Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers.
By Talia Dennis
Vanessa Hudgens, Brenda Song and Anna Marie Perez de Tagle. What do these three Disney actresses have in common? They’re all Asian and famous.
Since the Oscars controversy in 2016, the lack of diversity in Hollywood has become more apparent. Not only are African-Americans underrepresented, but Asians are further underrepresented.
Their underrepresentation in Hollywood translates to their lack of nominations and wins at the Oscars. Trusty ol’ Wikipedia lists winners and nominees at the Academy Awards who were Asian, showing that the last time an Asian won Best Actor was 1982. An Asian woman has never won for Best Actress and the only nomination listed is from 1935. The only years an Asian won for Best Supporting Actor/Actress are 1984 and 1957 respectively.
This underrepresentation of Asians in Hollywood has led to whitewashing–white actors or actresses playing non-whites. The most recent case of whitewashing is the new movie, Ghost in the Shell, which was released March 31.
The movie is based on a popular anime series and the lead of Major Mira Killian is played by Scarlett Johansson. The movie did receive positive reviews from The New York Times and Variety, But that was for the quality of movie, not the issues with whitewashing.
The original main character’s name is Motoko Kusanagi. The movie and anime series are set in futuristic Tokyo and never mentions her race. While some have criticized choosing Johansson for the role, others like Ty Burr from the Boston Globe find it semi-justifiable. In an article about the movie and potential whitewashing, Burr said the movie is “a surprisingly precise metaphor for whitewashing.”
Johansson’s character discovers her brain was taken from a Japanese rebel who was killed, Burr said. The rebel was Motoko Kusanagi. The movie changes the character’s name, but still portrays her as a short, black-haired woman.
Using a big-name star like Johansson is understandable from an industry perspective because it will draw more people and hopefully increase revenue.
But as someone who is Asian, I wish a movie with such a Japanese influence would have casted a racially accurate actress instead. I do not have a problem with Johansson as an actress, but Hollywood does not often cast Asians in starring roles. Ghost in The Shell would have been a good opportunity for Hollywood to make a change.
Actors and actresses also have the ability to accept and refuse roles. If they are aware a character is not the same race as them, then they have a responsibility to refuse the role and not contribute to the whitewashing problem.
I can’t help but wonder the reason Asians are not as represented in Hollywood as other races. Is it because very few Asians are trying to make it into the acting business? Maybe. But I wish there were more Asian actors and actresses in lead roles.
I began to realize that I barely had any Asian influences while I was growing up. Disney, however, has been better at casting Asians than many other companies.
Vanessa Hudgens had a lead role in one of my favorite childhood movies, High School Musical, as Gabriella Montez. While the character was incredibly smart, it was never implied or mentioned that it was because she was Asian. Other incredibly smart characters who were not Asian, like Taylor McKessie (Monique Coleman), were also included in the movie.
I remember aspiring to be like Montez because was independent and seemed really cool. Even though she had a boyfriend, she did not become dependent on him. Montez was a smart and friendly girl, who could stand on her own. She happened to be Asian, but was not put in a stereotypical role.
Brenda Song played the lead role of London Tipton on the Suite Life of Zack and Cody. On this show, the Asian is given a stereotypical role. She instead was not the smartest person, but incredibly spoiled. Instead, a blonde was the smarter character. London Tipton was not the most ideal role model, but she wasn’t supposed to fit a stereotype.
Anna Maria Perez de Tagle starred in a supporting role on Hannah Montana as Ashley Dewitt, a high school bully. She was not a stereotypical Asian either. However, I assume no parent wants their child to grow up and bully others. Her role was not major, but she was in the industry and was not suppose to act like she was super smart and a bad driver.
Disney is also the parent company of ABC, which has also casted Asians who are not necessarily playing stereotypical characters.
Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) from ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy is a work-driven character who is sometimes portrayed as a stereotypical Asian, constantly striving to be an overachiever. But she could have also been played by any other race and still have been a hard worker. The name likely would have been changed, but she is also a normal human being deep down.
On ABC’s Once Upon a Time, instead of choosing a white actress to play Mulan, Jamie Chung was chosen for the role. While Chung is Korean and not Chinese, they still chose an Asian actress to play an Asian character. This character was not stereotypical either, but Mulan was always a strong woman to begin with.
Seeing more Asian actors and actresses would hopefully provide younger generations of Asian- Americans with someone to look up to who looks like them. Appearance matters to children. If only a white person can save the day and an Asian has to be smart, then it sends the message that race determines our success.
More Asian actors and actresses in movies, especially as lead roles, would send the message that anyone can do what the character does. The role does not have to be specifically for an Asian, in the cases of Cristina Yang and Gabriella Montez, but when the character is described as Asian, the casting choice should reflect the description.
Perfectly qualified Asian actors and actresses can play a lead role. In Hollywood it can be a breakthrough role. For future generations, more diversity should be apparent in Hollywood. The next generation should not believe success is predetermined by race. Money is the name of the game for an industry, but give diversity a chance. Then maybe, just maybe, racial inequality will diminish.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ghost in the Shell‘s Facebook page.
Talia is a freshman journalism major and history major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.