On Representation in the Academy


Photo Credit:    Britannica

Photo Credit: Britannica

The 93rd Academy Award made history. Fantastic news of the wonderful Youn Yuh-jung winning Best Supporting Actress, however, is juxtaposed by the recognition of a disheartening 63-year-wait for another Asian actress to be honored at the massive event. The first had been Japanese-American singer Miyoshi Umeki for her performance in 1958’s Sayonara. Recent Asian films that garner prestige have been ensemble films, like the championing Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, which, with its groundbreaking media and critics’ attention, still saw its actors and actresses sidelined. In the social thriller’s footsteps, Minari by Lee Issac Chung is also nominated for best picture at the 2021’s Awards.

It is no secret The Academy has suffered backlash and public skepticism due to its snubs — nominations and wins that frustrate, and fail to represent diversity in cinema despite public support. Yet, the Oscars are still one of the major parameters of cinema’s quality. It also entails a certain boost to an actor’s career advances to win one of those golden trophies. As such, the lack of recognition endowed to Asian actresses — regardless of nationality — congeals into a jarringly concerning pattern. The focus here is on performers being recognized for their exemplary work in acting, which connotes the Academy, the general public and the film critics’ acquiescent acceptance of Asian faces into their cultural-visual vernacular. Asian actresses, if lauded for their work, would break free from the stereotypical minority representation on the big screen— that has gradually consolidated into the status quo — as well as the homogeneity of the film industry. This rosy outlook might be a distant reality, given the long-standing climate to exclude Asian actresses from nominations, let alone winning at the Oscars. The scarcity of both Asian female performers taking up leading roles, and given recognition confirms the deep-rooted problems in the film and cultural industries.

 

         The reasons for this disheartening reality are manifold. The first is that female leading roles in prestigious scripts are written to be in the majority, white. Most stories entering the public consciousness are still centered around white people, despite steadily improving landscape and proportion; indeed, the recent years the Academy has spotlighted black people’s narratives, which are important steps in the film industry toward racial awareness and representation. But what about Asian-produced and acted films?

 

         That inadequacy brings us to the next reason, which is the bypassing of Asian actors and actresses even as the film itself, the screenplay, the director and other categories are nominated. This can be attributed to the fact that on screen, the audience see the performers as Asian faces, redolent with oriental culture and heritage, despite at times, those characters are of Western descent or second-generation migrants in Western societies. To reconcile the appearance with their contribution to the stellar work of the film, proves still a challenge for most audience members and academy critics alike.

 

         The Academy has missed too many opportunities to honor Asian actresses for them to be regarded as “color-blind” judges. For instance, the critically acclaimed The Farewell had received robust Oscar buzz when the nominations rolled around in 2020, yet, the picture, its filmmakers and performers bypass the Academy’s eyes, which flew straight to other stories that are albeit talking about equally important things as traditional Chinese familial values, death, and human connectedness. The same goes for Crazy Rich Asians, which received no Academy Award attention, despite being the highest grossing romantic comedy in the last decade and crowd’s favorite (let alone starring the exquisite Michelle Yeoh and Constance Wu with their respective stellar work in supporting and leading roles). The list goes on: Memoirs of A Geisha that received nominations and award for Production and Costume Design, yet, once again, bypassing its female lead. Even classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon racked up almost all other nominations save for acting.

 

         It does not help that the film industry has a bad track record in whitewashing, where Asian characters are played by white actors. Notable examples are Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, and Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange. Granted, these films are not “Oscars’ material,” as such, but they indeed hint at a deep-rooted viewer psychology, denoting that movie-goers are more at ease to see ethnicity and identity reflective of their own on screen, for increased relatability, resonance and cathartic responses. As such, representations are one major avenue to assimilate minorities into the mainstream cultural conversation, and to achieve cultural and social awareness. As much as it is important to see stories about black people, latino, aboriginals, indigenous people and other marginalized and disenfranchised communities, it is important for Asian, especially young girls and women, to see someone that resembles themselves shine in a story that is wholly dedicated to them, to highlight their specific set of challenges navigating this world, and to celebrate their history and togetherness. As identity is socially constructed with relations of how we interact with others, engendering a refracted template off of which we perceive and represent ourselves, mass culture upholds an indispensable role to build that foundation for young Asian audience members. To see an Asian woman’s success sets an example for aspiring artists to create their own place in a world dominated by men. All this does not mean to ignore the imploding impacts of Asian actress-led hits, as well with these films’ divergent genres, like Netflix’s teen romantic comedy To All The Boys Series, and Always Be My Maybe; family drama The Farewell, and still, more needs to be done.

         There seems to be hope on the horizon. The new Marvel Cinematic Universe installment Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, promises an Asian-led spectacle, and we witness the blockbuster giant’s another attempt to reassure that there is the chance of seeing Asian female leading roles in the superhero genre with Ms. Marvel, featuring a Pakistani teenage girl gaining superpowers. Sure, MCU movies do not appear on the Oscars’ nomination list frequently — except for the trailblazing Black Panther — but these massive productions will surely steer the eyeball, and most importantly, the conversation towards Asian actresses’ performances in a leading role. Avoiding the trap of overcompensating and simply recognizing Asian actresses for the sake of it, the Academy needs to give credit when credit’s due, instead of playing as the sympathetic character that pushes for diversity and representations because “it would be the appropriate thing to do” under the current climate.

         An Oscar nomination or an actual trophy signifies an implied acceptance of Asian actress as “one of their own”. However, Asian women in films have been subjected to subservient characters lacking autonomy, reinforcing the conceptualization of Asian women being submissive housewives or undignified and thankless servants. More to that, Asian women on screen have been exoticized or sexualized as objects of desire designed to serve the male gaze, or as the backdrop and contributor to the bigger male-oriented story. We cannot neglect that this pigeonholing has its counterpart in assigning Asian men to either wimpy, short, squinty-eyed comedians, or martial artists. The fight, indeed, has to be fought on both fronts.

         But a fight like this is never won, but continues through generations and generations of filmmakers, artists, performers, critics and audience members.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

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