Where’s our Sessue Hayakawa?
In 1922 one of the biggest stars in Hollywood was known for his sultry sex appeal and villainous roles. He was typically typecast as a broodingly handsome villain, and his exotic Asian looks caused women across the country to swoon. At a time when Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks dominated the box office, he was one of its highest paid stars and the first Hollywood sex symbol . Known for his extravagant parties, even by Hollywood’s standards, public sentiment began to turn against him as growing racial discrimination began to seep into American culture. By the end of World War II, roles for Asians became de-sexualized and began focusing on broad stereotypes. Rather than accept these roles, he chose instead to move to Europe where he would continue to receive equal treatment and be offered the kinds of roles he flourished in. Over time his name became lost to American audiences, and his influence on Hollywood is long forgotten. His name was Sessue Hayakawa and he was one of the greatest Hollywood actors of the silent area. But in the nearly hundred years since his rise to fame Hollywood has further diminished the roles of Asians, leading to a dearth of roles in multiple genres and continual questions on just why aren’t there any romantic leads for Asians in Hollywood?
The past 100 years haven’t been kind to Asian actors in Hollywood. While Sessue Hayakawa turned heads by playing roles with passion, manufacturing the now classic idea of the roguish villain. But in the aftermath of World War II America turned against Asians across the country. Hollywood, eager to maintain the favor of the American public, quickly followed public sentiment and soon was showcasing Asians with broad stereotypes, culminating in the horribly racist portrayal by Mickey Rooney in yellow face of I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961. Displaying only the most perverse of negative ethnic stereotypes, Yunioshi represents a defining cultural moment that Hollywood would rather we forgot. The problem is, with so few positive roles for Asians in Hollywood since Breakfast at Tiffany’s, audiences have few opportunities to see the skill and range of modern Asian actors.
The state of minorities in Hollywood
The most recent Hollywood Diversity Report paints an ugly picture. In the previous year minorities have failed to make gains relative to their white counterparts in all but one industry area, that of broadcast scripted leads. In 2014, minorities claimed only 12.9 percent of all lead film roles, despite representing 37.9 percent of the population. Only 5.6 percent of all films had casts that represent minorities equally to their overall population numbers. These numbers have shown a consistent downgrade in the percentage of minorities cast in feature films, even though films with more diverse casts perform better at the box office both domestically and internationally.
Why focus on Asians?
The choice to focus on Asians in Hollywood is due to several important statistics. While minorities only account for 12.9 percent of all lead roles, blacks represent 81.3 percent of those roles. Hispanics, which also struggle for film roles, have increasingly become a key demographic for films due to how well Hispanic audiences attend movies. Hispanics account for 16.3 percent of the population in the United States, but purchase 24 percent of all domestic movie tickets. Asians, which account for 4.7 percent of the population only land 1 percent of lead roles in films. This lack of significant roles coupled with the lack of buying power from their audience puts them in a perilous position. Their value to Hollywood studios lies almost solely in International sales, but making a movie appealing to International Asian audiences leaves Asian and Asian American actors susceptible to Hollywood whitewashing.
Whitewashing is a term used to describe a common casting practice in Hollywood film in which white actors are cast in non-white roles. Blackface is perhaps the best known instance of this practice, which was commonplace in Hollywood until the racial integration of the studios in the mid 20th century. Since this time, roles for blacks have consistently been filled by black actors but other minority groups have struggled to make similar inroads against whitewashing.
Recent Hollywood films like 21, Aloha, The Last Airbender, The Social Network, and Edge of Tomorrow whitewashed Asian or Asian-American characters for white characters. Even big screen Hollywood blockbusters that haven’t been released yet like The Great Wall, Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange have whitewashed Asian characters. It’s quickly evident why Asians continue to struggle to gain a bigger footing in casting when the parts that are written for them are systematically transformed into roles that only benefit Caucasian actors.
Asians in Hollywood
It is unsurprising that Asians are consistently underrepresented in Hollywood films, whether in front of the camera as actors, or behind the camera as directors, producers or screenwriters. This is particularly strange with the Chinese market exploding in recent years. With its massive increase in screen counts China’s grosses have skyrocketed. They rose by 50% in 2015, and through the first quarter of 2016 have raised another 50%, now assuring China of overtaking the United States as the largest movie market by 2017.
With China becoming more important to a successful feature film each month why are Asian Americans stuck at only 5 percent of all feature film roles in Hollywood films? Even more egregious, only 1 percent of lead roles go to Asian actors. It should be a moral imperative for all Hollywood studio heads to make Asian actors, directors and screenwriters have an increased role in film productions for both adequate and positive representations of Asians in pop culture. While making money in China should be the financial cherry on top.
Why don’t they get roles?
Most people can name films with major characters played by Asians. The issue is that these films are almost always action films. Once you stray outside of action films it quickly becomes difficult to name films with Asian leads. Eliminate female Asian actresses who serve as girlfriends to male leads and it gets even tougher to name Asian leads. Even the most popular Asian actor in Hollywood, Keanu Reeves, is marketed more as a Caucasian even though he has Chinese and native Hawaiian ancestry. The general public received a glimpse of the mentality of Hollywood when a leaked email exchange between Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin and a studio head was made public where Sorkin complained about the difficulty of adapting a movie with an Asian protagonist because “there aren’t any Asian movie stars.”
These kinds of statements provide the simplest explanation for why Asian led films aren’t supported by Hollywood. The industry is still uncomfortable with male Asian actors as anything besides action stars, and female Asian actresses as anything except sex symbols. These are classic stereotypes created decades ago and reinforced year in and year out by Hollywood films. But recently these stereotypes are finally being challenged.
Asians can’t lead a movie to box office glory
The most tiring argument offered from Hollywood is that Asians can’t star in big budget movies because there are no Asian movie stars. This argument essentially boils down to Asian’s can’t open a movie to big box office numbers, so anything led by an Asian would be a financial risk to any studio that makes this film. It’s a stunningly naive argument based on ignorance and thrown around casually as if it is fact. It is such a bad argument that you only need to look at the current 9th highest grossing movie of the year, Mei ren yu, to see how flawed a stance this truly is. Mei ren yu has made over $553 million dollars worldwide this year, with a stunning $526 million in China. This total ranks it as the 131st highest grossing film of all time, ahead of such box office giants like American Sniper, Despicable Me and The Empire Strikes Back.
While it made only $3 million at the US box office, imagine what might have happened if the film had any support from Hollywood studios for the Asians who starred in it? With the importance of China as a growing market, it is counterproductive to not make films that appeal to their audiences, even if it means not being fully supported by American mainstream audiences. So how do you support these audiences in Asia and America? The answer is rather simple; you start casting Asians is starring roles. Luckily for the Hollywood studios, American audiences have already made their choices known.
John Cho is an Asian actor best known for starring in the stoner comedy Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. He’s made a career playing against Asian stereotypes and in 2014 he became part of history when he became the first Asian romantic lead in an American television series when he joined the cast of Selfie, a full 77 years after Sessue Hayakawa left Hollywood for France.
On April 18th, 2016, the Twitter account @StarringJohnCho was launched with John Cho being photoshopped into the poster for the Marvel film The Avengers as the character Captain America. At the time Cho was one of the most recognizable Asian actors in Hollywood, and the meme was started as a way of getting people to consider the notion that an Asian actor not only could be cast in a big budget Hollywood film, but should star in it. The hashtag #StarringJohnCho quickly went viral as more and more people began photoshopping John Cho into the movie posters of popular films. The Twitter account and hashtag were both seen as positive ways of addressing the issue of Asian whitewashing in Hollywood, focusing more on the possibilities that could occur which in turn helped audiences realize that these preconceived notions of what a leading man should look like were badly outdated and stifling opportunities for minorities.
Less than one month after the debut of #StarringJohnCho a new hashtag emerged on Twitter, this time focusing on changing the notion of what a Hollywood leading lady should look like. This hashtag was #StarringConstanceWu. Constance Wu is known for starring in the entirely Asian lead ABC comedy series Fresh Off the Boat. Wu plays the dominating, no-nonsense matriarch Jessica Huang and her public persona followed similar suit when Wu openly criticized the casting of Matt Damon in the film The Great Wall. She attacked the casting as perpetuating racist stereotypes and its propping up the tired Hollywood trope of implying that white people are not only superior to people of color, but that only white people can save people of color. “On The Great Wall: We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. It’s not based in fact.” It was a blistering attack on the Hollywood status quo, and she has continued fighting for not only how Asians are cast in Hollywood, but for equal pay for women and for greater diversity in Hollywood.
Selfie versus Fresh Off the Boat
While John Cho and Constance Wu have become the faces of the movement to get Asian actors more leading roles in films and television shows, the shows they starred in took vary different routes in how they treated Asian cultures. Based on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, Selfie partnered Cho with Karen Gillan and rather than focus on this historic partnership, the show showed true class by acting as if a potential romantic relationship between an Asian man and a Caucasian woman was in fact, no big deal. Unfortunately, Selfi failed to catch on with audiences and was cancelled a mere two months after it debuted. This offered proponents of the status quo fresh ammunition that Asian men aren’t what mainstream audiences are looking for in romantic leads. But the razor thin window the show was given to develop an audience also helps offer weight to the argument that Hollywood and the networks are far from sold on the concept of an Asian leading man.
Adding to the frustration, Fresh Off the Boat, a show which often plays to the stereotypes of Asian immigrants was a huge ratings success when it debuted on ABC a few months after Selfie. Having both shows on the same network would have provided an interesting contrast and a broader representation of Asians and Asian Americans, instead we continue to get the same old song and dance on stereotypical Asian immigrants. The failure of Fresh Off the Boat is not in offering a platform for Asians to be recognizable to mainstream audiences, and one that Constance Wu has excelled at using, but for the show to rarely capitalize on it. Fresh Off the Boat rarely takes any risks or offers a new perspective on the challenges of being an Asian immigrant in the United States. While Selfi was attempting something new, what the network supported was the show that offered more of the same.
Will Things Ever Change?
The Starring John Cho and Constance Wu hashtags appear to be setting a positive trend for the discussion of how Asian’s are portrayed in American popular culture. Asian cinema has long been highly regarded with Japanese, Chinese, Hong Kong and South Korean film industries considered some of the best in the world. Asian directors are slowly making the transition to Hollywood, but is this enough for a real change in perception and hiring to occur? Social pressure against these portrayals are finally starting to shed much needed light on these outdated and offensive stereotypes, and fan art submitted to the hashtags are clearly showing an active and engaged audiences crying out for something different from Hollywood.
The good news is similar movements are working in other areas of pop culture as well. Transparent and Orange is the New Black have done wonders for shedding light on the growing transgender movement in the United States. There has been growing pressure for more female led shows and films and the Academy of Motion Pictures has openly admitted that it needs to diversify its membership by admitting a greater number of minorities. The goal is for all of these movements to feed off of their intersectionality, as each of these individual movements focus on minority groups that have been ostracized or diminished in popular culture. And while Hollywood has been slow to accept these changes, the fact that diverse casts lead to better results at the box office provides an additional financial incentive to make these changes.
Changing the perspective of an industry and its fan base isn’t easy, but the with mounting pressure from multiple fronts it is making the need for change harder to ignore. Currently the audience is engaged and offering feedback on what kind of content they want. It’s now up to the content producers in Hollywood to start creating that content. If they don’t their audiences will pull up stakes and pivot to a producer that listens to their audience. Netflix and Amazon, who already are listening and providing content to minority audiences, seem eager to swoop in and fill in this seemingly obvious gap. So if Hollywood won’t listen, good news, there looks to be plenty of other content creators’ eager to have John Cho and Constance Wu starring in it. We’ve waited 77 years for the next Sessue Hayakawa and it finally looks like that streak is ending.
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