Asian American Representation In American Entertainment

Editorial by Alice Shu

“If television is meant to be a mirror that we hold up to ourselves in America, if it’s the sort of cultural lens with which we reflect on who we are,” reflects Jeff Yang, “I was invisible.” Yang, a Taiwanese American journalist and businessman, has been able to witness and chronicle the progression of Asian Americans in media partly through his son Hudson, who stars as Eddie Huang in Fresh Off The Boat, and his podcast They Call Us Bruce with Phil Yu.

Fresh Off The Boat, which began airing on ABC in 2015, ushered in a new era of Asian American entertainment, surpassing the genre’s prior offerings. The only show that had previously centered on the Asian American experience, All-American Girl, aired twenty-one years earlier and was cancelled after nineteen episodes amidst criticism and controversy. Other depictions of Asians were often offensive or superficial, and stories that were present focused on marginalization and oppression.

“Those stories, of course, are really important to tell, and especially now I appreciate reading about resistance and struggle,” says Sue Ding, an Chinese American documentary filmmaker. “But I think when those are the only stories that you see, you just want to see someone living their best life. As a kid growing up, you want to be like, ‘oh, I too, can just have fun and go to the mall, and I’m not seeing any of those stories.’”

An exception to the overwhelming stereotypical depictions was Claudia Kishi, the protagonist of the immensely popular Baby-Sitters Club book series, whose Japanese American status and vibrant personality inspired a generation of Asian Americans and artists of color, which Ding explores in her newest documentary on Netflix, The Claudia Kishi Club.

“The representations that we see help shape what we think is possible for ourselves [and] how we understand our place in society. So when that representation isn’t there or when it’s limited to stereotypes, it just [often] limits what you envision for yourself in your life,” Ding reflects. “And so I think reading about a character who was an Asian American girl who was creative but just also very confident in herself was very inspiring and like an important affirmation for me that I could follow a creative path, or that that was an okay thing to do.”

Claudia’s impact is felt in Netflix’s 2020 reboot of the Baby-Sitters Club, whose added diversity is attributed to the diverse staff before and behind the camera. As Hollywood becomes less homogenous, support networks for creators of color have emerged, such as the Asian American Documentary Network and Brown Girls Doc Mafia. Ding hopes that the increased support from audiences and executives will provide platforms for those aiming to tell authentic stories that can connect to wider audiences.

Jeff Yang trusts that Asian creators can consistently produce content so long as they have the opportunities to do so. He attributes the previous lack of opportunities not to malice, but to ignorance and insensitivity, especially to the possibilities of Asian American media.

“If you don’t have anything to model, if you don’t have a template, especially in Hollywood, it’s hard to imagine,” says Yang. “So I think that the lack of Asian American representation was, in many cases, a failure of imagination on the part of Hollywood executives who simply didn’t see how and why non-Asians would be interested in Asian stories, Asian American stories, or whether there would be Asian American audiences willing to and interested in watching their own stories.”

This increased and consistent presence in the “magic mirror” of American media is also an improved and less ignorant perception of Asian Americans. When fictional portrayals become more authentic and less stereotypical, treatment towards Asian Americans in real life becomes, in turn, more respectful and less hostile. The new wave of Asian American content can spur this movement, and as Asian culture proliferates in entertainment it will change how Asians are perceived not just in America, but around the world.

“I really do think it’s gonna be a more nuanced and complicated conversation, where representation isn’t being talked about solely in the form of what people see, but what the industry is trying to truly represent, what it’s supposed to mean,” says Yang. “If there’s one thing Subtle Asian Traits really points to and BTS points to and many other things point to, is that we’re no longer talking about Asian Americans in America, we’re talking about the Asian diaspora around the world. So that I think is where we really have to start thinking more clearly about what it means to be Asian in a world where the majority of the world is Asian.”