y prestigious motion picture and television industry known as Hollywood vastly
underrepresents a multitude of racial minority groups, and many of these colored groups, such as the Asian Americans, are unable to have their own voice or express themselves artistically. Not only are fans unable to find a role model that looks like and relates to themselves, they are culturally assimilated into following white-American standards. In the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report, it stated that only 1 out of 20 speaking roles and only 1% of lead roles in films are given to Asians. Asian American entertainers continue to struggle in finding the same success in the entertainment industry as non-colored Americans due to a persisting lack of representation in media caused by the lasting effects of the Yellow Peril, typecasting, and profit-related priorities, ultimately leading to the Asian American community to lack their own original culture and relatable role models.
Yellow Peril, developed in the mid-nineteenth century, refers to Western fear that the immigrating Chinese would take over their land and jobs. Asian characters shown in films during the spread of Yellow Peril were portrayed as villainous, malevolent, and undesirable, adding to the negative stigma and discrimination against them (“Asian Immigration”). These Asian
characters were played by White actors “made up to look ‘Asian' [and a] classic example is D.W. Griffith's 1919 film Broken Blossoms, where the leading role -a Chinese male- was played by Richard Barthelmess,” an American film actor during the Hollywood silent era (Lee). The use of yellowface depicts Asians in an unfavorable way, giving them stereotypes and causing them to be viewed in a way that Hollywood has control over. In Broken Blossoms, Barthelmess's character was called “The Yellow Man,” and the character was shown to be addicted to opium and to have woman-like characteristics. “The Yellow Man” carried himself poorly throughout the silent film, and visibly slouched and had his arms wrapped around himself, making him seem smaller and scared of his surroundings. The exaggerated insecurity he had renders Asians as submissive and weak, allowing White-American viewers to feel a sense of dominance and power over them. This is an example of cultural hegemony because the film portrays Asians as submissive and Whites as dominant which becomes the cultural norm. “The Yellow Man” also attempts to make sexual advances towards the lead woman, and his desire is seen as sinister and gives the viewer an uncomfortable feeling of disgust. Hollywood's use of Barthelmess in this film helped to create more negative stereotypes towards people of Asian descent during the Yellow Peril, and added to the discrimination against them. According to Carmen Fishwick, “Yellowing up is the same as blacking up: it maintains the assumption that only white people are allowed to play parts written for minority actors. And it perpetuates the idea that minorities should be silent, fetishized, and spoken about only by the dominant ethnicity: the idea that we don't, and perhaps should never, have a voice of our own,” adding on to the idea that Hollywood can spread beliefs and take control over the representation of minorities while keeping them silenced (Fishwick). Hollywood is able to keep Asian Americans from having a voice because by
limiting their access to more significant roles, it prevents then from accessing the public on a large platform. Yellowing up also gives White-Americans even more roles to play and allows them more control in making the minority character they are playing gain more negative discrimination. The idea of cultural hegemony comes in again because the White-Americans dominate in the society and manipulate what we consider the American culture by using Hollywood to morphe our beliefs, perceptions and values. Additionally, as the idea that White-Americans are the dominant group in society continues, it becomes more normalized that they play a vast majority of the roles within films while Asian Americans play a minimal role and have little to no voice. Hollywood is a huge platform, so practically any message they want to spread would be possible. However, aside from the use of yellowface in film, it is still very difficult for Asians to get casted/a good role in a movie due to multiple constraints in the industry such as typecasting.
Typecasting is when an actor or actress becomes strongly identified with certain roles, or when certain styles of roles are played by people coming from the same ethnic groups. According to Nancy Yuen, “There is a racial bias in Hollywood that allows white actors to play different characters but limits actors of color to stereotypes. Even when typecast, white actors seem to enjoy a greater variety of roles than do actors of color” demonstrating the difficulty Asian Americans face in being able to express themselves or to stand out since they are constantly casted as the same types of characters (Yuen). With playing the same types of characters, people begin to associate them with those characteristics and Asian Americans never get the chance to showcase their full talent and are normalized to play those certain roles. This devalues their abilities because although an Asian American actor may be extremely talented,
they will not be able to display all their skills if they are playing the same small roles or when they are struggling to be casted into anything due to not fitting certain stereotypes. There is also a struggle for Asian Americans to be casted into larger roles because the normalization of White Americans being the dominant group leads to them seeming like the more profitable group to cast.
There are many different factors that contribute to the constraints of Asian American actors, including “the relationship between profit making priorities (therefore the need to draw mass audiences) and concepts of White American social ideals as epitomized by the big stars of Hollywood. It is not so much individual racism [...] as it is the institutionalized barriers which bar Asian actors from major roles, relegating them for the most part to extras. As a racial minority, Asian Americans do not fit the profile of most big Hollywood stars” demonstrating that it is really hard for Asian American actors to try and get the main roles when there are priorities of making money rather than racial equality (Lee). Once again, because of cultural hegemony, there is a manipulation of the beliefs and values within America that White Americans are the dominant group and therefore are where majority of famous actors and actresses come from. There is an idea that casting White Americans will lead to more profit, while Asian Americans would not since they are a racial minority and don't look like all the other famous Hollywood stars. I don't particularly agree with this because Hollywood should not be casting based on who would make them more money, but rather cast based on who fits the character the best. This is especially important when the original script character is of a certain group because changing it to another White person gives Asians an even smaller amount of roles to play.
My father, Andy Cheng, is an immigrant from Hong Kong who came to the United States to work in the entertainment industry in 1998. He explained that upon coming here, he had to adapt to American culture and that it wasn't easy to fit in at first. After asking him why he believes Asian Americans are underrepresented in Hollywood, he explained that “the movie business is all about money and marketing. They will take what they think is the most profitable route, which is not with Asian actors as much as it is White actors. They [the film industry] don't see Asian lead roles are as profitable as already well known actors and actresses” revealing that Hollywood doesn't really care about equal representation as much as they do for making money. My father also mentioned that this idea is also the reason why many actors and actresses that are already famous continue to be casted into more and more films; because Hollywood knows that they have fans that would want to watch the film with those actors/actresses. Although it makes sense to use celebrities that are already famous, I believe new people of different ethnicities should be casted and given more opportunities because that seems much more fair and much more inclusive. There is also the norm of using the same actors/actresses or using White American leads, but if they can slowly change the norm to be more diverse, it would make a huge difference in the representation of minorities and allow for them to create a more original Asian American culture as well as create new role models for Asian Americans.
Although cultural hegemony creates the norm of White Americans as the dominant group within the very diverse communities of America, there should be changes made to be more ethnically inclusive and to have more representation for all groups. It should begin in Hollywood since there is such a huge platform and there is so little Asian American representation now, and the platform they have can spread the new ideas much faster. Asian Americans should also be
given more opportunities of being casted for different roles because they constantly are type casted for the same roles with certain stereotypes, which normalizes their capabilities and the views in which society has of them. There should be less focus on the profits Hollywood would gain from specific actors but rather more focus on making sure all groups are represented. Cultural hegemony plays a huge role in many issues within the Asian American community, and we need to take more steps in denormalizing the stereotypes placed upon them in order to reach the goal of greater ethnic equality in the future. People need to begin being more critical about the representation of minority groups in Hollywood films so that we can make the changes we want to see in our society.
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