11 May, 2016

#StarringJohnCho, Racism, Whitewashing & Reasons to Watch Asian Dramas

Wang Kai
Photo credit: L'Hommes Offciel
This post is probably going to be somewhat long, not about any particular Asian drama, but rather about some heavier topics and some good reasons to watch Asian dramas. It might also ramble in places, but these thoughts have been percolating for a while, and I probably already have several drafts of elements I'll discuss in this post, and well, sometimes when thoughts are buzzing around in my head, it's easier to write them down.

Recently, the awesome #StarringJohnCho website and hashtag has been lending some attention to the vast under-representation of Asians in Hollywood. You can read more about it here and here. I posted about #StarringJohnCho on Facebook and tagged a friend who I know loves John Cho as much (maybe more) as I do (we both still cry over the cancellation of Selfie. Argh!) and had several other friends chime in with their love for John Cho. I mean, who doesn't love John Cho?! He's handsome, sexy, charming, talented, and just all round awesome.

It got me thinking, again, about how out of touch Hollywood and its execs are and well, a lot of people are with their thinking - that people only want to see white people in film or that only white people make money in film. Why is it that Hollywood just doesn't get that there is significant interest in seeing more than just white people in all the film roles? Some people might say that, well Eleanor, why are you getting so worked up because of movies and TV shows mostly showing white people, it's just TV. But that's the issue, it's not just TV, it's an example of the proliferation of cultural and global attitudes that white people are the ones that matter. You might say that is a big leap, but hear me out. Or well, keep reading.

One of the quotes used in #StarringJohnCho is quite powerful:

"If studies show that films with diverse casts result in higher box office numbers and returns on investments, why doesn't Hollwood cast lead actors to reflect this fact?"

I found the study they were getting their data from. It's from The Hollywood Diversity Report (2015) by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA, which you can read here. (They also partner with other institutes for people of colour to collect their data etc). I skimmed parts of it and also stumbled upon this: 

"Women well-represented among top-credited actors in 'diverse' shows."

This coincidently corroborates my gut feeling (and echoes conversations my mom and I have had where we discussed our anecdotal observations) that as people become less racist, they tend to also treat women better. Obviously, I've done no studies on this, but I guess it makes common sense that as you get better at treating all humans as equals, that would mean caring about treating women equally as well, seeing as well, women are humans (even though violence against women is still such a huge problem worldwide). The data that supports the quote that diversely cast films do better than non-diverse films at box office is on p. 47 of the report if you're interested in looking at their numbers etc. Bottom line: film and television that reflects national demographics (in the US) does better economically, which kind of leads me to my next train of thought. Demographics.

I know I started this conversation talking about Hollywood, but I want to look at a wider global perspective. Unfortunately, Hollywood dominates world film. I say unfortunately, because well, there is a lot of interesting and diverse film and television out there, but because of lack of money and resources, DMCA stranglehold on international film law distribution, US dominance in globalised world culture and conversation, and a host of other factors, US film has long dominated global box office. This actually becomes an issue for diversity, democracy, cultural thought, and has even wider psychological implications, as the US only accounts for 4.4% of the world's population, but yet has such a huge share in stories told through film and television. This seems rather undemocratic to me that people from a wider range of cultural backgrounds aren't able to get a foothold in there to tell their stories on a global scale, and so it becomes easier for a global narrative to favour the one story, the US story, as somehow being the universal one. And it isn't. Of course, US storytelling is important, but not when it's drowning out the other 95.6% of the world. Some countries actually have quotas of how many US films are allowed to be shown, and favour domestically made films, which I find an interesting concept, whether or not it is always successful though is another question. I warned you that this post might ramble, right? Well, let's take a closer look at world demographics broken down by continent.

Image credit: statista
Asia: 59.94%
Africa: 15.96%
Europe: 10.11%
Latin America and Caribbean: 8.59%
North America: 4.87%
Oceania: 0.55%

As an aside, this is exactly why I get annoyed with all the very strident K-pop fans who complain: "But my favourite band didn't come to my city in the US" - people, K-pop companies want to make money, so they will go where they can get the most money from ticket and merchandise sales, which means that they aren't going to always bother with a small percentage of sales when more than half of the world lives in Asia alone. Of course, we all want our favourites to come where we are, but well, money talks. I don't like it that money has this much power, but well, that's the world we currently live in. Plus it's a bit of an entitlement issue that certain places "have" to be included for people to feel like something matters i.e. there is a general trend that to be "someone" or "something", one must be able to make it big in the west, and more specifically, the United States. If more than half the world has access to something, that's fairly global in my opinion.

But back to the whole reason  I started with global demographics breakdown. India has the world's largest film industry in the world (by number of films produced per year), followed by Nigeria's film industry, and China comes in third. The US and Canada come in first though as largest market box office, followed by China, and then Japan. So the US does economically dominate at box office numbers wise (though that might change as other countries gain wider distribution). I get that the US doesn't have to represent global ethnic demographics (as in the US doesn't have to represent the entire world's ethnic and cultural diversity), but when one looks at the numbers and breakdowns of world percentages, and then about how ethnically diverse the US is, and we're still mostly seeing stories about white men as the lead protagonists (this post isn't even getting into how abysmally women are under-represented in film and television, and women of colour even less so), can you see why people are maybe pissed off? I'm guessing that the people who even read this post, are people who already agree with me, but still. It boggles my mind that somehow, white men still dominate the stories told in so much film and television, when they are not representative of the vast majority of stories out there in this world.

So if we're thinking about global demographics, it's no wonder that Hollywood has more vigourously been courting China to make sure they can rake in the millions from box office sales, but we're still not seeing US film and television portraying global diversity. Instead we get Asian tokenism with stereotypical portrayals of ignorant and racist caricatures of Asian men and women. Or the even worse crime, whitewashing as in the cases of films Aloha, and the recent casting of white actresses in The Ghost in the Shell and Dr Stranger. (I really love Margaret Cho's quote about this particular whitewashing controversy:

"Those who say racism doesn't exist anymore are the biggest perpetuators of it." 

This kind of whitewashing, or dismissing the importance of casting Asian actors for Asian roles (never mind actually casting Asians in a role where no ethnicity is specified), is indicative of widespread systemic racism. I really liked this segment by John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, How is This Still a Thing on the topic.

So lets address this topic of no Asian actors to fill roles that some people use to justify casting bigger name white actors and actresses. Plain and simple, there are actually many competent and excellent Asian actors, whether American or not, to play major roles, but either Hollywood is too racist or too lazy to actually try and find them. That and they don't seem to want to see people of colour. It's like they're stuck in this rut where they believe the world is made up of mostly white people. It's so close-minded. And when they make pre-emptive judgements that the wider public isn't interested in more diversity in film (which the data suggest they are - also see Star Wars: The Force Awakens where two relative unknowns, one a woman, one a Black man, still bring in millions of dollars), they are just hiding in their racist closets, but then passing blame on not being able to find funding. I just don't buy it. I just don't. And if anyone dares to comment on this post and say that racism doesn't exist or that I'm biased against white people, well, I'll probably just delete your comments. So lets talk about Asian actors, American and otherwise.

Part of the problem is that because Asians aren't often given substantial roles in US television in film, it's hard to judge their relative star power to "safer" more well-known, and often, white options. This often means that Asian-American, or Asian-Canadian stars head to Asia, and often make it fairly big there. I know this often happens with music. Vanness Wu, a well-known actor and singer in Asia (he is Taiwanese-American) even tweeted to that effect during the recent controversy.
Daniel Henney (he's American with Korean heritage) has a huge modelling career in Asia, and has done some acting in both Asia and the US (he also voice-acted in Big Hero 6 as Tadashi Hamada), but he is much more well-known in Asia than in the US. Of course there are so many actors, singers, etc. who've followed a path to Asia: Eric Nam, John Park, Godfrey Gao, Anthony Neely, are just a few. And to list some well-known Asian actors/entertainers from North America: John Cho, Daniel Day Kim, Steven Yeun, Margaret Cho, Ki Hong Lee, Lucy Liu, George Takei, Sandra Oh, Maggie Q, Parminder Nagra, Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, Grace Park, Naveen Andrews, Bruce Lee, Pat Morita, Harry Shum Jr., Yunjin Kim.  There are so many other actors and actresses that could be included on this list, so many! But if I were to list all the Asian actors and actresses from North America who could be excellent choices for Hollywood to actually try and cast, we would be here all day. And I haven't even listed actors and actresses from Asian countries.

There are so many amazing Asian actors and actresses! So many! Some like Bae Doona, Lee Byung Hun, Jackie Chan, Priyanka Chopra, Ken Watanabe, among others have even made major Hollywood appearances in television and film. But sometimes I want to say, who cares about Hollywood, let's just watch these amazing stars in productions they are already in instead of trying to "making it big in Hollywood". Whenever major Asian stars make a Hollywood crossover and no one knows who they are, I want to shake people. Or when things like Shah Rukh Khan getting detained by US airport security twice, not once, twice. I can't even.

I think that sometimes Hollywood just doesn't realize that Asia is much bigger than they think it is, and that many of these actors are huge stars in their own countries. An example of this is Chinese actor Hu Ge, who has over 47 million followers on Weibo. (As a comparison, David Beckham, has over 54 million followers/likes on Facebook). Chances are, unless you are Chinese, or watch Asian dramas, there's a good chance that you might not know who Hu Ge is, and yet he is a huge star in China (which is more than a seventh of the world population, that's significant). And yet again and again, we're told that the only narrative that matters in Hollywood. Or that because an actor or actress isn't well-known in Hollywood or the west, that they wouldn't have enough star power to attract viewers. Maybe not some people in the US, but there is a substantial Asian-American population in the US and in Europe as well, who I'm sure knows Hu Ge. (I also know that not all Asian stars could carry a lead role in a Hollywood film in English, but many could I think). Anyway, I think I'm getting lost in a tangent there. (And I HAVE to mention Wang Kai of course, it's me. He's only newly famous in China, and he already has over 8 million followers on Weibo, 2 million of which he's acquired in the past two months). Bottom line: I think that Hollywood uses lame excuses like "lack of Asians to fill roles" because they are lazy and racist.

I do want to mention US shows that are actually doing a better job than most at having Asians in leading roles, or roles that bring a freshness/don't fall into stereotyping. Fresh Off the Boat is an example that jumps straight to mind of course. Randall Park and Constance Wu are getting their moment to shine (as is Hudson Yang). Crazy Ex-Girlfriend cast the incredibly sexy, Filipino-American, Vincent Rodriguez as Josh Chan, Rebecca Bunch's (Rachel Bloom) obsession and love interest. He's not the stereotypical nerdy, emasculated Asian male that Hollywood adores to typecast Asian actors as - seriously, where did that awful stereotype come from???? He's hotte, sexy, and the object of the leading lady's desire and love interest. If you want to see a video interview with him, you can check that out here. He's completely charming. Selfie, starring John Cho as the leading man, was just getting warmed up with it's charming and witty banter, in a modern Pygmalion retelling, and then it was cancelled. (And some terrible shows were renewed). *shakes fist at TV the idiots who cancelled it* I also really appreciate the casting of Rahul Kohli in iZombie. He's sexy, funny, charming, and just an all round riot. A show though that generally remains fairly tone deaf about race, is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, despite casting Ki Hong Lee as Dong. I find the show can be really hit or miss when it comes to race, especially in the particularly egregious episode in season 2, episode 3. Ugh. But I do appreciate that Kimmy's love interest is Asian, but how it all plays out is what I have really mixed feelings about. Never mind all the other issues with race the show has. But let's look at Vincent Rodriguez smiling to make us feel happier.

Rachel Bloom and Vincent Rodriguez
Photo credit: TV Insider
I also want to mention Wong Fu Productions. I like how they pretty much were like: well, Hollywood isn't casting Asians, so we'll just do our own thing. They have some really beautiful projects that I really love, and they are also really funny and talented and do so many things! (It's also where so many Asian stars that are being cast in bigger Hollywood roles did early pieces - and they often come back to do cameos etc). Ryan Higa is another big YouTuber, and well is pretty hilarious. There are a whole slew of talented, young Asians doing interesting things on YouTube and other non-conventional platforms.

Okay, now I applaud you if you're read this far. This has been a rather long and rambling post, but I did promise "reasons to watch Asian dramas" in the title of the post, so I had better deliver on that front. I know that western media often writes about the people who watch Asian dramas (most often Korean dramas) as a bunch of dumb, ditzy women watching silly and stupid soap operas. Yeah, I know, not very nice (and definitely not true). I personally think that this actually has a lot to do with racism. I think it's about relegating Asian productions to something "not worthy of sophisticated and intellectual western taste" or some sort of BS like that. I think it's part and parcel of a larger narrative to dismiss and stereotype things Asian as something that people shouldn't be bothered with. Yes, there are some really stupid and soap-opera type Asian dramas out there, but there are some incredibly excellent productions out there (also as a side note, there's nothing wrong with watching bad drama either, or enjoying it). And while I can definitely fangirl my heart about about Asian dramas, music, and actors, the people I've come to know through watching Asian dramas are highly intelligent, funny, well-educated, hard-working, articulate, and open-minded. They are some of the best people in the world.

As promised, here are five reasons to watch Asian dramas (this is mostly aimed at people who haven't watched Asian dramas):
  1. You will be exposed to viewpoints, cultural and otherwise, that are new to you. This is a good thing. When we become set in a single cultural narrative we are comfortable with, we get caught in a bad feedback cycle of confirmation bias. Learning about another culture and country can be helpful in also understanding wider global issues that you might not have thought of before. You might also find a passion for trying new foods (because there are often many eating scenes in Asian dramas), or even start learning a new language. This is good for the health of your brain. 
  2. There are some incredibly talented actors and actresses who are just a delight to watch. And you are missing out by not getting to know them and their work. 
  3. Asian dramas aren't caught up in the US television cycle of trying to make sure they go on eternally for 500 seasons (and thereby lose the storyline and any semblance of what their first couple of season's excellence was). Asian dramas generally have between 16-30 episodes (though there are some that have longer runs, especially historical period dramas) and contain (mostly) a complete story arc. (In Korea, with the liveshoot system, sometimes the final episodes can be a bit shaky). This often means a tighter focus on characters and their story arcs, and might not always be as plot driven as some US shows are. Though this isn't always the case. And there are many genres within Asian drama, so different genres also handle stories and plot differently. 
  4. I bet some of you want me to mention attractiveness, and yes, that is a factor. There are some incredibly gorgeous men and women who star in Asian dramas, and well, sometimes, people are shallow and want to look at beautiful people. Or maybe it's not so much shallow as more primal and instinctual. But I digress. I don't think there's anything wrong with being attracted by beauty, and I'm certainly one to ooh and ah over hotte actors and beautiful actresses. I mean, I flew to Milano (I was in Germany at the time, not South Korea), just on the off chance to see Wang Kai (which I did, and made eye contact. YAAASSSS!!!!). Asian advertising in general, and drama, is often fairly keyed into what it's demographic wants. 
  5. Why not? Why not expand your horizons and look beyond something you've been watching so far. You might find that you discover your favourite actor or actress, or an incredible production, or it might get you to meet friends who become your BFFs for life. I've definitely met some of my best, best friends (in RL and online, who I've then also later met in RL). If you're new to Asian dramas, and want to try watching one, just let me know what genre you're interested in, and I can make some suggestions. 
Even if I haven't convinced you that you should watch Asian dramas, I do hope that in general you've found this post interesting. I know there are about a million different topics embedded in it, and maybe I only touched on some issues, and left others out, but I hope at least, some of it was worth reading. Anything that I mentioned resonate with you and your experience? Anything you want to add? Please comment below and we can continue the conversation. 

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