The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Asian women say Hollywood has failed them for decades. They’re ready for meaningful change.

Clockwise from top left: Anna May Wong in “Limehouse Blues”; Prisca Kim and Jamie Chung in “Lovecraft Country”; Diane Mizota, Mike Myers and Carrie Ann Inaba in “Austin Powers in Goldmember”; Anna Cathcart, Janel Parrish and Lana Condor in “To All the Boys I've Loved Before.” (Everett Collection; HBO; New Line Cinema/Everett Collection; Netflix)

Kat Ahn had taken a break from acting when a co-worker at her office job attempted to draw on her arm with a marker during a casual encounter. He responded to her anger by writing his actions off as a joke, a harmless reference to her past role in the popular “A Benihana Christmas” episode of “The Office,” in which Michael Scott reveals that he marked the arm of one of the two Asian waitresses he brought back to the holiday party so he could tell them apart.

In the show, the joke is meant to be at Michael’s expense — look at this pathetic man, newly single and so desperate for love that he would settle for a woman he can’t even identify. But it’s these throwaway bits that too often cling to the wrong people. Nearly 15 years later, Ahn recalls how quickly her excitement to appear in the beloved television series deflated after she realized she was “just there to be the joke.”

“You’re told to shut up and be grateful,” she says. “Actors have no power until they become a star.”

As a waitress from what Michael refers to as “Asian Hooters,” Ahn, who is Korean American, played a woman reduced to a punchline. Her experience mirrors the kind of roles actors of Asian descent have been offered for decades in an industry that still suffers from a dearth of opportunity for them. Underrepresentation persists among the decision-makers as well — UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report found that 91 percent of the executives at major and mid-level studios were White, while the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported that just 3.3 percent of those who directed the 1,300 most popular films released between 2007 and 2019 were of Asian descent.

The disparities are worse for Asian women in particular, who have often been flattened into two-dimensional characters lacking agency or written as sex objects, whether stereotypically submissive or cunning. Dismissing the depictions as jokes doesn’t account for how, with so few counterexamples, they long existed in a vacuum.

In reading about how the White man charged with killing eight people, six of whom were Asian women, at spas in the Atlanta area blamed his “sexual addiction” and viewed the spas as a “temptation” he aimed to “eliminate,” film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu took note of the tragedy as “part of a long historical trajectory of locating that perverse sexuality on Asian women’s bodies.” On-screen portrayals are just a single factor lending to dehumanizing perceptions of Asian women, but an undeniable one.

The Atlanta murders occurred amid a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes, both extreme examples of the harm inflicted upon Asian American communities. In Hollywood, it can more subtly manifest in objectified portrayals like that of “A Benihana Christmas,” or the running gag on “Scrubs” about Dr. Kelso fetishizing Asian women. It proliferates through the widespread appropriation of “Me so horny,” the line famously uttered by a Vietnamese sex worker in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” that men have repeated while catcalling Asian women since the film premiered in 1987.

“In Hollywood, most of the time we don’t actually feel for Asian Americans. We see them in service of others,” Shimizu says. “The stories have been told from within such a limited demographic.”

Just before mourning the lives lost in Atlanta, Asian and Asian American members of Hollywood celebrated the milestone achievements of their peers. Earlier this month, Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color to be nominated for the best director Oscar, while Steven Yeun, who is Korean American, became the first Asian American to appear in the leading actor category. Joining Yeun was British actor Riz Ahmed, the category’s first-ever nominee of Pakistani descent. The progress is slow, but ongoing.

It took the box-office success of “Crazy Rich Asians” just a few years ago for Hollywood executives to greenlight more stories by and about Asian people, says actress Jamie Chung, who is Korean American. “They were like, ‘Asian people are bankable. We can make money off them.’ ”

After appearing in “The Real World,” Chung made her name in acting with guest roles, the earlier of which she says were often intended to be “very sexy.” She considers her recent portrayal of Ji-Ah in the supernatural drama “Lovecraft Country” to be a turning point in her career. The series spends a full episode with the character, a South Korean nurse possessed by a kumiho, a deadly spirit. Chung was given the space to explore Ji-Ah’s strained relationship with her mother and conflicted feelings for an American soldier during the Korean War. It was “liberating,” Chung says. “A lightbulb went off. If all my work made me feel this way, so valued and represented, I could just die happy.”

The kumiho seduces men before killing them, but the emotional depth to Ji-Ah subverts on-screen stereotypes of East and Southeast Asian women. Back in the 1980s, Asian American studies scholar and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña studied the “dichotomy of the dragon lady and the lotus blossom,” tropes contributing to the hypersexualization of Asian women.

“It parallels what are still the main myths and imagery of Asian Americans — the model minority or the perpetual foreigner,” Tajima-Peña says. “The lotus blossom being a submissive, compliant sex object. The dragon lady being an evil, threatening sex object. In both cases, the sex object.”

These lasting images are inextricable from Asian American history and date back to 1875, when Chinese women were effectively restricted from immigrating to the United States because they were seen as prostitutes and bearers of disease. The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed less than a decade later, literally writing anti-Asian racism into American history. Growing prejudices continued and coincided with the emergence of cinema, Tajima-Peña notes, eventually feeding into what was rendered on film.

Anna May Wong, widely considered to be the first Chinese American movie star, broke out in the 1920s with the silent film “The Toll of the Sea” and went on to appear in films like “The Thief of Baghdad” and “Daughter of the Dragon.” Though recognizably talented, Wong tired of the roles she received and even worked in Europe for a time to escape the box Hollywood had trapped her in: “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain — murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass?” she said in a 1933 interview, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“There was always this Orientalist fantasy,” according to Tajima-Peña, and it was only reinforced as Americans continued to fight multiple wars in Asia throughout the century. The “Full Metal Jacket” scene might have reflected the reality of sex work during the Vietnam War, but its tone also captures “the colonial relationship, the fallout of war, the idea of these hypersexualized Asian women who were there to comfort and entertain the troops,” Tajima-Peña says. “These images are deployed.”

The tropes are so ingrained into American culture that they even figured into shows like “Sex and the City,” which features a full story line about an Asian housekeeper looking to sabotage her male boss’s relationship with Samantha for her own sexual gain. One of the most memorable gags from “Austin Powers in Goldmember” involves Fook Mi and Fook Yu, Japanese twins whose names are mistaken for vulgarities before they offer Austin a “top secret massage.”

Some actresses have rejected the notion that their roles play into stereotypes. In her book “The Hypersexuality of Race,” Shimizu points to the Hong Kong prostitute in “The World of Suzie Wong” as an embodiment of the lotus blossom. But actress Nancy Kwan referred to the film as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” in a 1993 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle and revealed she even turned down a role in “The Joy Luck Club” because its script called her 1960 film racist.

Likewise, Lucy Liu has for years pushed back against the categorization of her femme fatale-esque characters — as well as the tough Ling Woo from “Ally McBeal” — as dragon ladies: “If Renée Zellweger was playing this role, I’m sure she wouldn’t be referred to as ‘dragon lady,’ ” Liu told the New York Times in 2003. She rejected the label again in a CNN interview this month.

As artists of Asian descent find more opportunity in Hollywood, the immense weight of representing entire communities is distributed across their shoulders. Though “Crazy Rich Asians” was touted as a major step for representation — understandably, as it was the first studio film since 1993′s “The Joy Luck Club” to feature an all-Asian ensemble — it could only do so much as a single film. Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” and Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” released afterward, earned praise for their familiar but rare depictions of Asian families — and, notably, of Asian womanhood.

Reflecting on her career thus far, Jamie Chung says that “as an artist, it’s a little tricky because I did what I needed to do in order to work, because I love my craft and this is the profession I chose. When I started out, yeah, all the roles were playing stereotypical Asian girls … But now that things are changing, even within the last three years, [the industry is] realizing our stories have value, our opinions have value. We’re taking control of that. We’re taking back the narrative.”

None of this is to suggest women of Asian descent should avoid exploring or expressing their sexuality on-screen, Shimizu says. What she underscores is “this notion of self-definition,” where women are empowered to break away from the limits and tropes imposed upon them.

“Sexuality is a part of life, and unfortunately it’s been used in such a disciplinary way for Asian women,” she continues. “I contest the adage that movies don’t contribute to structural change. You walk out your door and you do act and you do protest and you do create and you do make things. You speak. Movies definitely contribute to accessing power, accessing your voice.”

Organizers from Red Canary Song, a New York-based group of Asian sex workers and allies, stated this month that whether or not the Atlanta victims were or self-identified as sex workers, they were subjected to sexualized and racialized violence. Elene Lam, executive director of the Toronto-based advocacy group Butterfly, says sex workers are often seen as people who “do not have agency.”

Hollywood has reinforced this assumption, whether by painting Asian sex workers as women who need to be saved or, in the case of the spa scene from “Rush Hour 2,” as something to be consumed, like offerings at a “buffet.” Actress Constance Wu’s character in “Hustlers” might get the closest to what advocates hope to see, given Destiny’s complex interiority, but Red Canary Song co-founder Kate Zen noted after its release that she still exhibited traits “retaining the model minority myth.”

Tajima-Peña predicts on-screen depictions of Asians will evolve to become more nuanced as people of color gain power behind the scenes, pointing to Sandra Oh’s self-assured character on Shonda Rhimes’s “Grey’s Anatomy” as an example: “They populate the screen with who they see in their lives,” she says. “Their New York is not Woody Allen’s New York.” Chung notes that many of her Asian American friends in the industry have worked to become producers and start their own companies.

Shimizu praises the Mindy Kaling-produced show “Never Have I Ever” for depicting an Indian American teenager exploring her sexuality outside of an oppressive setting, as well as Alice Wu’s film “The Half of It” for highlighting a young Chinese American lesbian’s expressions of love. The To All the Boys franchise centers on a Korean American protagonist who refuses to conform to anyone’s expectations.

“The notion of a self-sacrificing, suicidal, servile, suffering, sexually available Asian woman is a prison from which we need to be liberated,” Shimizu says. “I’m looking forward to the vast expanse of other characters and other stories we can see.”