Changing the Status Quo: Asian-American Representation in Popular Culture

Popular culture is one of the greatest ways we, as a population, can reflect on the wide array of humans experiences out there. Unfortunately, western popular culture has not always been inclined to be inclusive in their on-screen portrayals and has long “whitewashed” the stories of people of Asian or Asian-American descent, by casting traditionally Asian roles with people of Caucasian descent. As an Asian-American raised in California, I have always wished for some representation of Asian’s in movies and TV shows. However, even in the limited roles that exist, Asian-American women were often demeaned to old stereotypes and sexualization, even exoticized. Hollywood’s longstanding history of whitewashing and stereotyping the Asian American experience has led to an increase in TV shows and movies with more accurate portrayal.

Lucy Liu

lucy liu

Asian-American women have been seen through the western popular culture lens as “exotic”, being smaller in size, as well as very different in appearances from Caucasian women. Lucy Liu is a well-known Asian-American actress and has starred in many high budget films and TV shows, such as Charlie’s Angels (2000), Kill Bill (2003), and the show Elementary (2012). I first saw Charlie’s Angels when I was a young girl, probably about 8 or 9 years old, as my parents felt I was mature enough to watch more graphic movies. I remember being incredibly excited to see an Asian-American in a big movie, but I was disappointed by how often she fell into the stereotypes put into place by Hollywood. While her character Alex is empowered and heroic, she was constantly sexualized and exoticized throughout the film. In addition, the film represented her having a white father and Asian mother, as well as having a Caucasian boyfriend perpetuating what author of Warrior Women: Gender, Race and the Translational Chinese Action Star Lisa Funnell says, is a “representation that both reflects and naturalizes the sexual access of white (Western) men to Asian women” (p. 188). The following scene highlights this portrayal in particular:

Lucy Liu, herself, has spoken out about how there is indeed racism in Hollywood and how she has experienced it, herself. In her latest large role as Dr. Watson in TV series Elementary, which is based on the series Sherlock Holmes, Liu has created a controversy among die-hard Sherlock fans against the idea of changing both the gender and ethnicity of Watson’s character. However, in her role, she has been shown as a smart, capable woman, with an American accent. She is not broken down or sexualized for dramatic purposes, and the writers of the show have even explicitly stated how there will be no romantic interests between Sherlock and Watson. In an interview with NPR, Lucy Liu spoke about her influence in Asian-American representation saying, “I never really thought of myself as the only Asian face out there until somebody pointed that out to me, you know, and said, ‘You actually are quite a pioneer, and we hope that this is going to set a new precedent’” (Greene, 2012). I think this statement is a testament to how most  Asian-Americans don’t feel that they are not just like other Americans until they consume TV and movies and recognize the misrepresentation, exaggeration, or flat out the lack of representation.

Sandra Oh in Double Happiness

Another well known Asian-American actress is Sandra Oh. She is recognized mostly for her role on Grey’s Anatomy as Cristina Yang. However, in 1995, Oh played Jade Li, a young Asian-Canadian actress, in the film Double Happiness. She tries to make her career in acting in a primarily Caucasian field. Her family is traditionally Chinese and expect her to marry a nice Chinese boy, especially not that she’s 22 years old. She wishes her family had more “western sensibilities”. I believe this film served to show the hardships Asian American families and individuals face trying to assimilate to a culture different from their own. In an important scene, Jade’s expression is exuberant when she felt she nailed her audition, but her face suddenly drops when the casting director requested that she do it again, with an accent.

The scene above highlights one of the reason’s why there is such poor representation of Asian-Americans on-screen. Not only is becoming an actress in the US or Canada as an Asian incredibly difficult but even in the 1990’s, casting directors were still only equating Asian-Americans to tired, old stereotypes. This film shed light on the experience that many aspiring actors of Asian descent have to go through in order to make it in such a competitive field, while also bringing forward the emotional aspect of handling blatant ignorance and racism.

Fresh Off the Boat

The TV series Fresh Off the Boat (2015) features an Asian-American family (Taiwanese, specifically) that has moved to Orlando, Florida from Washington D.C. during the mid-1990s. It focuses on the “many obstacles they face as they try to assimilate into the new culture that surrounds them” (ImDb Contributor, 2015). It serves to highlight the struggles of the Asian-American family without demeaning or exploiting their experience. The entire cast of the Huang family is Asian and they all speak fluent English, without exaggerated accents. They dressed in typical 1990s style American fashion. In a particular episode I reviewed (S. 3, Ep. 1), the Huangs visit their family in Taiwan. Louis Huang, the Asian-American father, while complaining and showing his regret for ever moving to America, he said to his brother, “we are the white people of here!”. I thought this quote was a rather important one to note as it highlights the struggles Louis has faced trying to make a life for himself in America due to being Asian American, while his brother Gene has it a little easier in Taiwan because he matches the general physical description of the other successful men in Taiwan. While Louis was apologizing to his wife for not giving her a more lavish lifestyle, she reassured him saying, “We did it, Louis. We moved to America and we made it. We are the success story.” I think this really shows the importance of what the “American Dream” is all about. It’s not about striking it rich, but rather creating a happy, sustainable life for your family. I also feel like it represents how much harder they’ve had to work, as immigrants, just to become a middle-class family. I particularly enjoy this series as it strives to accurately represent, attempting to undo a long history of discriminating portrayal. I feel that this shift towards recognizing that this family, though they hold different cultural values and traditions, is just like any other American family, working hard to achieve their dream shows the improvement in portrayals of Asian-Americans on TV.

Fresh off the boat

As you can see, over the past couple of decades we have progressed greatly towards a more accurate representation of Asian-Americans and particularly Asian-American women. However, statistically speaking, the representation is poor.

According to researchers findings from a USC study analyzing top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014 (Santhanam & Crigger, 2015):

  • Roughly three-quarters (73.1%) of film actors were white in 2014
  • Highest amount of film actors that were Asian was 8%, in 2008
  • 2014 – 4.4% of films actors are Asian
  • Of top 100 films released in 2014, 2% protagonist characters were played by Asian Americans (meaning two Asian leading characters)
  • Of 779 directors who directed 700 top films between 2007-2014, 2.4% were Asian or Asian-American

This lack of representation is typical of Hollywood. What Marissa Lee wrote in an email to Complex article author, Justin Chan, summed it up painfully earnestly: “American history is pretty racist and sexist, and Hollywood is a reflection of our culture. Hollywood doesn’t put minorities in lead roles because our society rarely lets minorities take the lead” (Chan). Fortunately, we have begun this shift towards better representation with shows like Fresh Off the Boat as well as private production companies that aim to show Asian American perspective in film, such as Wong Fu Productions.

The demeaning and sexualization of Asian-Americans has been a prominent part of American popular culture throughout its history. Kent Ono discusses in his journal “Lines of Flight: Reterritorializing Asian American Film and Media Studies” how historically it took far too long for America to realize there was a problem with how we portrayed people of color, and particularly those of Asian descent. The first work to even “[draw] attention to the eccentric and disfiguring representations of Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood” wasn’t published until 1955, and the next one to continue the conversation wouldn’t be published for another 20 years. In this historical account, Ono covers the roots of the “dragon lady” and “lotus blossom” stereotypes often attached to Asian women. Ono discusses what he calls the “binds of representation” that actors in films and shows that stereotype face, in which they are represented as “subjects in struggle”. While it is demoralizing to portray yourself and your culture in a negative light, taking home a paycheck is often more important and this is a large part of the picture we don’t discuss: the need for Asian American casting directors, producers, and writers in order to move closer towards decent portrayal.

In Hyun Joo Lee’s journal “Fictive Ethnicity, Anamorphosis, and the Radical Potential of Asian American Film,” Lee discusses the representation of Asian-Americans as well as their connections to their “Asianness” on-screen. The author discusses the movie “My Niagara,” that features Sandra Oh, and how she struggles with her identity, what she coins as “Asianness”. This is a sentiment I definitely relate to. As a kid, I constantly struggled with whether I was “too Asian” or “too American”. Being of both American as well as Thai descent while growing up in America made finding out who I was feel a lot more difficult that it should’ve been.


Learning Moments:

  • Week 4: While discussing the implications and connotations that come with advertisements, we were given a commercial to analyze and discuss. The recent Kendall Jenner starring Pepsi commercial caused a huge controversy for its lack of awareness towards the reasons for protesting and particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. However, the version of the commercial we all reviewed was titled “Directors Cut”. I watched it and very seriously analyzed it, only to learn and be embarrassed later when I learned that it, in fact, was a post production edited version of the film, created by a YouTuber to exaggerate and satirize the controversy. I learned that I need to truly check and double check sources and videos. Nowadays, nearly everything is an advertising or promotion in one way or another and it’s so crucial to be able to determine what is fact and what is trying to sell you a product or service.
  • Week 5: Reflections in Hollywood Films. As this relates to my research topic, I was rather excited to find a favorite film of mine and see how it held up in terms of representation of people of color. I learned about the film Moana, and how Disney went above and beyond in order to not turn this film into another example of Hollywood whitewashing. The producers and directors visited the Southern Pacific Islands over three different times to truly understand the culture and focus of the people, in addition to this they hired a council of experts to fact-check everything before it became a part of the film. They also used voice actors of Pacific Island descent, such as Auli’i Cravalho a 17-year-old from Hawaii, who voiced Moana. I was inspired that a company as big as Disney is finally going to put in the work necessary for accurate representation. And I felt it paid of drastically as the movie was a big hit worldwide.



Works Cited

Chan, Justin. “Where Are All the Asian Americans in Hollywood?” Complex. Complex, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 May 2017.

Contributor, ImDb. “Double Happiness (1994).” IMDb., 1995. Web. 21 May 2017.

Contributor, ImDb. “Fresh Off the Boat (TV Series 2015– ).” IMDb., 2015. Web. 21 May 2017.

Contributor, ImDb. “Lucy Liu.” IMDb., 2013. Web. 21 May 2017.

Funnell, Lisa. “Model Minority: Charlie’s Angels.” Warrior Women: Gender, Race, and the Transnational Chinese Action Star. N.p.: State U of New York, 2015. 186-89. Print.

Greene, David. “A Woman As Sherlock’s Dr. Watson Is ‘Elementary’.” NPR. NPR, 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 21 May 2017.

Lee, Hyun Joo. “Fictive Ethnicity, Anamorphosis, and the Radical Potential of Asian American Film.” South Central Review 33.3 (2016): 69-90. Project MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP]. Web. 21 May 2017. <;.

Ono, Kent A. “Lines of Flight: Reterritorializing Asian American Film and Media Studies.” American Quarterly 64.4 (2012): 885-97. Project MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP]. Web. 21 May 2017. <>.

Santhanam, Laura, and Megan Crigger. “Out of 30,000 Hollywood Film Characters, Here’s How Many Weren’t White.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 22 Sept. 2015. Web. 21 May 2017.