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The Lack of Asian Representation in American Media

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Whitewashing is defined as the practice of casting white actors in roles historically established as being non-white. Though today’s society is becoming increasingly diverse and accepting of different cultures, whitewashing continues to be a prevalent issue in modern Hollywood.

Whitewashing occurs to all ethnicities, but one race especially overlooked in casting is Asian-American. In a study, many Asian American actors reported that they rarely, if ever, had auditioned for leading actors; instead, they often had roles as unimportant side characters that emphasize Asian stereotypes for comedic effect. Pun Bandhu, a Taiwanese actor from the Yale School of Drama, commented on the issue with, “We’re the information givers. We’re the geeks. We’re so sick and tired of seeing ourselves in those roles.” Bandhu has had many auditions in a variety of shows, giving him firsthand experience in the world of whitewashing, and told his interviewers of one instance of racism that had occurred between him and a director of a film: the director told Bandhu that his natural accent did not appeal to the “American ear” and said that he should do a Chinese accent, though the character was written as Taiwanese. Similar stereotypes and generalizations often dictate the roles Asians are cast as, even with the 48 different countries Asia is divided into.

Looking over the entirety of Hollywood actors, only 3-4% of scripted roles consist of Asian Americans, and, of the top 100 films of 2015, zero contained leading Asian characters. The controversy around the recently-released film, Ghost in the Shell, well summarizes why these statistics are so low. The movie was based around a popular manga which entirely consisted of Japanese characters, including main character Major Motoko Kusanagi. However, the role of Major was acted by white actress Scarlett Johansson. There were Japanese women who had auditioned for the role, but she was still chosen; similar casting choices occur far too often in Hollywood, with Asian actors being overlooked for a role and white actors taking their place. Johansson has since apologized for the issue, explaining, “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.” It’s difficult to see if the apology was genuine or was only made to improve her public opinion, but, either way, her film’s success still suffered. The movie only made $19 million on its first weekend of release– a fraction of its $110 million budget– as a result of fans disappointed in the casting choice and choosing not to view the film. Despite there being a clear negative effect from whitewashing, many directors continue to refuse to create a more diverse cast for their own justifications.

For example, in 2017, mashable.com presented 8 different ways directors excused their insensitive casting, a few main ones including: “the movie is a universal story”, “the cast is still diverse”, and “there’s no need for non-white characters”. Though all explanations seem acceptable at first glance, they each have their own issues and, ultimately, could be broken down to one incentive: inherent racism. Reporter Angie Han explains, “In short, as Hollywood continues to drag its feet on casting actors of color, their arguments are only wearing thinner. The only real fix is for this industry to become more inclusive.”

It’s important for more American films to feature more Asian actors so impressionable children can have role models in media. Studies show that minority children have lowered self-esteem after not being able to see themselves in films or T.V. shows. while white children show higher self-esteem after seeing more white actors on television. And, if the few Asian characters displayed on TV are shown to be over-stereotyped side characters, that’s the values that will be pressed on young people as they grow older. Instead of roles like obnoxious tourist #2, I.T. guy, and nail salon manicurist, Asian people need to be portrayed as main characters, heroes. Movies have the ability to teach viewers that everyone has importance, no matter their race, and they could emphasize the importance of individuality instead of promoting hackneyed ideas.

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The Lack of Asian Representation in American Media