Do Minority Actors Have a Duty to Reject Stereotypical Roles?

Ken Jeong as Leslie Chow in "The Hangover"

Ken Jeong as Leslie Chow in “The Hangover”


It’s a scene in The Hangover that almost every fan remembers. After unsuccessfully searching for their friend Doug, the trio of Phil, Stu, and Alan meet Chinese gangster Leslie Chow in a desert, where they mistakenly exchange their blackjack winnings for a different Doug. They ask for the money back, but Chow refuses. “Oh, I’ll take [Doug] back… right after you suck on these little Chinese nuts,” he says as he yanks on his crotch.

The line is one of many that make Chow, played by Ken Jeong, so memorable. It also, however, reinforces a stereotype that Asian American men would rather avoid. The fact that Jeong, a Korean American actor, says it further complicates the issue and raises the question of whether an actor should turn down a role if his community might find it offensive.

“I do find myself having to check in with some of my colleagues just to be like, ‘What do you think?’” actor Peter Kim, who starred in Yoko Ono’s rock opera, New York Rock, said when asked about his approach to such roles. “I need to check in with them to kind of affirm what I’m feeling [about] a project.”

Kim’s apprehension is nothing new among actors. Stereotypes have long been part of film-and-television history. From early portrayals of Italians as mafiosos (which was one of the criticisms of The Sopranos) to current depictions of African Americans as petty criminals, the entertainment industry has been saturated with characters who exaggerate behavior attributed to certain races. Yet the problem is particularly magnified in Asian American and Latino communities, which are among the least represented in the media. A University of Southern California study shows that while Asians secured less than five percent of roles in top-grossing films last year, Asian males played more hypersexualized roles than white men, meaning that wearing revealing clothes played a more integral part to Asian actors’ characters than to white actors’. A similar Columbia University study this year reveals that more Latinos have played “criminals, law enforcers, and cheap labor” despite playing fewer lead roles than they did 70 years ago.

“It surprises me,” said Manny Alfaro, executive director of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors, when asked about Columbia’s statistics. “There’s definitely much more work available out there.”

But those opportunities are still relatively few in number, despite the fact that the lack thereof has, for years, forced organizations like Asian CineVision—a nonprofit that promotes Asian American works—to showcase stories that capture the diversity of their ethnic community’s experiences.

“Our founders were sitting there and asking, ‘Why aren’t we seeing more of ourselves, our stories, in the mainstream media?’” said John C. Woo, Asian CineVision’s executive director. “And then they said, ‘Well, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

If efforts like Asian CineVision’s have existed for a while, who then should be blamed for the excess of stereotypical roles in Hollywood? Most pundits would point fingers at directors, producers and screenwriters. Few would probably criticize the actors, who seem to agree that the decision to accept a role is a personal one. Some do it for a much-needed paycheck, whereas others believe their only obligation is to play the role they’re given. Ultimately, each actor feels a different sense of responsibility for the on-screen representation of his or her community when offered such parts, said Bertila Damas, a Cuban American actress who chairs the SAG-AFTRA Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee.

“As a union activist, I will fight for what I think is fair,” she said. “But that’s my personal choice. I can’t say that every actor should make that choice. I think, as actors, we’re meant to interpret roles in storylines. That’s what we do. We’re storytellers.”

While some critics may dismiss the concern over playing stereotypes as nothing more than an attempt at being politically correct, the consequences of being introduced to these impersonations—no matter the level of exposure—can be very real, as New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley recently learned. In an attempt to praise Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes for redefining the African American woman’s role in television, Stanley maintained a popular stereotype when she suggested that Rhimes’s new autobiography should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.” In response, Rhimes vented her frustration at being constantly labeled. “I find race and gender to be terribly important,” she told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month. “They’re terribly important to who I am. But there’s something about the need for everybody else to spend time talking about it… that pisses me off.”

Shonda Rhimes and her cast of actors

Shonda Rhimes and her cast of actors

Such unease at being pigeonholed into an ethnic construct can cause some actors to hesitate accepting stereotypical roles.

“I was scared that if I started getting those parts, that’s all I would get offered,”Parks and Recreation star Retta told NPR’s Neal Conan in an interview last year. “You know, especially when I started, it was mostly meter maids or, you know, the sassy nurse or the sassy receptionist in the hospital.”

Aside from the fear of being typecast, actors like Retta may have an even bigger reason to turn down such roles. Playing a negative stereotype repeatedly or experiencing one regularly can potentially convince an actor that the role accurately reflects reality, according to a behavioral theory called internalized oppression.

“If you start seeing a stereotype and you’re part of that [stereotyped] group, you begin to quietly accept them as being part of the norm,” explained Dr. Travis Dixon, an associate professor who focuses on media stereotypes at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “You’re more likely to rely on them and reproduce them in various ways.”

If that is the case, perhaps the biggest challenge is breaking the cycle of stereotypical roles once actors have played one. The best option for them to do so is to prove, through the quality of their performances, that they deserve better roles, Bertila Damas said.

“We need to be well-trained and deliver the goods,” she said. “When you deliver the goods, you will be called into rooms where the opportunities are high.”