There are few roles available for Asian actors. Only 5% of all film roles in 2019 were Asian characters. The percentage of Asian directors and writers are even lower at 3.4 and 2.8% respectively.*
What few Asian roles there are have been whitewashed in Hollywood as long as movies and shows have been made. It can be a case of needing to include A-List actors to attract funding and audiences, and the relative lack of Asian A-List actors. But how do Asian actors get to be A-List if they don’t get cast in the first place?
White-washed examples include:
Emma Stone as a part-Hawaiian, part-Chinese flight attendant in Aloha
Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan monk in Doctor Strange
Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese soldier in Ghost in the Shell
When Asians are cast in Asian roles, it is sometimes done without regard for ethnic differences among Asians. Asians are sometimes seen as a homogenous group rather than one made up of a number of ethnic groups with cultural differences. This results in casting that incorrectly aligns actors and roles and suggests an interchangeability that may be inaccurate or harmful. Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi sparked controversy when she played a Japanese geisha in a movie that audiences hoped would honor Japanese culture and history.
Many Asian actors have noted that there is a double standard — why do we critique Asian actors for taking roles of different ethnicities, but we don’t bat an eye when white actors do the same?
Sonoyo Mizuno: “It kind of pissed me off. The reason it bothers me is because people don’t have an issue with Australian actors playing American parts and English actors playing Polish parts.”
Jamie Chung: There’s more consciousness now of putting Asian actors in specific roles. They want someone ethnically Chinese to play Mulan, which I appreciate, but it’s cutting into my roles as well. You have actors who can play Australian, British, Irish, but Asian, it’s very specific. It’s a double-edged sword.
Lana Condor: We have representation for the first time in 25 years! Let’s all remember this is a huge stepping stone. There’s a double-standard here. If we’re going to be race-specific — are you asking Nicole Kidman or Margot Robbie?
Reflecting on Asian representation
Next time you watch a film or show, ask yourself:
Are Asians present or missing where representation is indicated?
Are Asian characters played by Asian actors?
How are Asian characters portrayed? Sensitively and accurately or as caricatures and stereotypes?
The issues raised here are nuanced and we encourage you to engage directly with Asian creators and actors on the issue and get more information through organizations such as the Center for Asian American Media.