There are many permutations on the way Asian people and culture are mistreated in mainstream American media, but for me, I usually see it boil down into these categories:
- White lead actors appropriating Asian culture/objects
- Reducing Asian culture and roles to stereotypes
- Whitewashing roles that should have been Asian
- (A small number of) white leads defeating (lots of) Asians
Examples off the top of my head include: Kung Fu Panda (1,2,3), the remake of Ghost in the Shell (1,3), Dr. Strange (1,3), Marvel’s Daredevil (2,4), Sherlock: The Blind Banker (2,4), Suicide Squad (2), 47 Ronin (1,2,3,4), Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (1,2,4), The Mummy 3 (1,2,4) … I could go on.
While media representation has improved slightly for minorities in the past few years, the problem is far from resolved. TV shows and movies are still struggling to move past the point of having one or two token “diverse” supporting characters (Big Bang Theory comes to mind) while the rest of the cast is unsurprisingly white. Even Zootopia, a movie touting the themes of diversity and overcoming prejudice, has an overwhelmingly white cast (with the singular exception of Idris Elba, who has very little screen time) and white screenwriters.*
It’s easy to ignore this trend if you’re white (or even just not Asian), but this mistreatment of Asian culture in American media is something that most non-Asian people need to actively unlearn. Cultural appropriation is more than just disrespectful – it reinforces the power dynamic between the dominant culture and oppressed peoples. But there are plenty of great articles about this, and instead of reiterating those same points, I want to build off of them.
For a more comprehensive (and better written) understanding of the “Asian American experience,” I recommend this essay about social oppression and the Asian American identity by Mary Ni.
Obviously, there isn’t one way to sum up the “average” Asian American experience because Asians as a group are incredibly diverse and, as a result, have vastly differing experiences living in the USA. Before I start talking about my personal experiences, I should mention that I am a woman of East Asian descent who grew up in the SF Bay Area. Even though the Bay Area is known for being liberal, it has definitely not divested itself of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of institutionalized oppression.
So I grew up surrounded by media whose spotlight is focused on people who never look like me, who I have trouble relating to without basically disassociating and entering the headspace of the “average (white) viewer.” These people are shown to have stories worth telling: being geniuses, superheroes, spies, or just ordinary people with interesting lives. Sometimes, there’s a minor character who’s Asian, and even then they’re usually actually from Asia (meaning, not Asian American) and/or restricted to stereotypes. It’s hard to find media that respectfully portrays Asian Americans without the whole point of the story being about their heritage, especially when I was young and quickly internalized stereotypes about myself as an Asian American girl.
It’s frustrating and alienating to know that while people of color and women are expected to jump through hoops to relate to every white male protagonist thrown at us, having a protagonist that is anything else is somehow considered “unrelatable” for mainstream audiences. It makes people of color and women – and especially women of color – feel invisible in a society that they are very much a part of.
*I have a lot to say about the many problems with Zootopia, but that is best left for another day.