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Where Are Asian Americans Like Me On The Big Screen?

Courtesy of Ashlee Nguyen
High school student Ashlee Nguyen is in the media-arts pathway at the her high school. She plans to pursue film in her future.

This year, across 20 acting categories in the 92nd Academy Awards, actress Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color nominated. Within minutes, #OscarsSoWhite was revived on Twitter. The hashtag first gained popularity in 2015 when the academy nominees were all white.

Representation has been an issue in Hollywood for a long time and for high school student Ashlee Nguyen, movie portrayals of Asian American women are personal. She remembers growing up watching characters that looked like her being depicted as soft-spoken and passive. But that representation never matched up to how she saw herself and her family. So she wanted to know how and why these stereotypes came to be, in this piece from our archives.

From a special edition of Crosscurrents, this is part of a series of stories from students from the San Francisco Unified School District:

When I was a little girl, I always went to the movies. My favorite films were always ones that showed girls saving the day.
I always thought to myself, “How can I be like those female protagonists?” But I soon realized that I couldn’t because I didn’t look like those actresses. When I did see someone that looked like me on-screen, she was unheroic or played the victim.

These portrayals however don’t represent me or the independent women in my life.

Meet my family

My grandma is a manager of a wholesale greenhouse center called Rocket Farms in Half Moon Bay. My mom is 5’2 and works as a San Francisco Deputy Sheriff. Her coworkers call her “Bad-ass Bach.” My older sister, Alisson, is also someone I admire. She’s a waitress and an aspiring nurse anesthesiologist

Growing up, I’ve seen these three women defy the quiet, passive, subservient stereotype that the media has created for us Asian and Asian American women.

“Like if you actually know Cantonese women, they're the most craziest people you know. When you go to family gatherings they're the ones yelling, making things happen. So, I feel like media doesn't correctly portray that,” my sister Alison says.

She’s right. My family is one of the loudest, most extra families out there. But this kind of family isn’t on TV In fact I rarely see Asians on the big screen. We’re usually hidden in the background or kept as a side character.

“I guess [Asian women] are not expected to do much. Not to be a leader. And that's unfortunate,” my sister says.  

We’re constantly underestimated and that was especially true for my mom growing up in San Francisco. Her classmates called her racist names and bullied her. But they didn’t expect her to stand up for herself.

“Seems like talking to them doesn't work so yeah we get into a few fights. They leave me alone after,” my mom says.

She’s still a badass and she’s my role model.

Since my mom is short, she’s underestimated at her workplace all the time. She told me, “The inmates always sizing you up. They test you, see if you get scared, but you just show that you are the one who's in charge.”

Her mom, my grandma, is also a strong woman. In 1982, she came from Vietnam to America. When she first arrived, she worked at a sewing shop. Soon after, she was able to own her own sewing shop and laundromat -- all while raising 5 kids. When rent became too much, she sold both businesses and she’s been working as a manager at Rocket Farms ever since.

“I think Asian American women are 100% strong. A lot of them like put their lives at stake to escape their country and to come to a new one,” my sister says. “Not knowing what's on the other side, not knowing how they're gonna live there.”

So where did these stereotypes come from, then?

Since the stereotypical Asian women on TV don’t match up to the people I know, I spoke to a media expert, Professor Kim from UC Santa Cruz, to help explain why these stereotypes exist.     

She said the first movie to show the stereotype of  Asian woman as docile and subservient was a 1922 movie called “Toll of the Sea”. It features Anna May Wong. In short, it’s about an Asian woman who falls in love with a white American man. They get married, have a kid, only to find out that he has another wife, who is also white. In the end, Anna May wong’s character is heartbroken and takes her own life.
These depictions of women who look like me as weak and self-sacrificing are no accident.

“As our country and culture got more diverse, stereotypes, images, and stories were ways to maintain a certain social order. A certain social order in which some people maintain their status as privileged and other people are kept, quote unquote, ‘in their place’ " Professor Kim says.

These stereotypes have real life consequences. I walk down the street and people assume that they already know who I am because of these Hollywood stereotypes.

The Future Of Asian American Representation

That’s why I want to be able to see adventurous, risk-taking, sassy, strong, powerful Asian women on the big screen. And if I want to see this happen, L.S. Kim says, “It takes a person in a position of power to hire an Asian American women in a different kind of role.”

“We need more characters and stories written and created for Asian Americans. For 100 years, it has been so hard to get away from that stereotype, created by non-asians in the first place.” says Kim.

I realize that if I want media to change, I have to be part of the change. In the future, I wish to pursue a career in film to prove we Asian American girls and women aren’t just some Hollywood stereotype.

For more stories from young reporters-in-training, check out this series from an audio storytelling workshop KALW held in partnership with the East Oakland Youth Development Center.

This story originally aired in August 2018.

Crosscurrents Education