Why Does Hollywood Cast So Many White People as Asians?

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    Why Does Hollywood Cast So Many White People as Asians?

    “My American Dream was to fit in,” says young Eddie Huang on the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. The show, renewed for a third season, takes a look at growing up with Taiwanese immigrant parents in Orlando, Florida. Funny, certainly, but also poignant: Fresh Off the Boat is the only TV show that has featured a predominantly Asian-American cast in the past two decades.

    Fitting in might be hard when it’s difficult to even be seen. “Media does matter. Whether or not we realize it, the images we’re exposed to affect our perception of the world,” says Rebecca Sun, a senior reporter for The Hollywood Reporter who has covered the whitewashing of Asian and Asian-American characters. At OZY Fusion Fest, held in Central Park this summer, Sun called out Hollywood’s problem by noting how in Aloha, Emma Stone plays a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian character. In 21, Jim Sturgess plays a character based on MIT genius Jeffrey Ma. The examples date back years: In 1961, Mickey Rooney dressed up in yellowface to play a bit part in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

    To be sure, depictions of Asians and Asian-Americans do exist, but they aren’t always positive. The ones that tend to go viral hew toward the William Hung side of the spectrum — emasculating, powerless and awkward, Sun notes. During the Academy Awards this year, Chris Rock’s emceeing featured numerous nods to #OscarsSoWhite and the lack of Black actors on the top ballots — but then he made jokes about Asians and their proclivity for accounting. So, progress?

    Asian-Americans made up only 4 percent of roles on broadcast, scripted programs in the 2013–14 TV season, whereas white actors claimed 80 percent of spots. Yet Asian-Americans were the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. from 2000 through 2010, making up more than 5 percent of the population — and Asia, China especially, is an increasingly important market for Hollywood entertainment these days. Which leads Sun to ask: “So what picture of our society are we internalizing when Hollywood unconsciously, yet continuously, shows us hospitals with no Asian doctors, government agencies with no Asian staffers, workplaces with no Asian colleagues, neighborhoods with no Asian families, love stories with no Asian men in them?”


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