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Asian Women in Film and TV: Who’s Been Here, Who’s Raising Us Up & What’s To Come

By April 15, 2019 85 Comments

By: Kiana Wu

When I was little, the character I related to most was the animated character of Mulan: a classic.Her hair was long like mine, our eyes were similar, she expressed a frustration that I related to, and her ancestors sounded like my aunties; I saw myself in this animated creation. I can’t recall any women I saw on television that stirred that same feeling until I was a young adult and watched Lana Condor, with love letters in hand, facing a wall of white men in her teenagehood. But one thing I continue to learn is how many Asian women have existed in this industry before myself, how they are breaking down stereotypes and racial bias, and how they are are raising up now more than ever.

 

The Veterans, The Original Tokens and Our Entertainment Aunties

 

You may know Lucy Liu from Charlie’s Angels, Kill Bill or as the ‘Asian One’ in a number of films. Her filmography spans over 25 years, starting as characters named “Hooker” and “Former girlfriend” to Dr. Joan Watson in Elementary or Ling Woo in Ally McBeal. Lucy has won awards for her performances as an angel and assassin, but what’s even more impressive is her ability to take her exposure as the hot Asian woman and defy expectations, extending that attention into a long lasting career. Lucy Liu was the token Asian in a time when we weren’t talking about diversity in Hollywood. There are things she has faced and dealt with that I may never have to because of her impact on the industry. While tokenism is still very
prevalent, “It shouldn’t be so odd that Watson is played by a woman and someone who’s Asian,” is a simple idea that we should carry; that our existence in the industry in the first place can break down preconceived notions. Her work and class makes her the do-good, never-aging, graceful auntie who we always love.

 

I first watched Sandra Oh in the Princess Diaries, when she was the very strict but sweet principal who looked over Mia, also a classic! Now, most know her as Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy or as Eve Polastri from Killing Eve, for both of which she has won multiple awards. Sandra’s exposure in recent years has made her into a household name, and her body of work built over 25 years warrants it. Her performances are consistently provocative, funny, charming, and warm. She was the first Asian American to host the Golden Globes, where her and her parents won our hearts. Her mic dropping line from this year’s Emmy’s is a great reminder, “it’s an honor just to be Asian”. I often think about how women in their mid 40’s can feel a career lull but Sandra is proof that the opposite can be true, and that it can be a peak
time in a career. She reminds us that success will come with talent, humility and time. Sandra -Oh is our fun and cooler-than-us auntie, and we need more power jumpsuits like hers in our lives.

 

Mindy Kaling is a powerhouse of a creator. From co-writing an original play, doing stand-up, to writing, acting, directing and producing on The Office and The Mindy Project, along with two books released, it really does seem like Mindy can do it all. She has changed the way we view funny women, and what’s more, funny Asian women. Matt and Ben is a fascinating work; an Indian woman portraying Bed Affleck five years post Good Will Hunting is the kind of work we need more of. She has since paved her way in the industry, working with some of the biggest names on the funniest comedies of our time. Mindy has made a place for herself by breaking down the walls of what women can do in this industry. With her upcoming movie alongside Emma Thompson, and her new Netflix series being cast through an open call, she continues to say “I’m here, look what I can do and make room for me” with her work. For that she is our hustling auntie, who wears the best dresses to family dinner like it’s NBD, and continues to empower us with her work.

The Breakouts and Glass Breakers

 

Freida Pinto blew the world away with her work in the Oscar winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. She arrived after a six month audition process, and gave exposure to more South Asian women in Hollywood. When I think of visibility for Asian women, Freida Pinto is certainly one of the first women I think of. For months, she was the center of Hollywood buzz, but not because of her male counterpart or drop-dead beauty. She was being recognized for her work, and continued to work beside highly esteemed people in the industry and on Hollywood blockbusters. The work for her has continued, but with quiet and conscious choices. She says, “You can only end a certain stereotype by not giving into it. I don’t get exotic princess roles anymore because I have said no to them” – and she’s right. In order to effect change, it means saying no to things that do not serve you. Freida continues to choose roles that defy that trope, and for that she is the epitome of grace, class and break out success.

With the release of Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina is the Asian best friend of all friends, ever. Her look, her work outside of film and humour is incredibly individual to her, and is a breath of fresh air. Nora Lum is the ultimate cool lady by using her exposure to talk about defying expectations of society – and how being Asian is the center of it all. She has new work upcoming, and that writer’s room has gained attention for being all women. In an interview with Sam Jones, she talks about experiencing impostor syndrome. I can’t imagine losing an office job over a song on YouTube in 2012, and just a few years later, be filming alongside Rihanna & Cate Blanchett and attending the Oscars. She is an example of how trusting in oneself and one’s work can lead to success. Awkwafina is unapologetically herself and has redefined what it looks like to be an Asian women in the spotlight: goodbye stereotype of demure and quiet, and hello dog vests, power teams and genitalia rap! Star Wars was not my cup of tea as a kid. I was into Princess Leia and R2D2, but overall? Not my thing. So in 2017, when The Last Jedi came out with Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a fighter in the resistance, I was stoked. Sitting in the movies thinking, “this is what representation is” changed my perception of how I fit into stories like that. In a franchise that was based around men, sons and evil villains, I LOVED seeing someone who looked like me in that world. I could finally understand everyone’s obsession to be Luke Skywalker, because even as a young adult, I wanted to be Rose Tico. Let’s not forget Kelly’s response to the heinous harassment she endured. From when she first left social media, to her fierce comeback in the New York Times, she has shown us there is nothing wrong with taking a break from a world that can be mean and tough, to come back stronger. Kelly shares that she began to blame herself for the treatment she received saying, “oh, maybe if I was thinner” or “maybe if I grow out my hair” and, worst of all, “maybe if I wasn’t Asian.” I know that for myself, that is often something I ask in times of doubt, since that is what makes us so different – our Asianness. Her words remind us that we deserve space, we will not be marginalized and that we must not carry shame about the culture we come from.

 

Who to Watch For

When Orange is the New Black first came out, it changed the way I looked at what a television career might mean for me. It could mean acting beside invested, extremely resilient and talented women of color for years at a time. Kimiko Glenn’s performance as Brook Soso is endearing, funny and heart wrenching. Her character becomes subject to fetishization, and is also the other half in an interracial relationship with Poussey, a couple adored by Orange fans. When asked about how she is trying to make a name for herself, she says “There aren’t as many roles and I think there’s a lack of openness in casting an Asian character in a leading role, or unless they’re a stereotype. It’s been hard.” Kimiko is in the middle of these industry changes, and her having faced these obstacles is inspiring. She looks up to some of the women mentioned above, and with her most recent work including the Broadway musical, Waitress, Like Father with Kristen Bell, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, she is certainly a comedic woman to perk our ears up to.

 

Game of Thrones is back! Whether you love it or have no idea who does what and who died, you need to know that Jessica Henwick is a badass. On Game of Thrones, she plays the whip-slashing Nymeria Sands, Colleen Wing on Iron First or Luke Cage, or Bo on BBC’s Spirit Warriors, in which she was the first woman of East-Asian descent to land a lead on a British TV series. Jessica does a lot of her own stunts and fight sequences, has been featured in Variety magazine’s Top Breakout Stars of 2017, and is currently filming Godzilla Vs. Kong and Monster Problems. With her success, she has noted it has created a pressure to indulge in stereotypical roles, but that she wants to “continue to broaden expectations of what an Asian can be… but also pursue ones that would have spoken to me as a young Asian.” With two films coming out in 2020, no doubt Jessica has built an incredible momentum for herself and holds herself accountable to her own ambitions and values that deserve our recognition. If you haven’t watched Kim’s Convenience yet, you truly are missing out on a gem. The show tells the story of a Korean-Canadian family and captures a lovely balanced narrative of immigrant experience versus first generation experience. Andrea Bang plays Janet-the daughter of the convenience store owners. Janet is a student of photography, lives with two roommates and works at her parent’s convenience store. She is often seen stocking shelves, taking snacks or ringing people up behind the counter. With her brother being estranged from the family, Janet takes on a lot of the expectations that come with being the only daughter and burdens a lot of familial pressure. Over three seasons, we see Andrea grow into Janet. Her performances show Andrea’s comfortability, clever comedic timing, and a sweet, relatable, vulnerability. It’s an example of what Asian stories can look like without tokenism – Andrea stating “a show like Kim’s Convenience is coming out and it has real characters, fully fleshed out people, not people who just come on and say like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and then leave—they actually have a backstory and a future story”. So many of her scenes with Appa, her father, remind me of conversations I could have with my father today. Kim’s Convenience has already been renewed for a fourth season and I’m excited to not only get to know the
character of Janet even more, but also see what other work Andrea will pursue..

All of these women are changing the landscape of what it means to be appear as an Asian woman on-screen. What’s really awesome is that there are others that I haven’t included, like Ali Wong, Margaret Cho, Jean Yoon and Priyanka Chopra, who are all part of this change. As a mixed Asian actress, the last few years in entertainment has given me insight on what space is given to people of color, and how much space I must continue to fight for. These women have been there, put up with all the “no’s” that are now my “yes’s”, faced adversity from people in and out of the industry, and have come out with bodies of work that I admire and strive to have. Asian women can now be fighters, grossly funny, unconventional and undone but there are stories that have yet to be told. We need more. Crazy Rich Asians is not enough.
Fresh Off The Boat is not enough. This article is not enough. Where are the queer Asian women, where are their stories? What about Pacific-Islanders, or Western & South Asian stories? Groundbreaking work has been made but we cannot stop. Together, we must show up, make, deconstruct and elevate each other so we may thrive.

 

Kiana Wu is a mixed Taiwanese actor/playwright currently residing in New York City. Originally from Calgary, Canada, she moved 2 and a half years ago to pursue formal acting training. She has previously co-written plays, with her first original short play going up at festival this year and performed in various styles of theater, taking a special interest in Viewpoints and Lucid Body movement work. When not working in a theatre, she can be found teaching Model UN & Public Speaking in the the Lower East Side to children ages 6-13.

Find Kiana here:

Instagram: @kianaw

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