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2017: The Year of “Almost” for AAPI Film and Television Representation

Full disclosure: I didn’t see A Christmas Story Live! It’s never been one of my favorite holiday movies (I know…sacrilege!), and even though I saw all the hype around performing it live with a star-studded cast, it’s just never moved me the way other holiday movies do.

A large part of why A Christmas Story doesn’t quite warm my heart the way it does others, has to do with the Chinese restaurant scene with the singing servers. I’m sure I don’t need to explain the scene to you, but it plays off of the dated stereotype that all Chinese can’t say the “L”-sound, and sing “Fa ra ra ra ra” comically bad instead of the “proper” “Fa la la la la” in the classic carol.

I’ve been called oversensitive over this sticking point between me and Christmas nostalgia. I call it a symptom of exhaustion. But more on that in a moment.

But as I was clicking around the Internet on a slow day after Christmas, I came across a post on Angry Asian Man that linked to an article on Vulture about how A Christmas Story Live! had changed the scene to be “less racist”.

Vaguely interested I clicked through and was intrigued to find a write-up about how instead of taking the “classic” Americana route of making the Asians the joke (nostalgia!), Live! cast the acclaimed all Filipino-American a cappella group Filharmonic as the singing servers.

Quickly finding a clip on YouTube, I watched the scene.

Ken Jeong (of the cancelled sitcom Dr. Ken) played the lead server with accentless humor and a bit of side-eye at his unwitting customers.

When Filharmonic sings, they sing “Deck the Halls” beautifully – really hitting those heavenly “Las”.

After the song, Ralphie’s dad (Chris Diamantopoulos) blathers with surprise, “I wasn’t expecting that.”

Taking a beat, Jeong looks witheringly at him and says, “What were you expecting?”

It’s an orchestrated awkward moment, but the angsty Asian girl in me cheered, “Yeah! What were you expecting, dude?

Despite it being A Christmas Story, I was moved. I grinned through my cynicism. It was so silly. Such a small win, so slick, even heavy-handed in the network’s “Look! We are representing Asians!” – by FOX no less! –  but it felt good. But that good feeling, that small win is so complicated and so deceptive; it’s tainted. It’s consciously being manipulated, but struggling to use that manipulation against itself.

2017 was not a bad year for AAPI representation in the media. It was not famine, nor was it a feast. For most of the year, it was more akin to feeling the pangs of hunger after you’ve been fed a meal too small after being promised a banquet.

At least the powers that be know that they should be feeding us well, they just aren’t willing to share more than a taste.

And I have to back away from the food metaphors now.

2017 was the year of “Almost” for AAPIs. Wins that came out of a lot of outrage, screaming to be heard and acknowledged. Wins that often got us so close to (almost) fair representation…but not quite.

After the AAPI community expressed rage over whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell, Iron Fist, and the casting of the upcoming Ni‘ihau, just to name a few, the Hellboy reboot recast Ed Skrein, cast as a Japanese-American character, with Daniel Dae Kim. That was a big win, a win that took too long and saw too many yellow face roles to achieve.

Plus, that win came on the heels of Kim leaving Hawaii Five-0 after the studio refused to give him and co-star Grace Park (two of the four person lead ensemble of the show) equal pay to their white counterparts.

It was exciting to see a Korean-American actor being cast in a high profile role in a major superhero series. It was thrilling to see Kim moving beyond the muck of Five-0. It was even heartening to see a white actor do the right thing and step aside in the name of proper casting.

But is the victory indicative of a change in the Hollywood machine? Or is it an anomaly, indicative of deeper problems rather than enlightened thinking? (Cue “Debbie Downer” music from SNL.)

Does AAPI lead casting in film and television always have to be a fight? Has it been set up that outrage is part of the PR machine? When the studio relents to its “conscience” and casts an Asian, is that them “doing their part” in POC representation? Do they then get the cookie prize?

The Asians have been placated! Yay us! Someone call Emma Stone…

When can outrage stop being part of the casting process and fair and/or appropriate casting just be the norm?

And though casting Kim is without argument a good thing for AAPIs in film, there is the underlying question of how Hollywood sees “Asians”.

Kim’s character in Hellboy is Major Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character. Kim is Korean-American. While part of acting in a movie is obviously taking on a character that you aren’t the same as in real life – and Kim’s casting is BY FAR better than any white actor – I can’t help but wonder if any Japanese-American actors were considered for the role?

The greater question is: Does Hollywood and the media see all Asians as the same?

Some might say that beggars can’t be choosers in the fight for representation, but after all this time, do we still have to be beggars?

Is black hair, pale skin, “almond” eyes, and a generally “Chinese/Japanese look” all that makes an Asian? In the stories that I hope we continue to tell, it is my hope that the media can become sensitive to the representative differences between East Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islanders, etc. We are all Asian, but we are not all the same, and we deserve to be represented appropriately.

One need only look to the casting of white actor, Zach McGowan as Native Hawaiian World War II hero, Benehakaka Kanahele in the upcoming movie Ni‘ihau, to wonder if we’ve really come so far this year. After all the anger expressed over all the movies and TV, as far as I can tell at the time of this writing, the studio is holding firm to McGowan’s casting.

Or will they recast at the last minute and be lauded?

Look, the wins are important and keep moving AAPI representation forward. Even the losses bring awareness to people who weren’t formerly aware there was a problem. In recent years a t-shirt that sketch comedy show Asian AF sells that reads, “Scarlett & Emma & Tilda & Matt” may not have been understood by the general public. But now, I suspect the majority of people know exactly what it means.

That’s a win too.

But much of my exhaustion in watching and reading about and writing about AAPI representation comes from celebrating the same small wins over and over again and being told they are BIG. Some of them appear to be big, then are walked back a few feet. It’s exhausting to keep treading a hole in the same spot hoping to gain traction.

I think of Star Trek: Discovery and Michelle Yeoh’s brief time as Captain and then her return as the “sagely Asian”.

Though it ended up being a win, I think of the revelation that executives originally wanted to make a key character in Crazy Rich Asians  – an upcoming movie based on a book with an entirely Asian cast of characters – white. The fact that now, despite all the “progress” AAPIs are making, a producer was so nervous about an all Asian cast that they wanted to replace a lead Chinese-American role with yet another role for a white actress, is deeply troubling.

Author Kevin Kwan won that battle, but the fact that it was even an issue (the book is called Crazy Rich ASIANS) reminds us that even though we’ve won some battles, the war is still going.

I think of how John Cho is still not a leading man, smoldering from movie posters around the US.

If Ryan Reynolds can rise from the ashes of Van Wilder, why isn’t John Cho AKA Harold (of the excellent Harold and Kumar movies) suiting up for the next Marvel movie?

Of course, I felt more than a little recharged seeing Kelly Marie Tran in The Last Jedi. An Asian-American woman in one of the jewels of American cinema? As a memorable, important character with depth? If that’s not a win, I don’t know what is.

There’s so much to unpack this year. More questions and concerns that were born of victories.

But like watching the restaurant scene from A Christmas Story Live! I feel good, if wary. To not savor the victories and enjoy the moments when AAPI actors are heard and seen is frankly, too hard. I need those moments, even if I know they are fleeting, muddy, even false. The bright spots are what keep us fighting for our day in the sun.

But if 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that settling for “Almost” is self defeating. It’s what “they” want. So as we move into 2018, I hope that we continue to struggle for more, more, more – to fight for full bellies. That we leave more media executives surprised, blathering at our clear, strong voices. It’s been too long. I mean, what did they expect?

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

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Louise Hung

An American writer living in Japan, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.