Beyond Representation: The Underlying Flaws of Asian Portrayal

We all have our go-to film favorites to watch: classic comedies, passionate romances, or gripping thrillers.

We all have our go-to film favorites to watch: classic comedies, passionate romances, or gripping thrillers. Whether it be creating captivating storylines or bringing to life heroic characters, Hollywood does an impressive job of producing films that we can all enjoy. However, despite the immense success of entertainment media, a heavily scrutinized problem is the representation of racial and social minorities in films and TV. Often, when Hollywood produces films incorporating minority actors and characters, the producers' focus is not so much on accurately representing their cultures as much as it is on their presence. This results in misrepresented stereotypes and a confined depiction of culture. Although Hollywood has been making appreciable attempts to diversify its films, we still question the authenticity of these cultural renditions and their true impressions on viewers.

In recent years, racial minorities, more specifically Asians, have gained significant prominence in popular films. Movies such as Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite, and To All the Boys I've Loved Before have received widespread acclaim and popularity. By featuring an Asian cast and leads, these movies break the trend of having minority actors play only minor roles and are influential stepping stones in advancing modern filmmaking. A recent University of California, Los Angeles Hollywood Diversity Report documents that the percentage of lead roles played by people of color as of 2019 is 27.6 percent. Another study from the University of Southern California shows that Asian-American actors with lead roles represent a mere one percent. Although this number is still meager, the industry has indubitably seen immense growth in cultural diversity. By spotlighting minorities, these films hold many possibilities, such as appealing to a larger demographic that boosts box office gross rates.

On paper, it seems as if Hollywood is on track to fully accepting diversity. However, more cultural representation within the industry goes beyond just plastering stereotypical aspects of a minority culture on-screen. As of today, television and film have become one of the most influential methods to disseminate information, reaching diverse audiences. Viewers are influenced by the content they watch and are given insight into the unique and unknown. While film is a powerful tool, the portrayal of foreign cultures on screen are often incomplete and can perpetuate stigmas and stereotypes.

For example, Crazy Rich Asians, a movie that has received great publicity and featured Hollywood's first all-Asian cast in 25 years, brings to perspective many traditional Asian practices that many western communities are unfamiliar with. Yet these customs, as seen in the Mahjong scene or dumpling scene, are rather conventional and predictable. Although they're portraying trivial details in order to maximize cultural authenticity, the producer's emphasis on these scenes actually accentuates the image of stereotypical Asian heritage. Suddenly, a dense and rich culture is compressed into a gambling game and one traditional dish. More shockingly, the movie is set in Singapore, but it disregards ethnic minorities such as Indian, Malay, or Indo-Singaporeans that make up 24 percent of the entire population; the majority of the main characters are Chinese. After acknowledging this disparity, we must further recognize the storyline's emphasis on the leitmotif of class and wealth. Emphasizing the wealth and class disproportion in Singaporean society may, on the contrary, leave negative impressions. While the film gives Asians a voice and allows their cultures to be shared and enjoyed, it is not representative of Singapore. It's simply a westernized rom-com that accentuates the existing stereotype that Asian cultures are racked with disparities; it does not offer new insight into a society that many people are still largely unfamiliar with. Similarly, the Oscar-winning movie Parasite addresses stereotypes concerning South Korean workers in order to cleverly depict capitalism; however, it only reinforces pre-existing negative impressions of the country's wealth imbalance. This is not at all representative of South Korean society. Here, we see that both Parasite and Crazy Rich Asians stray away from cultural authenticity to create a captivating plot that fits the mold of a westernized story.

Although Hollywood has made significant efforts to progress and diversify their productions, there are still many steps that need to be taken to ensure that minority cultures are accurately depicted. Despite the traction and publicity that films like Crazy Rich Asians and Parasite received, they are merely the gateway towards authentic cultural portrayal. To walk through that gate requires Hollywood's continuous integration of not only Asian actors into casts but also different elements of Eastern culture that the outside world is unfamiliar with. Asian representation in films should become a normality and not rare attempts of outside-the-box thinking that reinforce stereotypes. As director Jon M. Chu claims, "It's not a movie, it's a movement." With more productions involving Asian participation, varying movies can respectively hone in on specific aspects of Asian culture, such as language, customs, and art that collectively create an accurate depiction of different countries' traditions. Ultimately, the exceptional but foreign aspects of each culture are things that should be embraced and celebrated through careful renditions and artistic decisions.


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