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Representation Matters: Super Asian Americans

Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou in Star Trek Discovery. Credit: Jan Thijs/CBS

The superhero genre is slowly expanding its insular universe with Wonder Woman and the highly anticipated Black Panther. Though just a drop in the bucket compared to white male superheroes, such images can significantly impact audiences who have never seen themselves portrayed as (s)heroes. Recently at Comic-Con in San Diego, one Asian American girl, Ashley Keller, teared up when she met Gal Gadot (aka Wonder Woman) in a video that went viral, demonstrating the real-life impact of on-screen role models:

Asian/Americans remain marginalized in superhero and science fiction/fantasy films and television shows. Hollywood prefers to whitewash Asian characters — Doctor Strange , Ghost in the Shell, Death Note — or culturally appropriate Asian culture with white savior storylines like in Iron Fist. Yet, the recent backlash from the Asian American community (and allies) has dented the success of such films.

#AACC2017 and #SDCC2017

This month, experts gathered to discuss Asian American representation in Hollywood at two events: “Asian American ComiCon Presents: A Summit on Art, Action and the Future” (#AACC2017) in Los Angeles (7/15), and “Super Asian America” at Comic-Con (#SDCC2017) in San Diego (7/23), where I participated as a panelist. The conversations went beyond a mere critique of whitewashing: many noted the rise of Asian American actors and audiences speaking out against injustice. Lewis Tan — who rose to fame as the Asian American actor that should have been cast as ‘Iron Fist’–has been a vocal opponent of cultural appropriation. At #AACC2017, he discussed the need to reclaim martial arts:

At #SDCC2017, Lewis Tan revealed how close he got to booking roles that were eventually whitewashed — and stressed the need to create our own content. Will S. Choi shared how he challenges whitewashing through original shows like “Scarlett Johansson Presents…” that feature Asian American actors/comedians. Behind the scenes, Angela Kang (co-executive producer of The Walking Dead) discussed how far we still have to go but that there is an increasing receptiveness to Asian Americans as leads in Hollywood. Deric A. Hughes (co-executive producer, The Flash) believed that it’ll “take a nation” to change the industry, encouraging Asian Americans to get involved in all aspects of entertainment. Based on personal experience, author C.B. Lee urged young Asian Americans — who face parental opposition to entering creative and cultural industries — to keep having conversations and not give up on their dreams.

Super Asian America panel, Comic-Con San Diego, CA, July 23, 2017. From left to right: Michael Le, Will S. Choi, Angela Kang, C.B. Lee, Lewis Tan, Nancy Wang Yuen, Deric A. Hughes

I added that Asian Americans should leverage their power as the fastest growing racial group with the highest percentage of movie-goers and digital media usage to make their voices heard in Hollywood.

Representation matters

Rallying behind diverse projects that reflect our communities is one way to advocate for greater representation. As a life-long Star Trek fan, I bawled when I saw the Star Trek Discovery trailer with Michelle Yeoh starring as the first Asian female Starfleet Captain and Sonequa Martin-Green as the first African American woman to lead a Star Trek series.

Representation matters because members of marginalized groups need role models. The Star Trek Discovery cast may help young women of color imagine themselves as future leaders. In addition, audiences often need to see representations of marginalized groups in positive roles before they can imagine them occupying such roles in real life. Consequently, I end with inspirational images of two super women of color boldly going where no WoC have gone before:

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