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.”


Where Are All the Asian Americans in Hollywood?

Fresh Off the Boat Photo: ABC

Fresh Off the Boat
Photo: ABC


In the 2003 sci-fi film The Matrix Revolutions, Keanu Reeves’ character Neo reassures his love interest Trinity that the two will reach Machine City to finally end the war between the machines and humans. “If you tell me we’ll make it, I’ll believe you,” Trinity says, as a small army of machines pursues their ship. Neo hesitates for a moment and replies, “We’ll make it. We have to.”

In some ways, the brief exchange between the two applies to a harsh reality that many Asian-American actors face. Audiences are all-too-familiar with Reeves, who has Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry. But as more Asian Americans aspire for the bright lights, many of them have struggled to land blockbuster roles. A recent study by children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books reveals that just eight of the top 100 best-selling sci-fi and fantasy films from Hollywood had a protagonist of color. Worse, only two minority actors landed lead roles: Will Smith, who alone played six of those characters, and Reeves. Both actors have starred in major films since the 1990s.

“We wanted to highlight the lack of diversity in that particular industry, but we also wanted to show that [it] is not an isolated incident,” said Hannah Ehrlich, Lee & Low’s director of marketing. “It repeats itself over and over in a huge number of places.”

It’s hard to argue her claim. Asians made up just 4.4 percent of speaking characters across last year’s top 100 grossing movies, according to a University of Southern California study. The figure is slightly lower than the total percentage of Asians in the country, which is just over five percent. The difference may not be much, but the numbers belie the difficulty of becoming an Asian-American Hollywood star. Although Asian Americans are now the nation’s fastest-growing demographic, their presence in films has gotten visibly smaller since 2008.

To some critics, this sort of underrepresentation is an all-too-familiar story. “American history is pretty racist and sexist, and Hollywood is a reflection of our culture,” RaceBending’s Marissa Lee wrote in an email. “Hollywood doesn’t put minorities in lead roles because our society rarely lets minorities take the lead.”

In fact, the number of lead roles offered to Asian Americans has dwindled over the years. In 1959, the late Japanese-American actor James Shigeta landed a groundbreaking role as a detective in the crime drama The Crimson Kimono. With his slicked-back hair and clean suit, he challenged the notion of Asian men as scrawny and alien. Seven years later, his better-known Chinese-American counterpart Bruce Lee almost single-handedly redefined that image as Kato in the 1966 TV series The Green Hornet. Boasting nearly impeccable abs, the high-flying martial artist-turned-actor eventually starred in his own films and appeared to pave the way for other Asian Americans. But the subsequent decades following Shigeta’s and Lee’s success saw few, if any, play lead or supporting roles.


In some cases, directors and producers ignored them and completely whitewashed films based on Asian-American lives or Asian culture. In 2008, for instance, Columbia Pictures released 21, a drama inspired by a group of mostly Asian-American students who formed a team to beat casinos at blackjack. The main cast featured just two Asian-American actors, both of whom played supporting roles. Two years later, M. Night Shyamalan fended off a hail of criticism for failing to cast more Asian Americans in The Last Airbender, a fantasy film based on a Nickelodeon cartoon series influenced by East and South Asian cultures.

Not much has changed since, according to actress Christine Toy Johnson.

“I think that [people’s] perception of who we are, what we can do, or where we come from is what’s at issue,” Johnson says. “If someone perceives us as being foreign or being ‘other,’ they are not going to see us as part of Broadway or [Hollywood].”

The noticeable absence of Asian Americans in film has irked some observers, who say that TV networks have done more to recruit actors of color. ABC, for example, recently announced that it had picked up two shows with Asian-American leads: Fresh Off the Boat, a series based on Taiwanese-American restaurateur Eddie Huang’s memoir, and Selfie, a comedy starring Harold & Kumar’s John Cho. “In a way, it’s not so much diversity as it is authenticity,” explained the network’s president Paul Lee, during a press tour last month.

It’s also a savvy business move. As the national audience becomes more racially diverse, the TV industry has placed its bets on shows that people can culturally appreciate. Today, most of these consumers are blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans, whose buying power “has increased markedly over the past 20 years, out-pacing the total U.S. growth rate,” according to a UCLA study. But Hollywood has yet to adapt to this trend.

“I just don’t think there’s enough exposure for us,” says independent film producer Erik Lu. “In order for us to pop up on the Hollywood scene, we need to make sure that people who are writing Asian-American parts are coming through.”

Some artists have taken that matter into their own hands. In 2003, college buddies Philip Wang, Wesley Chan, and Ted Fu started Wong Fu Productions, an independent film production company whose videos have since garnered over 200 million YouTube views and more than two million subscribers. The trio casts mostly Asian Americans but often tells stories that are not unique to their identity, in an effort to prove that Asian Americans are marketable and share universal experiences. Many skits playfully and seriously deal with relationships. “The Last,” for example, focuses on a man who reflects on his exes, while “The Best Third Wheel in the World” humorously describes the perks of tagging along on a date.

“It’s important to show that we’re going to build up our star power on our own so that Hollywood can’t ignore that we have millions of followers,” Wang says.

The company’s dedication has paid off. Wong Fu has worked with several prominent Asian-American actors, including Veep’s Randall Park and Glee’s Harry Shum Jr., and it continues to raise the profile of countless others. They’re working on their first feature film, a romantic dramedy backed by more than $350,000 it raised by way of crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The movie is just one of its many works that will shed light on Asian-American talent.

“We’re committed to portraying Asian Americans in a positive light,” Chan says. “It’s important to represent the community as best as we can.”

Now, it’s Hollywood’s turn.