I don’t really care that Sean O’Connell didn’t like Shi’s movie. “Turning Red” was a huge budget Pixar film with songs written by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas. Shi is not an independent filmmaker who is only seriously trying to tell her truth to a small festival audience. Shi and the people who want more Asian representation in major Hollywood movies won.
The main beneficiaries of a diversified Hollywood, as far as I know, are the minorities who make and star in movies and television shows. This is great for them, but I don’t really understand why, as an Asian American, I should be cheering for a movie like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. it’s about a rich Singaporean family. I’ve never been to Singapore, I didn’t grow up in luxury and I don’t feel understood because millions of my fellow citizens have seen a movie about people who are more or less alien to me.
There’s also a quantitative quality to the focus on Hollywood representation that always seemed a little too clinical for my taste. Last May, the School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California released a paper on Asians and Pacific Islanders in the film industry. Here’s a quote from a press release on the report: “About 51,159 speaking characters in 1,300 top-grossing movies, 5.9 percent was API.”
One of the report’s authors, Nancy Wang Yuen, whose work I generally admire, elaborated on the data, noting that many of the jobs Asian and Pacific islanders were given were in symbolic roles. “In 2019, 30 percent of primary and secondary API characters were the only ones or did not interact with other API characters on the screen. We need to see more than one API character on the screen communicating with each other in meaningful ways.”
There are many assumptions at play here. The first and most obvious is that there is a moral right for a minority group to have a number of film and television roles that is in line with the percentage of the American population. Perhaps this is not Yuen’s intention, but following this logic, films with black actors would only make up about 12 percent of what Hollywood produces. And only three of the 500 or so roles should be trans characters or given to trans actors.
I’m also not sure what it would accomplish if the Asian American acting roles went from 5.9 percent to 7.1 percent. Do Asian-American children suddenly feel like they are more part of this country when they realize that they are equally represented in film and television?
The most confusing part of Yuen’s quote is the pronoun “we”. Who is the “we” who needs to see more than one on-screen API character interact with another in meaningful ways? Are they professional, educated Asian Americans like me, or is “we” just an abbreviation for America in general? If it’s the first I can announce that I don’t really do that need to see Asian people communicate with each other on my television because I already know Asian people talk to each other. If it’s the latter, I wonder again who our target audience might be: do we make art for ourselves, or do we turn every movie, book, and painting into a spectacle that shows everyone how human and normal? we everything can be?