Asian Representation in the Media

By, Haley K. ’20

For many Asian Americans, Lana Condor, Constance Wu, and Awkwafina are the first Asian actresses they have seen in film and television not cast in the roles of martial artist or math-loving nerd. Words fail to encapsulate the feeling of seeing someone who looks like oneself on a screen for the first time. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians are two new films of 2018 that have increased Asian representation in media, but their production has created a rift in the very community that they were meant to represent: Asian Americans. Elizabeth X. ’20 believes that “Asian main characters are long overdue, and both movies are a big step towards racial equality in Hollywood.  However, it is clear that there is still work to be done and progress to be made.” Asian representation should not have to require a blurring of cultural borders; both movies require of the viewer acceptance of the elimination of ethnicity in Asian American actors.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a heartwarming story about the trials and tribulations of an adolescent Korean American girl, Lara Jean Song Covey. In general, her life reflects that of most American teenagers. Her Caucasian father attempts to incorporate Korean traditions, like food, into Lara Jean and her two sisters’ lives, albeit unsuccessfully. Race is neither a liberating nor a limiting aspect of her identity: her actions are not determined by her race, and she does not face discrimination based on her race. The movie has received both praise for its Asian representation and criticism for its inability to find merely three Korean American girls to fill the parts. When asked about the race of the actresses that portray Lara Jean and her sisters (all written as Korean Americans), the movie’s casting director, Susan Johnson, simply answered that she “couldn’t make [casting three Korean American actresses] happen” due to it being “virtually impossible” to “follow the map so specifically.” Lana Condor, who plays Lara Jean Covey, is Vietnamese, and Janel Parrish, a sister in the movie, is half-Chinese, half-Caucasian.

The movie takes great strides in attempting to incorporate Asian actresses but misses the target nearly entirely by including the inaccurate “type” of Asian. Angela S. ’19 believes that there “certainly is not a lack of Korean-American aspiring actresses.  Especially in California, a state considerably dense with Asians, there is no excuse for not casting according to the book’s ethnicities.  The main character’s actress was not even half-Asian, a detail of the character’s identity that is crucial to many of the scenes in the novel.  The film definitely could have improved their casting.”

Crazy Rich Asians, a hit movie of the summer, faced the same two responses as To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The heads of AsIAm, Katie T. ’19, Sophie d.C ’19, Qirrat A. ’19, and Audrey W. ’20, expressed their pride in the wide exposure for Asian culture. The movie reflected a common view of East Asians on Western society and provided a balance between the Asian-American experience and the Asian one. The soundtrack, too, did a fantastic job of blending Americanized and Asianized sounds; the use of Asian singers to cover American songs especially provided a parallel to Asian-Americans’ everyday lives. Julie W. ’19 thought “it was cool that popular American songs were translated into Chinese and performed by Chinese singers. I really appreciated the diversity in the soundtrack.”  The AsIam heads did, however, display a similar concern that not all of the cast was Singaporean or the ethnicity of their character, a distinction that is prevalent to many Asians, as interracial connections are not very common in Asia. A particularly striking choice of casting is the guards of a millionaire’s mansion. The only South Asian actors in the movie were cast were not as members of the “crazy rich” population but as staff for an East Asian family. According to Sophie, the book included multiple significant characters who were of South-East Asian descent who did not appear in the film. The movie provided an incredible opportunity for sharing the little known aspects of Asian culture with the rest of the world, but the film could have provided more insight into the Asians not included in the 1%, the “crazy rich” East-Asian population.

These movies did a fantastic job of expanding Hollywood’s traditional scope of white actors in Western stories. They broke through the stereotypes clouding the reality of Asian-American culture, but there is still progress to be made. However, the variety Asian nationalities is just one indication of the need for growth. As a senior described, “it is sad that we have to settle for mere representation. We can’t expect more than seeing someone that looks vaguely like us in Hollywood.” All too often, Asian cultures are mistaken for one another, and, with such stark differences among them, there is no excuse for merging them into a one-size-fits-all Asian-American identity.

 To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before used talented, beautiful Asian-American actresses to portray the Korean-American characters yet failed to cast a single half-Korean actress. Crazy Rich Asians largely glamorized Asian identity and failed to reflect the ethnic diversity of the Asian continent. Kayla L. ’19 further explains that “it is great to see representation, but now, there are only a specific few actors and actresses getting cast.  I wish that these films helped integrate more Asians into regular cast lists, not just the select and lucky few who happened to be discovered for these films.” Mikayla C. ’19 agrees, expressing that “Constance Wu [who portrayed the main character in Crazy Rich Asians] is great, but she didn’t fit the character very well. I wish that they had chosen another Chinese-American actress that reflected the age and traits of the book’s character.” Casting someone who simply happens to be Asian is not enough in Crazy Rich Asians, especially because there are many talented Asian actresses waiting for their big breaks and would have portrayed Rachel Chu, the main character in Crazy Rich Asians, well. 

Moving forward, it is absolutely necessary that in our Winsor community, we continue to be aware of the important distinctions between Asian ethnicities, staying careful to not force them into a singular identity simply because Hollywood does.