We often talk about the lack of diversity in Hollywood; it’s the hottest topic in the industry, yet it remains a problem. Even in the midst of all the criticism and discussion in the media and amongst celebrities, the issue often fails to include Asian Americans or Asian Canadians in this fight towards diversity. Asian American/Canadian actors, actresses, writers, filmmakers and the problem of white-washing originally Asian characters in Hollywood has slowly emerged in popular media – and I emphasize the word ‘slowly.’
Just last week, Entertainment Weekly featured Steven Yeun, from the popular AMC show The Walking Dead, on their front cover, making him the first solo Asian male actor to be featured on the cover since Masi Oka from Heroes was on the cover in the 2007. Before him, Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee and leading actor in The Crow, had been featured on the cover of Entertainment Weekly in 1994. That’s a total of three Asian male actors who have graced the front cover of Entertainment Weekly since their first weekly issue in 1990; it is a shockingly low number.
Steven Yeun played one of the show’s beloved characters, Glenn Rhee. The character was considered progressive in terms of the way Hollywood usually represents Asian characters. He was not the token Asian guy with the funny accent, or the nerd who had trouble getting girls. Nor was he weakly built or struggling to fight off the zombies, or fighting the zombies with his mysterious kung fu skills. Instead, Glenn was a charismatic, at times awkward, but lovable, strong, smart, loyal, and welll-rounded character who won many The Walking Dead fans’ hearts from its very first episode when his voice came on over the radio to save Rick. He was never reduced to his racial background in this zombie eat zombie world.
However, characters like Glenn are rare to find in Hollywood and accessing such roles for Asian actors and actresses is even harder as whitewashing continues to dominate the industry. Just recently there was controvesy surrounding a character played by Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange. She plays the mysterious Tibetan called The Ancient One, clearly a role that could have been played by another talented Asian actress. The Founding President of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) Guy Aoki comments that Marvel could have maintained the ethinicity of the character and believes “it just erases an Asian character from the screen when there weren’t many prominent Asian characters in Marvel films to begin with.”
Steven Yeun’s cover is groundbreaking for many reasons: not only does it reminds us of how the representation of Asians in media has improved and how capable Asian actors or actresses are of playing a well-rounded, beloved character, but it also shows how little progress has been made to create diversity on screen in such a long span of time. Under-representation of Asians in modern media should not be taken lightly. The industry needs to understand that there needs to be more roles for Asian American/Canadian performers. The movie or the show isn’t going to flop for having a diverse cast or crew. The fact is that audiences are willing to pay to see these performers on or behind the screen, and are excited to finally see some diversity in their favourite TV shows or movies.
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