As debates about diversity spread beyond the century-old discussion of how African Americans are represented on-screen, some of the sharpest debates have been about the depiction of Asians and Asian Americans, who, when they aren’t being presented as mystical sages, have often been pigeon-holed as sexless, socially awkward geeks. And amidst those debates, a group of Asian American actors and media entrepreneurs gathered on Capitol Hill on Tuesday for a discussion introduced by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and moderated by commentator Jeff Yang about how to move the entertainment industry forward.
Memorandums of understanding that legislators negotiated during the mergers of cable giants have reaped some benefits for Asian American media entrepreneurs. Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal resulted in the creation of NBC Asian America, a portal that produces content for programs that air across NBC’s news networks. And the agreement got Mnet America, a spinoff of a South Korean pop culture channel, distributed to 20 million American cable subscribers. (Chu suggested she would pursue similar agreements in future mergers.)
But for all these are steps forward, they’re only a very small beginning. The 20 million homes where viewers can watch Mnet America “only accounts for 20 percent of TV homes,” acknowledged Mnet America president Sang Cho. “There are fully-distributed African American, Latino networks.” While some series on niche streaming outlets have managed to break out into the wider cultural conversation, Mnet America shows aren’t exactly lighting up Nielsen ratings or spurring mainstream buzz, at least not yet.
And while Traci Lee, who runs NBC Asian America, is right to boast that it’s one of the few publications to dedicate resources to covering Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, NBC hasn’t yet prompted other outlets to follow suit.
The tension between carving out independent spaces and working on mainstream projects came up repeatedly during the panel. Justin Chon, who starred in the “Twilight” movies, pointed to Japanese American comedian Ryan Higa’s success on YouTube, where he’s amassed more than 17 million subscribers.
“It’s absolutely a game-changer. It’s not a platform where it’s force fed, like network television. [On TV] the programmers pick the programming and the shows they want on. [On YouTube] the people, they get to kind of decide who they want to watch and subscribe to,” Chon argued. “If [Higa’s following] doesn’t say there’s a thirst for Asian American content, I don’t know what other example there is.”
Ki Hong Lee, who stars in the “Maze Runner” franchise and plays Dong, the main love interest on Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” credited YouTube with keeping him working during a two-year dry spell after the cancellation of his first TV show, “The Nine Lives of Chloe King.” But he still wanted to pursue a career in mainstream entertainment.
Kelvin Yu, who stars in “Master of None” and writes for “Bob’s Burgers,” suggested that while YouTube provides an alternative to film school, there is still value to a rigorous, traditional film education. And he cautioned that the current situation might be a content bubble. After all, it’s one thing to distribute your own storytelling and another for there to be actual revenue supporting those stories, whether through YouTube or broadcast TV advertising, or the subscription fees that power Netflix, where “Master of None” airs.
But if technology and new outlets contain both advantages and pitfalls for communities seeking greater media representation, the panelists were unanimous about the power of seeing Asian American actors in lead roles, and the need for Asian American artists to tell their own stories.
Chon cited John Cho, who recently became the subject of a meme where fans photoshopped his face onto movie posters where he replaced white actors, as an enormous inspiration, a symbol of what an Asian American actor might be able to accomplish with patience and persistence. Cho is one of the few Asian American actors who is allowed to play both bros and romantic comedy leads.
“It seems so small but it’s so huge, him doing that MILF thing [in ‘American Pie’],” Chon reflected. “Even as mundane or stupid as people might think that is, to a young person just starting out, if I could even just do that, I’d be satisfied, and not playing the delivery boy. When he got something like “Harold and Kumar [Go to White Castle], it was like ‘That’s absolutely mind-blowing.'”
Yu said that for him, his epiphany about the entertainment industry came while working as a waiter in between acting jobs.
As a waiter, he said, “You learn something very fast. You can make an okay meal good, and you can make a good meal great, but you can’t make a crappy meal great. There’s limitations to what the waiter can do. Something hit me in the head in my twenties and I decided, and I’m using a metaphor, that I wanted to own the restaurant,” Yu argued. “I don’t want to deliver you food anymore. I don’t want to wait for you to write that character anymore. . . . You don’t get creative freedom unless you create.”
And what Yu, Chon and Lee emphasized is that Hollywood needs to create leading roles for Asian and Asian American actors, not just small parts on the margins.
“When you write a lead character, number one on the call sheet, it’s not just that they’re the hottest. It means that you’re in their experience,” Yu said. “His experience is to take you with him. That doesn’t mean that he’s always good, or he’s handsome. Jack Nicholson [attempts to kill] his whole family in ‘The Shining,’ and we’re along for the ride. . . . It’s that it’s rewriting the content so people spend some time in our experience. I have nothing against the show with Katherine Heigl and the sassy gay friend. I want to spend more time in the shoes of the sassy gay friend.”