The Evolution of the Asian Heroine in Hollywood

·11 min read

Hollywood hasn’t been easy on representation for Asian Americans. Just five years ago, the Oscars made Asians a punchline with three Asian children dressed as PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants. (The awards show mocked them with the stereotype of being good at math and building iPhones.) Only recently have there been major strides to increase Asian representation in films and television. The success of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians began opening doors for Asian stories in film and television starring and/or directed by Westernized Asians. With the growing promise for inclusion and diversity, studios are realizing the power behind Asian-led projects, bringing about an increase of Asian representation in films since 2014. Still, it’s the type of roles available that really matter. Especially for Asian women, who have historically been seen as overtly sexualized or the exotic femme fatale.

A History of Harmful Depictions

Since the early age of Hollywood cinema, Asian women have been reduced to two highly sexualized tropes. The Lotus Flower/China Doll trope reinforces the idea of Asian women as dainty and subservient. One film with an especially long-lasting effect is 1987’s critically acclaimed Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket. In the film, a Vietnamese sex worker tells American soldiers, “Me so horny. Me love you long time.” This piece of dialogue has been sampled into 2 Live Crew’s song “Me So Horny” and Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 hit “Baby Got Back,” and has been referenced in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, South Park, and Family Guy, among others.

Traditionally, if Asian women in media are not Lotus Flowers, then they are Dragon Ladies. This trope paints Asian women as deceitful and dangerous. Historically, the trope has been associated with actress Anna May Wong, who played the villainous temptress in 1924’s The Thief of Baghdad and 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon. Decades after Wong’s portrayals, Hollywood still did not learn from their mistakes.

A man with a large hat offers Anna May Wong a cup in The Thief of Baghdad.
A man with a large hat offers Anna May Wong a cup in The Thief of Baghdad.

United Artists

Take the early career of Lucy Liu. In the 1990s to the early 2000s, she was resigned to cold, sexually manipulative characters in the likes of Ally McBeal and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. (Although Liu has defended the latter.) Thankfully, as her career progressed, Liu found roles in Charlie’s Angels, Elementary, and Why Women Kill—successful films and shows where her ethnicity did not play a part.

A Slow Shift in Representation

A recent study by Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative assessed Asian Pacific Islander (API) leads and speaking characters across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019. The study found that across the 51,159 speaking characters in the 1,300 top-grossing movies, 5.9% were API, which fell short of the 7.1% of the US population identifying as API. The report also found that the characters were heavily stereotyped, falling into token character roles, from sidekicks to villains.

“People often ask me whether representations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are improving,” Yuen, an associate professor at Biola University and the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, said in a press statement regarding the report. “Unfortunately, when representation looks like tokenism, Hollywood is doing the bare minimum for inclusion. In 2019, 30% of API primary and secondary characters were either the only one or interacted with no other API characters on screen.”

These stereotypes have long-lasting effects on how Asian American women are seen in the real world. 2021’s Atlanta spa shooter—who killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women—claimed his “sex addiction” fueled his actions, furthering the idea that Asian women have been tied to hypersexualized stereotypes. With growing hate crimes against Asian Americans, Stop AAPI Hate reported that Asian women were nearly twice as likely as men to be victims of a hate crime. (Women accounted for 68% of the reported anti-Asian hate crimes.)

The cover of Reel Inequality, featuring a Hollywood Walk of Fame star.
The cover of Reel Inequality, featuring a Hollywood Walk of Fame star.

Rutgers University Press

Nevertheless, numerous reports indicate slow shifts in representation in television and film. Between 2018 and 2019, Netflix commissioned a study with USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to review their scripted content as part of their commitment to gradually increase racial/ethnic inclusion. The report found that Asian leads/co-leads consisted of 4% and 7% of main casts, respectively, which approached proportional representation.

Similarly, The Center for Women in Television’s Boxed In report for the 2019-2020 season examined broadcast networks, basic and premium cable channels, and streaming services and found that Asian women made up 8% of major female characters on television, a 1% increase from the prior season. The UCLA-Hollywood Diversity 2021 Report – Film, which surveyed 185 films released via theaters and streaming services in 2020, also noted an increase of Asian roles close to being representative to the US population, with women approaching or exceeding the numbers of their male counterparts.

“I think there is a lot of hope,” Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón, Director of Research and Civic Engagement for UCLA’s Division of Social Sciences, told Nerdist. “For TV, it can be as short as a six-month [period] or nine-month period. But, for film, it takes at least one [to three] years down the road. So I feel like there is a lot of potential and there will be a lot more representation. And, in terms of [seeing] that these are projects that are being financed by Asian Americans, [but] also directed or produced by [Asian Americans].”

A Selection of Promising Projects

For Asian women, the media has begun to see a change. Television series and films are depicting their characters with nuance. In just the past two years, titles like The Half of It, The Farewell, Always Be My Maybe, Shadow and Bone, Never Have I Ever, PEN15, Kung Fu, Plan B, Devs, Nora from Queens, The Babysitter’s Club, To All the Boys trilogy, and Killing Eve provided fresh narratives for Asian women, extending beyond racial backgrounds.

Films and television series like Never Have I Ever, PEN15, Plan B, The Half of It, and To All the Boys trilogy focus on young women coming to terms with their sexuality. Instead of being driven by the stereotypical tropes presented earlier, the women control their sexual journeys on their own terms.

Lara Jean Covey and her little sister and her friend in To All the Boys I've Loved Before.
Lara Jean Covey and her little sister and her friend in To All the Boys I've Loved Before.

Netflix

At first glance, Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) in Netflix’s To All the Boys films may come off as a Lotus Flower. She is initially unwilling to confront her romantic fantasies when her love letters are mailed to her former crushes. But Lara Jean proves more complex, smashing the trope as she gains confidence throughout the three films. Lara Jean also allowed young Asian women to see themselves in a love story beyond playing the sidekick. Furthermore, this series’ success propelled more women of color-led Young Adult stories to be greenlit,

Some of the same could be said of Hulu’s Plan B, which features a seemingly stereotypical shy and studious South Asian teenager in the Midwest. However, Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) stands out beyond the cliché as she, like many hormonal teenagers, masturbates and ends up drunkenly having sex during a party. In Netflix’s Never Have I Ever and Hulu’s PEN15, the lead characters deal with the trials of adolescence. They experience many awkward moments as they figure out their place in the world and grow as full-fledged characters.

The CW’s Kung Fu, a reboot of the 1972 whitewashed martial arts drama, centers Olivia Liang as the lead of the first predominantly Asian-cast drama on primetime television. Although the series relies heavily on martial arts, Kung Fu touches on the characters beyond the fighting. As the cast is predominantly Asian, there are more characters to reflect on.

“It can be very triggering because in the entertainment space, we’ve been put into a box in the past of just coming on silently to throw a few kicks and punches and then leave,” Liang said in an interview with The Nerds of Color. “Yes, there is martial arts, but there is meaning behind it now because we’ve gotten to know these characters. We know what they’re fighting for.”

Kung Fu also has Asian American writer Christina M. Kim at the helm as executive producer and co-showrunner who’s aware of the tiresome Asian tropes. “When I was approached to reboot this [classic], it was important for me to reframe the show,” Kim said during a Kung Fu Q&A with CAPE (The Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment). “The lead had to be played by an Asian [American] person. The second thing I really wanted to do is have a strong female lead. I was really excited to bring the show into the modern era and represent [how I know Asians to be].”

A smiling Devi eats dinner at the table in Never Have I Ever.
A smiling Devi eats dinner at the table in Never Have I Ever.

Netflix

Ramón agreed that having more people of color behind the film or series, like Kim, will provide in-depth representation with complex stories. “Having just visible representation isn’t going to cut it anymore,” Ramón said. “You get meaningful representation when people behind the scenes that are working on it are [also] underrepresented.”

Jess Ju, Director of Programs and Operations for CAPE, has seen some great content from Asian American creators in recent years. Specifically, projects by Asian American women creators, starring Asian American women, that subvert stereotypes. “Never Have I Ever [created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher] came out [in early 2020] and became the number one show on Netflix,” Ju explained to Nerdist. “It’s a fantastic coming-of-age story that [takes some] stereotypical things like [being an] overachiever and a model minority, but she’s also this ridiculously awkward, shameless, bold teenage girl with a very complicated but loving relationship with her [family, who’s dealing with universal] experiences like grief and sexuality to very hilarious effects. Then there is The Half of It from writer/director Alice Wu. Elle [Leah Lewis] is like an Asian nerd, but we have this intersectionality with her queerness and is a beautiful story [of romantic and platonic love] and friendship. I think that did incredibly well with [audiences].”

The Future for Asian American Women Onscreen

There is no question that there are still ways to go when it comes to representation and inclusion of Asian American stories. There are still films and television shows that showcase negative stereotypes; for instance, Netflix’s Emily in Paris, where Korean American actress Ashley Park plays Mindy, a mainland China “rich girl,” feeding the idea that “all Asian women are the same.” In Amazon’s The Boys, central character Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), despite her strength, follows the Lotus Flower trope of remaining silent; showrunner Eric Kripke ultimately expressed regret over this choice. There is also a problem with the erasure of Asian women from the screen; one recent Peacock series, Girls5eva, hastily killed off its only Asian character (also portrayed by Park).

Several upcoming TV shows feature Asian woman leads or co-lead in complex roles. In FOX’s new drama The Cleaning Lady, Elodie Yung plays a Cambodian doctor who comes to the US for medical treatment to save her ailing son. Circumstances force her to become a cleaning lady for organized criminals and use her smarts and skills to forge her path in the crime world. Maggie Q will co-star in FOX’s single-camera comedy Pivoting, in which she plays a medical doctor who changes her entire career.

Richard Madden and Gemma Chan get close to kissing in Eternals.
Richard Madden and Gemma Chan get close to kissing in Eternals.

Marvel Studios

Disney+ will feature two Marvel Studios shows starring Asian American leads. Hailee Steinfield, who is of Filipino descent, stars as Kate Bishop in the upcoming Hawkeye series, which has her training with Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner). Pakistani American actress Iman Vellani stars as Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel, a Muslim Pakistani American teenager who idolized Captain Marvel and gains the power to alter her size and shape.

This year sees five blockbuster films starring or co-starring Asian women in leading or co-leading roles as the protagonists: the recently released Gunpowder Milkshake (Michelle Yeoh); Marvel’s Eternals (Gemma Chan, who received top billing on the poster); Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Awkwafina); and The Matrix 4 (Priyanka Chopra and Jessica Henwick).

“I think it’s really important to point out that one or two positive portrayals or subversive portrayals is really not going to undo 150+ years of sexualizing Asian women,” Ju said. “The hypersexualization of Asian women is a tactical war. It’s like tactical [regarding] explicit violence and that has definitely fed into how we’ve created images of Asian women in this country, both deliberately and insidiously.”

Ju said that things are getting better, and that she hopes Asian women will get full storylines and motivations that play on their humanity. “We just want character development, guys.”

With the rise of Asian women leads and co-leads in more distinct roles that provide greater visibility, come more representation and inclusive stories that humanize Asian women. With current and upcoming content, especially from Asian American creatives, there seems to be more emphasis in giving them agency and creating stories beyond their ethnicity. Slowly but surely, Asian women are becoming the heroines in their own story, but given more opportunity, it would go a lot faster.

Featured Image: Marvel Studios

The post The Evolution of the Asian Heroine in Hollywood appeared first on Nerdist.