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Will Hollywood Finally Recognize the East Asian Male?

When Hollywood franchises need East Asian male characters for diversity purposes, their roles are limited to sidekicks or unlikeable men.

During the past decade, particularly since the trend of “Oscarssowhite” in 2015, diversity has become a vital theme in Hollywood. This is evident not only in the box office and awards success of films such as the comic book adaptations Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but also in the satirical thriller Parasite, the romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, and the inspiring biographical dramas Green Book and Hidden Figures. These films have placed individuals from diverse backgrounds who were previously stereotyped into leading roles. The recent Oscar-winning mind-bending sci-fi Everything Everywhere All At Once, starring Michelle Yeung and Ke Huy Kuan, adds to this wave of inclusivity.

In response to the demand for greater inclusivity, even the Oscars have introduced the ‘New Diversity and Inclusion Standards for Best Picture Eligibility’, encouraging filmmakers to reconsider the prevalent white-dominant casting in blockbusters. Critics and celebrities, such as the senior editor of Hollywood Reporter and actress Awkwafina, have heralded a golden age of diversity, where Asian actors and actresses are gaining more prominence than ever.

However, amidst this progress, a sad truth remains: East Asian men – the racial group that shares the same appearance and skin colour and similar cultural background encompassing individuals of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other East Asian/Oriental origins – are still overlooked in this diversity movement, despite the Chinese American actor Ke Huy Kuan’s winning of the Oscars. It is fathomable that someone might use productions such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Crazy Rich Asians, or Squid Game to refute the argument. There are indeed East Asian Male protagonists in these shows as superheroes or wealthy and attractive elites. Korean actor Lee Jung-jae even received an Emmy Award for his performance in Squid Game.

However, examining these productions more closely shows that they only depict or focus on one ethnic group and East Asian Culture. While Shang-Chi focuses only on the Chinese, Crazy Rich Asians mostly explores Singaporean families, and Squid Game primarily concentrates on Koreans. They do not change the tragic fact that East Asian Men rarely appear as leads or essential supporting characters in mainstream Hollywood productions involving a variety of races and ethnicities. 

This issue has become a significant discourse with the release of Everything Everywhere All at Once. Chinese American actor Ke Huy Kuan’s speech when accepting the Academy’s best-supporting actor award – the first East Asian man to win in this category – highlights the difficulty East Asian male actors are experiencing in Hollywood and how this lead to his absence from the screen for over 25 years. Let us consider the position of the East Asian man within Hollywood blockbusters that involve a variety of races and ethnicities by initially discussing their situation within large franchises since 2000. 

With Hollywood relying on franchises for guaranteed fan followings, East Asian men have previously been harmfully stereotyped or completely absent from some of the largest franchises due to whitewashing within Hollywood, leading to an underappreciation for the East Asian male character. Despite the Covid pandemic’s influence on the film industry (more on that below), Hollywood films are indicating a growing awareness of the need for diversity and how East Asian men have been limited to the roles of sidekicks to the white lead. Streaming services appear to be placing more value on the East Asian male character and how this, in turn, has pressured Hollywood. 

East Asian Men in Hollywood Franchises: Rising Stars or Overlooked Faces?

As Hollywood continues to rely on franchises or the “universe” and the diversity movement advances with vigour and vitality, many diverse central characters have appeared in many blockbuster franchises. Marvel’s superhero films, for instance, have showcased notable examples, such as the groundbreaking African characters T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) in Black Panther and its sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Also, they have featured strong female superheroes like Carol (Brie Larson) and Sersi (Gemma Chen, Asian British) in Captain Marvel and Eternals, respectively. In the Star Wars franchise, Finn (John Boyega, African British) was a leading character in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, contributing to diversity and representation within that beloved universe. Furthermore, even Disney’s live-action “princess series” have embraced diversity, with African American singer/actress Halle Bailey portraying Ariel in the new The Little Mermaid.

It is both interesting and disheartening to observe the absence of East Asian male leads in major blockbuster franchises, except Shang-chi, played by Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Instead, the only notable characters that come to mind are Ken Watanabe’s portrayal of Dr. Serizawa in Godzilla: King of the Monsters and the supporting roles of Wong (Benedict Wong) in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) in Ant-Man and the Wasp. These characters serve as sidekicks to the white Marvel superheroes Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), leaving a distinct lack of East Asian male representation in prominent and memorable roles. 

East Asian men’s position within Hollywood has always had its problems, with actors such as Asian American actor David Tse who also appeared in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, challenging the ‘bamboo celling’ within Hollywood that limits East Asian male characters to limited – even harmful – stereotypes that have left many actors frustrated. 

The prejudice and stereotypes surrounding East Asian men and masculinity have been influenced by centuries of colonial thinking and the ‘yellow peril’ that resulted in clichés as Hollywood tried to reinforce fears surrounding East Asian immigrants. This has meant that East Asian male characters have been seen as the ‘other’ to their male white Western counterpart and are ‘neutered’ in comparison to their East Asian female counterparts, who are typically sexualized within Western media. Subsequently, there are notably more East Asian women within franchises – be that as sexual objects or love interests – than men. For example, in the “Harry Potter” universe, do we have any East Asian characters? Yes, everyone knows Harry’s first love was an East Asian girl, Cho Chang, played by Katie Leung. But what about East Asian boys or men? Can they not qualify for Hogwarts or the “magic world”? 

 We might assume that when diversity or East Asian characters are discussed in Hollywood, females are chosen first, while when East Asian males are required, the productions tend to make them look ugly and sexually unattractive. This is not to say there are no issues surrounding East Asian women within Hollywood. However, they are typically stereotyped as desirable, while East Asian men are portrayed as undesirable or show little sexuality as they are stereotyped.

This pattern becomes evident in franchises like the “Ocean’s”, a series of films revolving around heist adventures led by George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Notably, the franchise recently took a step towards inclusivity with 2018’s Ocean’s Eight, a film specifically aimed at promoting diverse characters and featuring a female-led ensemble. Ironically, the issue of representation for East Asian males can be traced back to the first film in the Ocean’s franchise, Ocean’s Eleven, from 2001. In this film, the character Yen, portrayed by Chinese-born actor Shaobo Qin, plays a critical role in the team’s strategy. However, he is depicted as a tiny, short, physically weak acrobat with an irritatingly high-pitched voice. These traits align with the stereotypical portrayal of East Asian males commonly found in various Hollywood productions if one pays close attention.

This pattern can be observed in bigger supporting roles like Mr. Chow, played by Korean actor Ken Jeong, in The Hangover films, a comedic trilogy, and in countless minor roles in other movies that often lack substantial lines, even in the recently released “diverse” Zombie Hunting film Day Shift, led by Jamie Foxx and Dave Franco. Furthermore, despite over two decades since the release of Ocean’s Eleven, the persistent stereotype of Chinese individuals as acrobats can still be found in some recent popular shows. An example of this is evident in Modern Family, a renowned series that celebrates diverse American families. In the whole series, East Asian characters make only a single appearance in an episode titled “A Fair to Remember” during the show’s fifth season. Regrettably, these characters are portrayed as non-modern acrobats, emphasizing the continuation of stereotypical portrayals that fail to provide meaningful and diverse representations of East Asians.

Indeed, it is unethical to judge people or characters based on their appearance, faces, or professions. So the context here is more difficult to describe with words than it might appear. Nevertheless, suppose most of the characters of a particular ethnic group always fall under the category that does not conform to the universal aesthetic taste. In that case, something is very likely amiss.

We can also see this in the newest X-Men film X-Men: Dark Phonix, and the whole X-Men universe, one of the most famous superhero intellectual properties. X-Men has the potential to become one of Hollywood’s most diverse superhero series because of the diversity of the mutants. However, does one remember any East Asian male mutants? Perhaps the only one that comes to mind is Quill, played by Chinese American actor Ken Leung in an almost two-decades-old movie, X-Men the Last Stand, with the mutant ability to grow hedgehog thorns on his face. Possibly the lamest power ever, and yes, it was “granted” to an East Asian male. Thus, the so-called famous X-Men universe provided further evidence of our previous hypothesis that when Hollywood franchises need East Asian male characters for diversity purposes, they make them look lame and unlikable.  

Whitewashing in Animated Characters

The issue of “whitewashing” has been a topic of ongoing discussion in Hollywood, particularly highlighted by Scarlett Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell, where she portrayed a character originally supposed to be East Asian. A similar controversy arose with Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of The Ancient One in the first Doctor Strange film, a role that an East Asian male should have played. Does that mean that in Hollywood, East Asian characters neither save the world nor become the mentor of white superheroes? These instances sparked considerable debate and raised questions about representation.

It is ironic that despite these discussions, the lack of East Asian male representation in Hollywood persists. This can be observed even in films of animated characters adapted from East Asian source material, such as Pokemon Detective Pikachu and Alita: Battle Angel, both based on Japanese manga or anime. Interestingly, neither of these films features East Asian actors in their leading roles, with Ryan Reynolds voicing Pikachu and Rosa Salazar portraying Alita. While these films are rooted in an East Asian context, the primary characters do not reflect this diversity, and only a few actors in the entire cast represent East Asian backgrounds.

Hollywood’s casting decisions that contribute to whitewashing raise important concerns regarding cultural appropriation and the industry’s reliance on white actors/actresses to sell films. These concerns are not new and have long been tied to the history of representation in Hollywood. It is crucial to recognize that centering stories around white protagonists inherently limits blockbuster films’ true diversity and inclusivity. Consequently, East Asian men may continue to be relegated to supporting characters as Hollywood prioritizes white narratives.

Hollywood and the Pandemic Years

The film industry was significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to a decrease in the number of big-budget movies released compared to previous years. However, amidst these challenges, certain films stood out as notable examples of Hollywood’s progress in terms of diversity. Films like Bad Boys for Life, a comedy-action franchise led by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, Tenet, a sci-fi film directed by Christopher Nolan, and Soul, a Pixar production centering around the dreams of a Black musician, exemplify the advancements within Hollywood’s diversity movement. While these films showcase positive steps, there is still room for improvement. 

In 2020, Mulan made headlines for being one of the first films to be released straight to Disney+ that the audience had to pay for during the pandemic when cinemas were closed. Chinese superstar actress Yifei Liu enjoyed an excellent reputation in the lead role, but the film still was poorly received. Despite being a Chinese saga about a Chinese woman general, there was no notable male East Asian character as General Li Shang – who was in the original animation. Instead, his role is replaced by two characters, Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and Chen Honghui (Yoson An). It is hinted that the latter becomes her love interest, but their lack of character development or impact on the audience renders them limited supporting characters.

Mulan would have been the perfect moment to allow an East Asian male actor to gain credibility and play a developed character; however, this opportunity was not given. Removing General Li Shang from the story is incredibly disappointing as he was considered a bisexual icon, and this could have been an exciting exploration of his character to represent LGBTQ+ East Asian men, who are largely invisible within Hollywood. 

During the covid shutdown, the fight for diversity in Hollywood arguably intensified, and the recognition of Asian roles and stories in Hollywood significantly improved. Director Chloé Zhao won the Academy Award for Nomadland and directed the Marvel movie Eternals, where an Asian British – Gemma Chan plays the protagonist Cersi, a superhero with magnificent superpowers. The Disney animation Raya and the Last Dragon portrays a fantasy story of a Vietnams girl. Another animation, Turning Red, produced by Pixar, is about a Teenage Asian Canadian girl’s life set in contemporary Toronto.

These films, however, show how narratives have shifted to discuss East Asian women, but there is still notably a need for more representation of East Asian men. They appear to continue to be limited to sidekicks, such as Chinese star Chang Chen playing Dr. Yueh in the sci-fi epic Dune and Korean superstar Ma Dong-seok in the role of one of the Eternals, Gilgamesh, in the Eternals. Regrettably, Ma’s character can be seen as another sidekick of even lesser importance. Compared to the fantastic skills of other Eternals, such as “substance transformation, fly, laser eyes, mind control, and aurora bullet”, Ma’s character could only smack – and he died first. He is the only ‘good guy’ character that dies after his role is to be the caretaker of a white woman, a responsibility that limits his characterization. Ma Dong-seok’s death in the film reinforces the argument surrounding how BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) characters are sacrificed to develop the white protagonists. It is interesting to revisit the anger from the public and media on how the black character Rue (Amandla Stenberg)’s death in The Hunger Games demonstrated the racial discrimination in Hollywood films with the trope of killing the Black characters for the white character’s development. 

This is not a new concept, with the horror genre being known for historically killing off Black characters until directors such as Jordan Peel challenged the convention. However, it is noteworthy that there were no disputes regarding Ma Dong-seok’s death in Eternals, and it raises the question of how this ‘killing off the other’ to the white character is continuing despite the diversity movement. Are East Asian characters only allowed racial diversity if it aids the character development of white characters? This is a far more considerable debate than can be had in this article. However, it is interesting to contemplate and allows us to deliberate the importance and role East Asian men have within Hollywood narratives. 

East Asian Men on Streaming: Challenges and Breakthroughs

The number of productions on streaming series is even greater than the many films released yearly. Therefore, it is interesting to note if streaming services are holding Hollywood to account for its lack of racial diversity and whether the streaming services are as successful. As previously discussed, franchises have limited East Asian men, which is also evident in streaming services series such as The Lord of the Rings: The Ring of Power, produced by Amazon. The series has elves, dwarves, hobbits of different skin colours, and Black human queens in Middle-Earth, but East Asian Faces did not appear in any of them; apparently, Asians do not live in Middle-earth, just like East Asian males cannot get admitted into Hogwarts. Moreover, amidst the “Time Variance Authority Office” bustling with staff and leaders of diverse backgrounds in the Marvel series Loki, there is a striking absence of representation for East Asian characters, except for the character Casey, played by Asian American actor Eugene Cordero. Unfortunately, Casey is portrayed again as a stereotypical nerdy and cowardly individual.

Similarly, the wildly popular television series Stranger Things, a sci-fi mystery with much nostalgia, also fails to include any significant East Asian characters. Moreover, let us not forget The Boys, touted as an anti-hero series challenging the norms of superhero movies. However, in the first season, we are introduced to a blind Kung Fu master, the Blindfold, played by Asian Canadian Chris Mark, who is deafened and exiled by Homelander (Antony Starr) within a mere minute. It is disheartening to witness such narrow depictions of East Asian males, where they are reduced to clichéd representations of Kung Fu and disabilities, all within a show that claims to embrace diversity and defy stereotypes.

The Netflix series The Sandman, based on the works of the renowned writer Neil Gaiman may be one of the best “good” examples that reflect our title. While The Sandman boasts a diverse range of characters, including those from underrepresented groups like LGBTQ+ and BME communities, it is unfortunate that the only East Asian character with substantial dialogue is Kate Fletcher, portrayed by Lourdes Faberes, appearing in just one episode and tragically meeting her demise. Again, there are no East Asian male characters among the so-called diverse cast of The Sandman. Even the series that probably has the highest scores in recent years on Rotten Tomatoes, with 98% of the critics score and 96% from the audience, Better Call Saul, which is a franchise of Breaking Bad, that many consider one of the best crime-drama-thrillers that always embraces diversity lacks any notable East Asian male characters, unsurprisingly. 

On the other hand, significant signs of progress within the streaming services indicate a shift towards greater diversity. For example, series like Into the Badlands have made noteworthy strides by casting East Asian actors, including Chinese American Daniel Wu, in prominent roles. It is particularly noteworthy that Into the Badlands is based on the highly esteemed Chinese fantasy novel Journey to the West. Another impactful development is the recent release of American Born Chinese, an adaptation again inspired by Journey to the West, which further enhances the representation of East Asian male characters, particularly in the context of Asian teenagers living in the United States. Plus, the recently highly acclaimed show Beef, starring Ali Wong, an American actress with a Chinese father and Vietnamese mother, and Korean American actors Steven Yeun, dives into the lives of different classes of East Asian immigrants, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese in America. These examples illustrate a significant transformation in television that embraces diversity.

Furthermore, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop deserves recognition as another notable milestone. Based on a beloved Japanese anime, this series features John Cho, a highly respected East Asian Korean American actor in Hollywood, in the lead role. Cho’s involvement underscores the growing acceptance and recognition of East Asian talent in the entertainment industry. 

However, it is essential to acknowledge that the representation of East Asian men in mainstream media still faces challenges. Despite actors like Randall Park and Benedict Wong securing regular roles in various series, including the popular show Fresh off the Boat, a comedic show about a Taiwanese family making their way into America in the ’90s, and Marco Polo, a historical epic show, they have not yet attained A-list status in Hollywood. This disparity highlights the persistent obstacles many East Asian male actors continue to encounter in their careers. 

The issue becomes more apparent when examining big-budget productions like Netflix’s upcoming One-Piece series based on a globally popular Japanese manga/anime. Although the series presents ample opportunities for East Asian talent, only Roronoa Zoro is cast by an East Asian male, the Japanese American actor, Mackenyu. Additionally, neither the writers nor the directors of the show are of East Asian descent, except for the original manga writer, Eiichiro Oda. The extent of Oda’s involvement in the series remains unclear, given that the manga is still ongoing in Japan with weekly updates.

Another highly anticipated upcoming series is 3 Body Problem, based on the acclaimed and hugo-award wining Chinese sci-fi novel by Chinese writer Cixin Liu. With its main storyline set in China, the series is adapted and created by the “renowned” duo behind Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who are both white. However, it is disappointing to note again that among the leading characters, there is a lack of East Asian male representation, with only a supporting character, Da Shi, portrayed by Benedict Wong, filling that gap. Such facts underline the need for greater inclusion and meaningful representation of East Asian talents on the screen and behind the scenes.

It’s clear that East Asian male characters have little value within Hollywood in the past and that there does appear to be a shift in the last few years as the demand for greater representation has led to East Asian men taking on sidekick roles. This has led to more East Asian men appearing within franchises, especially Marvel. There has also been a rise in East Asian men within streaming services, and this article has attempted to show how there does appear to be a shift within American content surrounding East Asian men. As East Asian men are becoming more prominent in some ways yet undervalued in others, it will be interesting to see if we are entering the golden age of diversity or if Hollywood is merely ticking another box. 


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