I often bring up the injustices of the misrepresentation and under-representation of Asian Americans in the media. It’s true that actors, singers, models, and writers haven’t been receiving fair and honest exposure. The Asian American Justice Center just published their annual report card on television diversity so you can see for yourself.
But rather than just talking or writing about it, I think taking action would be a better solution to change this bias. So, how can we (actors, singers, models, writers, movie makers, movie goers, TV watchers, et cetera) use our creativity and viewing power to change the face of media?
Last November, I had the honor of interviewing Professor Abigail De Kosnik from UC Berkeley’s Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies department about the state of Asian Americans in the media.
“There is clearly under-representation in the mainstream, in any part of media entertainment industries… There is certainly typecasting and a lot of stereotyping… But I have to say that for the first time maybe this year, I am seeing several instances of Asian Americans being represented on television in a way that’s totally different from the landscape of Asian American being represented before… But film has not gone this way. It’s still way behind television in terms of just the number of faces… I find that interesting.”
First off, how has television been able to cast more Asian Americans? And why is the film industry lagging?
Professor De Kosnik brought up the issue of creating content about Asian Americans: “It’s so hard to come up with a legitimate way of talking about Asian Americans’ background in media in such a way that can be at once reductive, totally simple and easy to understand to a wide American audience, and at the same time reflective of the multiplicity of Asian Americans’ histories. I think that’s why we don’t see a lot of background information. We don’t get a lot of, ‘Here’s who my people are and where I come from.'”
While television has recurring characters that can be developed over a season, film has only two hours to explain the background of characters. Seeing that Asian Americans have such complex and diverse roots, it’s understandable that this has been problematic in film. But how can we create characters that reflect who we are right now? We can’t just wait around until our history becomes reductive.
Professor De Kosnik brought up the idea of portraying class over ethnicity: “I think class works better for Asian American characters in media. If they come from an immigrant family, that’s almost more of a class thing than an ethnic thing. If they come from a gang background, if they come from a poor ghetto neighborhood or an inner city neighborhood, that’s also more of a class thing. So maybe that’s more easily locatable for audiences than talking about nations, wars, the history or immigration, intermarriage. You know… that’s complex.”
In addition, Professor De Kosnik brings up how we can use film and television as a medium to educate viewers about people’s ethnic background, which can allow movie makers in the future to be influenced by this content and movie watchers to learn about other cultures.
Aside from content, another reason why Professor De Kosnik believes that there is a shortage of Asian American stories is because of the lack of power in media making: “When are Asian Americans going to have power in media making? Why have Asian Americans done so well in other professions that are hard to get into – like medicine, engineering and teaching, and even news broadcasting – but have not progressed in getting in front of or behind the camera when it comes to media entertainment. That is a big question. That has gone at a much slower rate.”
The power to make decisions is obviously by mostly white executives. If we can adjust their view, we can see changes of representation in the media. For instance, if we look at the world of fashion, we see that more and more Asian models are in demand. But is this only because of relaxed immigration laws that allow more Asian models to work outside their country? More likely, it is because Asian designers are choosing the models who walk the runway. If we translate this to the film and television medium, we can see that more Asian Americans behind the camera where the decision making and casting takes place can also result in more Asian American faces in front of the camera.
Finally, for performers, it often seems like a waste to pursue a career in film, television, theater, or modeling. Professor De Kosnik had these inspiring words to say about that career choice: “Asian Americans can open doors for one another, and playing stereotypes can leave traces of their own talent and their own contribution. It’s kind of like community service. I hate it when Asian American actors feel like they have to drop out. If they have the talent and the training, don’t drop out; whatever you do, it’s worth it. I am really for getting work. Just get work.”
Ultimately, get involved in front of the camera, behind it, and evening in the writing room, if you want to see more Asian Americans in the media. With the outlets like youtube, flickr, and onevietnam.org, your work can be published and viewed by up to millions. It’s up to you.
Want to show your support for the Vietnamese film industry? The Vietnamese International Film Festival will be hosted in OC/LA from April 7 to April 17th. Check it out: http://www.vietfilmfest.com/2011/
(We’ll have more coverage on that soon, stay tuned!)