By: Melissa Lee
We’ve come a pretty long way on the diversity road over the past few years. Just in the last ten years, we’ve had a Black Disney Princess (hello, Princess Tiana!), Black and Latino Star Wars leading men (Finn and Cassian Andor), and not one, but two all-Asian-led primetime sitcoms in the form of Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken.
Despite all these wins, there are still moments where Hollywood trips up big time. From Emma Stone in Aloha to Scarlett Johansson’s turn as Major in the painfully unimpressive Ghost in the Shell remake, there are still multiple occasions where POC are forced to endure the graceless whitewashing of roles and stories that should, by all rights, belong to them.
While these are clear, outright instances of wrongful representation, there’s a far more ubiquitous trend that’s been prevalent in Hollywood for a long time now, and this trend is something I can only describe as ‘mismatched representation’.
The first time I really became aware of ‘mismatched representation’ was in the 2005 film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. Now, I grew up with actress Zhang Ziyi as one of my biggest Chinese movie heroes. Her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and several other successful Chinese films made her a film icon to me and so many others, Chinese and non-Chinese alike. To be completely honest, I didn’t think much of it when she was announced to play the coveted role of Sayuri. I just thought, hey, one of my faves got a big role! Good for them.
It was only while watching the movie that I genuinely felt something was very, very off.
Seeing a Chinese icon like Zhang participate in Japanese rituals and customs, donning traditional Japanese garments and facepaint, even speaking Japanese. Seeing other Chinese actresses like Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh — also film icons whom I’d grown up with — do the same. I cannot describe how very misaligned it all felt to my pre-teen core, literally like jamming a square peg into a round hole.
It happens again and again. Randall Park in Fresh Off the Boat, a Korean playing a Taiwanese man. Lana Condor, a Vietnamese actress who won the role of the Korean Lara Jean Covey in the film adaptation of popular YA novel, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Daniel Dae Kim’s recently announced casting in the Hellboy reboot as Ben Daimio — a Korean man slated to play a Japanese role.
Don’t get me wrong, Daniel Dae Kim is still vastly preferable to Ed Skrein.
Nevertheless, it begs the question: is ‘preferable’ good enough? Even more than that, should it be good enough?
After all the talk on representation and diversity that’s been sparked over the last decade or two, the biggest and still largely unspoken snag remains this — how exactly should an actor’s race or ethnicity match that of the character they’re playing?
The abovementioned casting of Lara Jean caused a lot of social media furore when it was first announced, and not just because of the popularity of To All The Boys and its sequels, either. Several fans were outraged that a non-Korean girl was chosen to play the role of Lara Jean, because Lara Jean’s Korean heritage is a major aspect of the books and of her character’s growth. A large number went on to call out the filmmakers’ apparent willingness to treat all Asians as interchangeable, and expressly criticise the inherent racism behind that casting choice.
The backlash was so loud that fellow YA novelist Marie Lu took to Twitter to defend Condor’s casting, declaring that “Anyone who has problem w an Asian American playing an Asian American better also be throwing a tantrum abt British ppl playing American ppl.” This is arguably flawed reasoning in itself, given the fact that the cultural differences between Koreans and Vietnamese can hardly be compared to British and Americans. However, Lu went on to warn her followers: “if we ruin this groundbreaking film’s success in pursuit of every small thing, i guarantee you hollywood will never make another.”
This is the thing, isn’t it? Asians and POC as a whole are so used to getting nothing that whenever we get thrown a bone, we’re expected to smile and say thank you, no matter how scrappy the bone is. If we’re not careful enough, if we’re not grateful enough, then in the future we could possibly get nothing.
Asian rep is Asian rep, but what happens when you focus specifically on Korean rep, like in To All The Boys? What about Taiwanese rep, like in Fresh Off the Boat? In entreating us all to “Realize there are precious few opportunities for ALL Asian American actors”, Marie Lu is absolutely right. However, she also fails to recognise that because of the scarcity of such opportunities, the quality of that representation becomes even more consequential. Comparing a Vietnamese playing a Korean doesn’t work the same as criticising a British person playing an American, because as Elena Zhang points out, “[Asians] are still the minority, we still don’t have many opportunities to have our stories told, and so when we do get that chance, it is important that it’s told in an authentic and sincere manner.”
Even so, are people like Lu wrong to prioritise the most visible problem of representation — that is, the lack thereof? In a study of the top 100 films of 2016, an overwhelming 70.8 percent of speaking characters were white. Only 5.7 percent were found to be Asian. Does it really matter what kind of representation we’re getting when we barely ever even get to see it?
It’s a similar sort of struggle fuelling the casting dilemma behind Catwoman. Amidst swirling rumours that Mexican actress Eiza Gonzalez is a frontrunner for the role, several have also been speaking out against this choice, emphasising that Selina Kyle is a Cuban woman. Just like with Asians, it would be a huge disservice and disrespect to assume that all Latinxs are interchangeable. Despite that, Latinxs remain one of the most grossly underrepresented groups in film, claiming just 3.1 percent of the speaking characters share in the same study mentioned above. (For some perspective, the U.S. Census states that the nation’s population is 17.8 percent Hispanic.)
At this level of near-invisibility on the big screen, does it matter if Selina Kyle is strictly played by a Cuban woman? More importantly, should it matter?
It’s an interesting debate to be sure — mostly because we’ve never had the chance to debate it before. We’ve just never gotten this far in the representation game until now.
Nevertheless, it’s important that we keep having conversations like these, both privately and publicly; until the people responsible for what ends up on our screens finally open their eyes and see what we see.
Editor: Juwairiyah Khan