Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why Won't Hollywood Cast An Asian Male Lead - Part 2?

This is Part 2 of a two part series. Part 1 here 

Summary And Conclusions.

Whilst there is a compelling argument for a lack of "bankable" Asian leads, the argument fails to explain why Asian actors are absent from film in prominent secondary co-starring or supporting roles which may be less detrimental to the bottom line. Furthermore, as I illustrated in part 1, Asian leads (male leads) can turn a profit for a studio, if not mega-profits, at least moderate to good profits. This makes the absence of Asian leads even in the lower echelon of the industry - that is, in lower-budget/lower profit expectation echelon of the industry where only moderate profits are the expectation - even more troubling than the lack of leads in big-budget film. Asian leads can clearly thrive in movies where the lower profit margin is expected, yet, they remain more or less absent as leads at this level of the industry also.

If we take these considerations into account and then add to it the regular production of depictions that are demeaning, dehumanizing, and xenophobic, it is difficult not to believe that there is a vein of anti-Asian attitudes running through the film and television industry. Consider this; whenever we see a representation of Asians, either as a bestial villain, or in a brief appearance in which their only purpose seems to be as the object of racial mockery, someone had to think up or collate racist ideas about Asians and fashion those ideas into a representation that is apparently accepted without much question by others in the industry. Ignorance of Asians cannot explain this - the two main hubs of film and television production are in New York and LA which have substantial Asian populations.

Given all of this, it is still impossible to state categorically that film and television are racist such that it discriminates against Asian actors. Doubtless, the regular demeaning and xenophobic depictions of Asians in film and television are racist in scope - often overtly and unapologetic - and do raise questions of whether these types of productions reflect attitudes that also manifest as discrimination against Asian actors. In short, there is sufficient reason to doubt the claim that Hollywood does not discriminate against Asians. If the issue was simply one of Asians not being given lead roles because of the vague notion of "bankability", then that might be more believable. Yet the problem is clearly far more extensive than that..

There is another aspect to this issue that is more difficult to address because it requires activism on the part of Asian actors themselves. No amount of community protesting is going to be successful if there are still Asian actors who are willing to accept roles that demean or mock Asian people, it is as simple as that. But this is a challenge; how do we persuade Asian actors to be more discerning or even assertive about the roles they are given?

Just like in every job it is the duty and responsibility of individuals to self-advocate in order to earn the best possible deal for themselves. Whether you are negotiating for a raise, pushing for a promotion, or pushing an idea, you have to self-advocate and push the reasons for why you deserve the raise, the promotion, or the new account. Those who do this come out with the goodies, and this is an important point for Asian actors; is it good self-advocacy to accept racially demeaning roles, given that there is scant evidence that doing so leads to more prominent roles? The issue becomes not one of activism through social or political consciousness, but activism through self-advocacy. In this case, personal advocacy aligns perfectly with the needs of the community.

There have been many Asian actors who have accepted demeaning roles but there are no real "A-list" male Asian actors - which suggests that accepting derogatory roles is unlikely to lead to meatier opportunities. The reality may turn out to be that by accepting racially demeaning roles, Asian actors are in fact, helping to legitimize and contribute to the demand for such roles, further limiting the types of roles that they are offered.

It is often suggested that the way those with aspirations should respond to these dilemmas, is to produce their own works of film, in the hope of getting recognized by mainstream studios. The thinking is that Asians should produce independent works of such brilliance that the industry cannot help but sit up and take notice, and once Asian actors have somehow "proven" themselves in innocuous independent films, then the ever fair mainstream studios will relent and finally cast an Asian-American male as a lead. Of course, hoping that a low-budget independent movie will perform freakishly well in the box-office and persuade mainstream studios to cast an Asian lead, is actually tantamount to saying that you have to win the lottery in order to be considered bankable. That aside, Asians making their own films is a good thing for reasons that go beyond the unreasonable expectation that they might be a winning lottery ticket.

As a part of developing an Asian-American cultural voice, producing works where Asians have complete creative control seems like a great idea. In this way, Asian-Americans can explore the history of their experience (historical experience is the basis of culture) and forge that into a cultural voice that is independent of the need to acquiesce to mainstream sensibilities. And readers might know what I am talking about here when I say "acquiesce to mainstream sensibilities" - often, Asian-American artistic output seems to require the presence of prominent white characters for some kind of credibility and any Asian voice seems to assume an almost parasitic relationship to the dominant white culture. The result is that Asian arts don't seem to push the envelope of ideas and cultural perspectives that may derive uniquely from the Asian experience.

When you apply this idea to Asian-American film aspirations, it seems contradictory to suggest that Asians can produce culturally significant works that - if we are to be true to the Asian-American experience - derive some considerable inspiration from our often negative relationship with the mainstream but also make this somehow appeal to that very same mainstream. No, that too seems like a dead-end - for Asian made films to appeal to a wider audience they must almost by definition, ignore their specific experiences of race, but in order for such films to become one of the building blocks of an autonomous Asian cultural voice, they have to avoid the trap of catering to mainstream tastes.

That does not mean that independent Asian films are not a worthy endeavour. But, I think that it would be better to produce work for its own sake, and work that stays true to the sensibilities, observations, and experiences, of the work's creator, rather than aspire to produce work that tries to meet some kind of mainstream criteria which is vague, poorly defined, and to the cynical may seem like little more than an ad-hoc rationalization of discriminatory practices. The irony is that whilst white film-makers struggle against compromise in their work, Asians contemplate embracing compromise as an essential aspect of their aspirations to be recognized. To me, this defeats the purpose of producing independent films where full creative control offers greater freedom of expression.

But where does this leave Asian-American leads? Ironically, by focusing on the lack of Asian male leads, we are missing what may be an even more significant gauge of possible Hollywood discrimination against Asian actors - the dearth of Asians in prominent supporting roles. Of course, no-one wants to play second-fiddle, but if we are to be realistic, we have to admit that we are likely to be far more successful in terms of advocacy, if we push for more Asians in prominent supporting roles, or even secondary and tertiary co-starring roles. Realistically, I don't really believe that making independent movies in and of itself is likely to produce the "break-out" Asian star of tomorrow, unless the groundwork is laid for this to happen by first having audiences become accustomed to Asians on the big screen via prominent support roles.

Mainstream movies that show Asians interacting normally and without a context of racialization (via prominent support roles) in the everyday life of America as depicted by the movies, is probably just as important to normalizing Asian faces on the big screen as would a lead, and perhaps even more so. So perhaps the goal of activism - both from those outside the industry and those within it - should be to advocate for more Asians in prominent support roles, and perhaps as the result of this, when an Asian male lead does emerge, it won't seem so alien to viewers, and will, in fact, seem like the natural progression.

If we look beyond "home-made film" as stepping stone to mainstream acceptance,  independent movies could play a role in raising the Asian voice if we think in terms of them forming the basis for an independent Asian-American cinema industry that is self-reliant and strong enough to provide meaningful careers to deserving Asian performers. Asian-Americans number around 17 million, and in the next ten years or so, our numbers should exceed 20 million. That is a significant number of people and certainly enough of a population to support an independent film industry. After all, Hong Kong has a population of around 8 million and has a robust domestic film industry, so why not Asian-America? The point here is that in the present day and age, it is not necessarily true that one need acquiesce to mainstream sensibilities as an actor or filmmaker, in order to be able to support a career in film. Those days are gone, but perhaps we just have not realized it yet. Besides, the almost parasitic attachment to white mainstream sensibilities is nauseating and quite frankly, embarrassing. There are over 40 million Hispanics, and over 40 million African-Americans - why is there no equivalent aspiration to try to appeal to these sizable groups who are, effectively, mainstream populations in their own right.

In this light, the apparently predominant aim of appealing to the white mainstream for what is essentially credibility, may well be setting too low a bar for achievement and possibility. That is to say that Asian-Americans could be aspiring to produce independent films that have an appeal beyond simply the white American market, and far beyond the cultural and national boundaries of the United States, possibly in markets where America's racial assumptions and prejudices have not yet taken hold.  So, whilst we should encourage Asian-American independent film, the scope of that concept could expand into a self-sustaining industry with an appeal and a reputation that goes beyond the tastes of white America, and which derives credibility and acclaim from its own substance, and not from the accolades of the white mainstream.

If we can envision an Asian-American film industry as part of a wider cultural genesis of Asian-American life, then this may create the space for Asians in the US to explore their full creative potential, informed by the racial bias that necessitates it, but not limited by it. Thus, we could see an Asian-American culture emerge - much in the same way as the black culture of rock and roll emerged out of the enforced self-sustaining "independence" of segregation - that might have the force to become integral to the zeitgeist of American culture. 

So to summarize, I think that, as commentators, we need to shift our focus away from the lack of male leads and onto the general lack of Asian faces in American film - particularly the lack of Asians in prominent supporting roles, which may be a greater gauge of possible discrimination in Hollywood. Highlighting the lack of visibility of Asians in even no-risk-to-the-bottom-line support roles carries with it a greater chance to bring about change - depicting Asians in the everyday life of America via the medium of film, must help to normalize the idea of Asians as integral to American culture and society. Once viewers become accustomed to seeing Asians normalized in film, then it becomes inevitable that an Asian male lead would naturally emerge, and be more readily accepted by the public. Hand-in-hand with this shift of focus, I carry the hope that some Asian actors would approach their choices with a more discerning eye.

Producing independent films may help this process, but the cross-over gamble is something that can be equated to winning the lottery. So, while I would love to see an independent Asian-American film industry emerge - for the reasons outlined above - I think that such an industry would be insipid if its primary consideration limited it scope to some kind of practice of mainstream sensibilities. An independent industry that isn't restricted by concerns of compromise, may well serve as a means to explore the potential of the Asian-American voice, and perhaps contribute to the increased visibility of Asian-Americans by becoming integral to America's cultural zeitgeist. That is to say that if an Asian-American film "industry" could become so influential in its own right that they might themselves come to represent mainstream sensibilities by superseding the archaic attitudes and prejudiced thinking of that mainstream.


  1. Interesting points. I think the most important reason for media representation is not even for mainstream enjoyment. It's for Asian solidarity. It's to regain our hijacked masculinity in the eyes of our Asian sisters. That is the key goal. The importance of mainstream acceptance of non-racist Asian roles is to humanize us instead of treating us as a suspicious perpetual foreigner, but unless that ends up in racial violence, I couldn't give less of a fuck what the mainstream thinks of us. I'd happily live on at the intersection of fuckyou/eatshit as long as our Asian community is solid.

    1. I agree, but I also think that any attempt to regain or assert Asian masculinity is a worthy endeavour for its own sake, without the need to "win" back anyone. If they come, fine, of not, that's fine too.

      But yes, it is about creating a cultural voice that modifies how society interacts with us, and not about having the mainstream think happy thoughts about us.