Or Moral Dilemma?
For Asian-Americans the single most highly debated subject - after the inter-racial dating disparity(!) - is possibly the issue of media representation. From outright derogatory and demeaning representation to invisibility and white-washing of Asian characters, the issue is definitely a hot-topic in any discourse on the Asian-American experience.
One aspect of this issue is the phenomenon of Asian-American actors who come under heavy criticism from within the community for accepting demeaning roles. This often leads to questions of the obligations (if any) of individual actors faced with the dilemma of working in an industry that only permits them stereotyped roles, and the part these roles might play in perpetuating negative attitudes towards Asian people in society in general. Most recently the broadcasting of the comedy show earlier in this year- 2 Broke Girls - has generated renewed discussion on this issue of negative stereoypes and how Asian actors willing to fill these roles might be contributing to their promotion in society in general.
On one side of the argument some Asian actors feel that accepting a demeaning role is part of a larger process that incorporates Asian characters (albeit negatively at first) into the mainstream consciousness that they believe and hope will at some point tilt the balance of influence such that they, or future, actors will have more input in how Asian characters are depicted. The general belief is that demeaning roles must lead inexorably to more nuanced and less stereotypical depictions. Some Asian actors suggest that such roles are not actually as damaging as we would believe and offer nuanced arguments defending roles that severely limit the qualities of the Asian character being portrayed, or might argue that the role will be filled regardless. Others, suggest that the entertainment industry is driven by artistic creativity and thus one-dimensional roles that uphold demeaning stereotypes should somehow be exempt from politically or socially based criticism.
Of course, it could be suggested (and has been suggested) that media characterizations do not, or cannot, influence, or shape public attitudes or behaviours. Yet, casual observation of America's news and media suggests quite strongly that the media itself is heavily invested in the notion that the things they broadcast can heavily affect how people vote, shop, believe, and behave. A look at history should also give some clues that promoting bias through the broadcast media can alter the moral compass of individuals within a population and enable attitudes to shift to such a degree that horrific atrocities can seem like good ideas - the Nazis and Stalin's Russia are a testament to this.
There is, therefore, very little reason to believe that ubiquitous negative and demeaning media (or political) depictions of Asian people can have anything other than a negative impact on the behaviours and attitudes of mainstream Americans towards Asians - this is particularly acute because there are very few positive representations of Asians that provide a balanced perspective. What all of this adds up to is that American culture has a dialogue going about Asian people that is almost ideological in character, which is derived from xenophobic hostility and is a discourse from which the perspectives of Asian people themselves are excluded. Stereotyping in the mass media is the way that this hostile dialogue is popularly propagated throughout American culture, and a casual observation of the degree of anti-Asian behaviours amongst mainstream America's children provides us with strong evidence of the success and pervasiveness of this dialogue.
This should (but surprisingly, often does not) present us with a dilemma of conscience such that the decision of an Asian actor to accept a demeaning role becomes almost a moral question. This is because pervasive negative depictions can and do shift the moral compass of mainstream America and thus normalize demeaning attitudes and behaviours towards Asian people that would be deemed unacceptable if enacted towards individuals within their own group. Given that American culture has been through over half-a-century of an ideological shift that promotes the ethic of respect and acceptance of people regardless of colour or creed, and is, therefore, not ignorant of issues regarding social and cultural integration, the fact that anti-Asian attitudes continue to be normalized underlines the unethical nature of the practice and underscores the moral nature of the issue.
The apparent failure of the Asian minority of America to recognize the ethical nature of this issue is fundamental to understanding why the issue of media representation continues to be such a problem for us. Most of the time we tend to concieve of stereotyping as a way to offend or antagonize, when in fact, their purpose is to promote a worldview of exclusion and insurmountable differentness of Asian people. Yet, the result of promoting such hostile attitudes towards Asian people may even, perhaps, have far more potentially devastating effects such as negatively influencing America's foreign policy choices in Asia.
Since there are no serious moral sensibilities - under normal circumstances - that view actions that promote harm to others as being morally acceptable courses of action, it would seem obvious that there should be an obligation on the part of aspiring Asian-American actors (or anyone with a moral conscience) to cease participation in roles that do that very thing. No actor would accept a role in a film that promoted or normalized the idea that child-abuse is a good and normal thing (well, Clint Eastwood and some Asians might). No actor would accept a role in a movie that promoted the idea that slavery was morally acceptable. The reason is that these things might go beyond the simple creative process and propagate beliefs that normalize child-abuse or the brutality of slavery and thus have the potential to cause harm and suffering to others. It is a question of ethics and morality.
And this is one of the most overlooked aspects of the drive to empower Asian-Americans. We ourselves diminish the seriousness of hostile depictions by failing to place the practice into an appropriate moral frame work. What we fail to realize is that the central principle that underlies any practice of dehumanization is the denial of moral agency of individuals in the target group. Thus, if Asians lack moral agency, then they are incapable of making ethical choices that are congruent with that of Americans. This in turn justifies xenophobia and prejudicial thinking because it is only the depraved or the lower animals who lack moral agency. Additionally, because of this lack of moral agency, it follows that one need not apply the same moral considerations towards Asians as one would towards one's own group. Thus, the very act of accepting demeaning roles could itself be seen as an example of deficient moral agency and, thus, reinforces dehumanization.
Asian actors - or any public figures, perhaps - happen to choose professions that place them in the front line of America's cultural denigration of Asian people. Thus, it would seem obvious that it is they who must, more than anybody, challenge this process of dehumanization. I would suggest that actors have a moral obligation to boycott demeaning roles - where writers and producers are unwilling to compromise - because a major aspect of combatting dehumanizing images is simply to exercise moral agency. The outcome of such an action would only be positive. It's not enough to accept a role hoping in blind faith that it must necessarily contribute to overall progress at some unspecified time in the future.
Film makers might resort to using "yellow-face" to depict Asian characters in which case at least the racism would be undeniable, or they might write the Asian character out of the script altogether, in which case what has been lost except for a few bucks? These types of demeaning roles for Asians are the entertainment industry's equivalent of the dead-end Macdonalds job that purveys a vile junk food that clogs the arteries of Asian creativity and fosters an obese irrelevance. So why do so many people scramble to do it?