywood, Philippa Gates provides an interesting viewpoint of the industry’s initial perception of Asians which differs little from the present day’s perception. Moreover, while some movies like Rush Hour 2 appear to resolve such Asian movie perceptions, “Naturalizing Racial Differences. . .” article does not apply to current movies where Asians are less accepted and less qualified for leading roles. Although the media has made some efforts to cast an Asian for an Asian role (Benedict Wong in Doctor Strange), the overall analysis of “The Last Airbender,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and “Doctor Strange” evaluates the unchanging viewpoint of Asians in Hollywood industry. With new movies like “The Great Wall” starring Matt Damon and “Ghost in the Shell” starring Scarlett Johansson, Hollywood leaves little opportunity for Asian actors and actresses to shine.

Two Important Learning Moments During This Course

The two most significant learning moments during the term are week two’s reflection of others in the popular culture mirror and week five’s reflections in Hollywood films. During week two, an article called “The Evolution of The Doltish Dad,” written by Hanna Rosin discusses how “the TV doltish [idiot] dad has become a genuine block to social progress.” From Phil Dunphy to Homer Simpson, the popularity for these kinds of characters on television hinders the social diversity lacking on many shows. Although Rosin states that the women have changed, men have not. Unless the media starts to act, social progress will only “evolve in tiny increments, and very slowly.” During week five, the ASC research study, or Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014, is a great read that emphasizes the clear statistics on the lack of demographic diversity in popular Hollywood movies. Another great read was Dylan Marron’s Single World Tumblr blog which essentially talks about how a majority of movies portray a bad message to non-white people, that “you don’t really have a place in this world.” From the media’s emphasis on popular stereotypes on television to non-diverse movie castings in Hollywood, I can simply relate it to my previous university studies class “Interpreting the Past.” What both classes have in common is the ability to evaluate. From taking “Interpreting the Past,” it helped me develop useful analytical skills to truly understand a certain individual for instance and interpret why something is the way it is. With that skill, I can also apply it towards why media progression in social diversity is slow as it is. With the knowledge and understanding of why things are the way they are, we can eventually learn to become better at solving problems, specifically social problems.

Works Cited

Dr. Strange. Dir. Scott Derrickson. Marvel Studios, 2016. Film.


Ji Hoon, Park, Nadine G. Gabbadon, and Ariel R. Chernin. “Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy: Asian, Black, And White Views On Racial Stereotypes In Rush Hour 2.” Journal Of Communication 56.1 (2006): 157-177. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

Kubo and the Two Strings. Dir. Travis Knight. Laika Studios, 2016. Film.

Lee, Joann. “Asian American Actors in Film, Television and Theater, An Ethnographic Case Study.”Race, Gender & Class, vol. 8, no. 4, 2001, pp. 176–184.

The Last Airbender. Dir. M. Night Shyamalan. Paramount Pictures, 2010. Film.