The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences apologized on Tuesday for the Asian jokes on the Feb. 28 Oscar telecast, after receiving a protest letter signed by 25 AMPAS members, including Ang Lee.
An Academy spokesperson issued the statement, “The Academy appreciates the concerns stated, and regrets that any aspect of the Oscar telecast was offensive. We are committed to doing our best to ensure that material in future shows be more culturally sensitive.”
ORIGINAL POST: Two dozen members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, including Ang Lee and several other Oscar winners, have asked the AMPAS board for “concrete steps” to ensure that future Oscarcasts will avoid the “tone-deaf approach” to Asians that was exhibited in the Feb. 28 ceremony.
The protest was delivered in advance of Tuesday’s board meeting, where diversity promises to be a key item on the agenda. The missive was sent to the board, AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, CEO Dawn Hudson, and ceremony producers Reginald Hudlin and David Hill.
The letter said, “We are writing as Academy members of Asian descent to express our complete surprise and disappointment with the targeting of Asians at the 88th Oscars telecast and its perpetuation of racist stereotypes. In light of criticism over #OscarsSoWhite, we were hopeful that the telecast would provide the Academy a way forward and the chance to present a spectacular example of inclusion and diversity. Instead, the Oscars show was marred by a tone-deaf approach to its portrayal of Asians.
“We’d like to know how such tasteless and offensive skits could have happened and what process you have in place to preclude such unconscious or outright bias and racism toward any group in future Oscars telecasts. We look forward to hearing from you about this matter and about the concrete steps to ensure that all people are portrayed with dignity and respect.
“We are proud that the Oscars reach several hundred million people around the world of whom 60% are Asians and potential moviegoers.”
In addition to Lee, other Oscar winners on the list include Chris Tashima (shorts and feature animation) and four members of the documentary branch: Ruby Yang, Steven Okazaki, Jessica Yu, and Freida Lee Mock. Aside from Mock, two other former governors signed, Don Hall (sound branch) and Arthur Dong (documentaries). Another three signers were Oscar nominees: Christine Choy, Renee Tajima-Pena, and Rithy Panh, again all docu-branch members.
Other signers were Yung Chang, documentary; Maysie Hoy and William Hoy, editors; Marcus Hu and Teddy Zee, executives; Janet Yang, producers; David Magdael and Laura Kim, PR; and six members of the actors branch: Nancy Kwan, Peter Kwong, Jodi Long, France Nuyen, Sandra Oh, and George Takei.
According to the International Energy Agency, Asians represent 4.3 billion, or 60% of the population. However, they are estimated to represent less than 1% of the Academy.
Sources close to the show told Variety that Chris Rock made decisions about his material (including a series of jokes about Asian children), while Sacha Baron Cohen’s crack was apparently ad-libbed. However, at a time of heightened sensitivity with racial matters, many viewers were shocked that old Asian stereotypes were trotted out for a laugh.
Press Tour wouldn’t be Press Tour without a few stunningly thoughtless questions posed to panels of actors and producers.
Most of the terrible questions that get asked as part of the Television Critics Association’s press conferences don’t turn up in articles. We keep them as Press Tour war stories to be hauled out for our own entertainment later on. Plus, we’re all just trying to do our jobs here. Nobody’s perfect. Cover this beat long enough, and attend enough TCA events, and a person is bound to bungle a few questions. Besides, to the millions of folks who aren’t here, a minor gaffe at an industry event simply isn’t interesting.
But every now and again, someone sputters out a verbal air biscuit that leaves the room reeling while also speaking to a larger conversation about a show. This is precisely what happened Wednesday morning during the panel for “Fresh Off the Boat,” ABC’s midseason sitcom based on the bestselling memoir by celebrity chef Eddie Huang. Starring Randall Park and Constance Wu, “Fresh Off the Boat” is the only sitcom on television that stars Asian actors and captures one view of what it’s like to grow up Asian in America.
And what, some may ask, makes that experience unique among minorities? For the “Fresh Off the Boat” cast and producers, nearly all of whom were born in the U.S., it means getting a question like this in a forum where people really should know better: “I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?”*
Yes. That happened.
This may be the most ignorant question spoken in this room in a long time, but it also demonstrates why television desperately needs “Fresh Off the Boat” and more shows like it. Comedies and dramas that deftly employ universal themes and humor that resonate with the wider audience, featuring minority-led casts that don’t ignore said cast’s ethnicity, are still uncommon. In fact, ABC is the home to more series featuring non-white leads than any other broadcast network. Think “black-ish,” “Scandal,” “Cristela,” and “How to Get Away with Murder.”
Amazingly, in 2015, ABC’s insistence on diversity is met with a sense of awe, and an implication that what the Alphabet network is doing is a bold experiment.
In the case of “Fresh Off the Boat,” maybe it is. Networks have a long history of waxing and waning on the diversity front, though the occasional industry-wide pushes for diversity every few seasons tends to benefit African American and, to a far lesser extent, Latino actors. “Cristela” and “black-ish” may not be monster hits, but they still have mass appeal, and are not required to divorce the culture of their characters from the story. Credit the success of Norman Lear‘s comedies in the ’70s, “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son”, and just as significantly, “The Cosby Show” in the ’80s, for that.
Can you remember the last time a series gave us a view of life from an Asian American perspective? There was 1994′s “All-American Girl,” the short-lived and quickly whitewashed sitcom vehicle for Margaret Cho that nearly killed her. (It also aired on ABC.) The show only focused on Cho’s character and her family briefly before revamping into a weak “Friends” clone, then disappearing altogether. For years after its demise, shows cast an Asian friend now and again, but it took until 2005 before audiences got a deeply complex, powerful Asian character in “Grey’s Anatomy‘s” Cristina Yang. So yes — there have been strides.
Then again, see: “2 Broke Girls.” As long as characters like Han Lee are still on TV, well, one can understand why somebody would think that it’s perfectly reasonable to ask a cast of Asian actors if their eating utensils will play a prominent role in a comedy about so much more than their cultural experience.
“The thing is it’s important to have, for me, [is] a qualified support for the show, to make sure the show stays authentic, the show stays responsible to the book and the Asian community and people of color in America in general,” Huang explained to the TV reporters in the room. “I believe the show is doing that, and I believe the show is very strategic and smart in how it’s opening things up.”
In its first episode, “Fresh Off the Boat” dives into the absurdity that can be found when one moves from a large, multi-ethnic city (Washington D.C.) to a homogenous Florida neighborhood; the universal appeal of hip-hop to outsiders and its caché within the dominant culture; and the odd, clique-ish behavior that exists within suburbia. The same episode also shows what happens when its young central character, Eddie Huang (played by Hudson Yang), gets slapped by a racial slur.
Through it all, the rap music-obssessed Eddie has the same concerns as any kid his age would have. He’s trying to fit in at his new school but he doesn’t eat the right food, or wear the right shoes. He just out there trying to survive. No wonder he idolizes Nas and Biggie Smalls — their music extols the virtues of hustling to get rich and getting over, ideals that many consider to be the at the heart of the American dream.
“In America, I’m a foreigner because of my Korean heritage,” Cho once said. “In Asia, because I was born in America, I’m a foreigner. I’m always a foreigner.”
Nowadays Cho is a personality known for her comedy and for her outspoken support of gender equality and LGBT rights. She’s currently a co-host of a TLC’s weekly series “All About Sex,” where she serves as the show’s expert on alternative sexuality. With time, and more television series that expose viewers to artists like Cho and stories like the ones told in “Fresh Off the Boat” — American stories with a different flavor — the day will come when Asian culture is fully recognized as an aspect of American culture. On that day, nobody’s going to care about the chopsticks.
On paper, it looked like a rough year for Asian-Pacific Islanders on network television: The Mindy Project was on the verge of cancellation. NBC axed Community, and confirmed the end of Parks and Recreation for 2015. Sandra Oh officially left Grey’s Anatomy. Glee edged closer and closer to the end of its run while slowly pushing its Asian characters out of the credits.
According to an annual report on television diversity released by GLAAD, the number of Asian-Pacific Islanders on network television had been on the rise.
In the 2013-2014 season, 6% of broadcast series regular characters were Asian-Pacific Islander, but in the upcoming year, only 4% of characters will be Asian–the only ethnic group to see a decrease in diversity from the previous year.
“Aside from the need for more representation despite the real progress we’ve made, I was disappointed that we lost some really great Asian-American representation this past year,” Philip Chung, co-founder and blogger at YOMYOMF, said, listing Oh and Community’s Danny Pudi and Ken Jeong as examples.
But while the number of Asian characters appears to be shrinking next season, the quality of roles, Chung points out, has noticeably changed. Asian-Pacific Islanders in 2014 were cast in more prominent roles than the previous year, giving actors like John Cho, Ming-Na Wen, and Nasim Pedrad (who previously made headlines as Saturday Night Live’s first west Asian cast member) opportunities to step beyond smaller supporting and guest appearances on TV.
The leaps forward in casting choices have not come without their setbacks. After months of anticipation among critics and bloggers about the casting of John Cho, an Asian male, to play the lead in a romantic sitcom, his show Selfie was canceled after just seven episodes.
“It’s rare to see an Asian-American male as a lead in a comedy, especially one that has romantic possibilities,” said 8Asians editor Joz Wang, who called Selfie’s cancellation the biggest disappointment for Asian Americans on TV in 2014. “While the show didn’t catch on as quickly as the network would have wanted, many Asian Americans watched the show specifically for John Cho.”
“Getting [a show] about an Asian American family on the air is a frickin’ miracle.”
Even though Cho never received top billing in Selfie, many felt ABC’s choice to cast him as the show’s male romantic lead was long overdue. His elevation to “leading man material” appeared to be the first step in seeing more Asian-Pacific Islanders as true television stars, not just supporting characters.
To date, few Asian actors have ever been cast in lead roles on a network level. The first to break through was Pat Morita, in the 1976 show “Mr. T and Tina” (it was considered a flop, and went off the air after five episodes).
Today, Lucy Liu plays a prominent character in Elementary, though not the lead, as does Kal Penn in the upcoming CBS drama Battle Creek. Even Hawaii Five-O, which Wang noted has been “great because it’s set in Hawaii and there are many opportunities for Asian-American actors,” stars two Caucasian leads. “All the Asian Americans still play second fiddle in terms of billing,” said Wang.
The last network show to cast an Asian male with top billing was CBS’ Martial Law starring Sammo Hung in 1998. Hung, who spoke little English, had just a few lines in each episode, and was reportedly paid half of what his co-star Arsenio Hall made.
Currently, the total number of Asian actors to receive top billing on a network primetime series is one: Mindy Kaling. Since the 2012 premiere of The Mindy Project, Kaling has received praise for being the first woman of color to write and star in her own show since Wanda Sykes in 2003.
But Kaling has come under fire for what some see as her failure to leverage her influence for push for more diversity on network television.
In a letter to Fox, Media Action Network for Asian Americans President Guy Aoki said the show lacked diversity–particularly when it came to romantic interests. “We are concerned that in the course of two seasons, [Kaling’s] character, Dr. Lahiri, has had a ‘white-only’ dating policy involving about a dozen men,” Aoki wrote. “And except for this season’s addition of African American Xosha Roquemore the cast continues to be all white…She’s creating the impression that by surrounding her character with mostly white people and dating only white men that Lahiri’s become more accepted by the white population.”
Kaling defended the show at a SXSW panel early in the year, saying, “I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore — and I won’t name them because they’re my friends — why no leads on their shows are women of color, and I’m the one that gets lobbied about these things.”
Despite any criticism and low ratings, Kaling herself saw a year filled with successes in her own career, from being named a Glamour Woman of the Year to the announcement of her second book, Why Not Me?, which will be released next year. In November, Fox also added six episodes of The Mindy Project, stretching the season from 15 episodes to 21, and fueling speculation that the show will be renewed for a fourth season.
Kaling won’t carry the mantle for Asian network primetime leads alone much longer. She will soon be joined by Korean-American actor Randall Park, who will star in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat–the first network show to feature an all-Asian American cast since Margaret Cho‘s 1994 series All-American Girl, which was canceled after one season. Following a slate of recurring roles on television (including The Mindy Project), Park will receive top billing when the series premieres in 2015.
“Getting a television series on the air is an incredible feat,” Park wrote in a post for KoreAm Journal online in June. “Getting one with no bankable name stars in today’s television climate is damn near impossible. Getting one about an Asian American family on the air is a frickin’ miracle.”
The series, based on the memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, has received its share of praise and criticism since ABC added it to its mid-season lineup. Park is one of the targets of the early backlash because his character is Taiwanese (not Korean like Park is) and speaks with an accent (which Park does not naturally have).
But in the same KoreAm post, Park acknowledged he raised that same issue himself, but was repeatedly assured he was the right actor for the role.
“Hopefully audiences and the network will give it a chance.”
“In an ideal world, I would never have to play a character with an accent,” he wrote. “But this is a character based on a real person. So it’s something that I have to honor and try to perfect as the series moves forward.”
Early viewers of the pilot have been defensive of the series, hoping to save it from suffering the same fate as All-American Girl and Selfie. “I thought it was very funny and despite some of the early backlash from people who haven’t yet seen the show,” YOMYOMF’s Chung said. “Hopefully audiences and the network will give it a chance.”
Remember that awkward pre-teen stage? No matter how many times you try to forget that horrid chapter of your life, the mental images are probably burned into your memory. Well we have some good news. Everyone goes through strange childhood stage. Everyone. That includes some of your most favorite Asian celebrities!
So if you still feel like you’re going through an awkward phase, check out the photos below. Some of the most gorgeous Asian celebs had their facepalm moments too. There’s still hope for all of us!
NY Times: The CW series “Nikita” begins its fourth and final season on Friday — an abbreviated run to tie up story lines, as the reluctant assassin Nikita stands falsely accused of killing the president — and while there’s still a chance, I’d like to celebrate a small but significant milestone. For six more weeks, two of the strongest and most interesting female leads on television are being played by Asian-Americanactresses.
I’m talking about Maggie Q, finishing her turn as Nikita, and Lucy Liu, in her second season as Joan Watson on CBS’s “Elementary,” where she is every bit as central as Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes. Both shows have their formulaic elements, but Nikita and Joan are noncartoonish, reasonably complex, multidimensional characters, and in prime time, there aren’t too many actresses getting that kind of opportunity in a lead role. Julianna Margulies in “The Good Wife,” Connie Britton in “Nashville,” Claire Danes in “Homeland,” Lizzy Caplan in “Masters of Sex.” It’s a short list.
Of course, that broader look also indicates that the overall picture for Asian actresses (American, Canadian and otherwise) isn’t so happy. A lot of them are working, but in roles far down the food chain from Nikita and Watson, and often playing characters conceived or shaped to reflect longstanding stereotypes about Asians.
Even Maggie Q and Ms. Liu haven’t completely escaped those archetypes. Both are playing the latest iterations of durable characters traditionally inhabited by white performers, so it would seem that race shouldn’t have any particular bearing. But the truth is that they resonate with two of the most common sets of images — or clichés — about Asian women: the high-achieving, socially awkward Dr. Joan Watson is a refined example of the sexy nerd, and the lethal, sometimes icy Nikita, able to dispense violence while wearing tight, microscopic outfits, evokes a long line of dragon ladies and ninja killers.
(You could argue that the association exists only because Maggie Q was cast as Nikita, who is based on a French film character, but it’s a self-canceling argument: The men who created the show sought her out for the role.)
In both cases, though, the actresses and their writers have avoided or transcended easy stereotypes. A lot of effort has gone into humanizing Nikita, and making her a sisterly or even maternal figure for the younger assassin Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca), and the emphasis on violent action has decreased over the show’s run. In “Elementary,” Watson has embraced her role as apprentice detective after suffering a catastrophic failure as a doctor, taking some of the shine off her super-competence. And unlike other characters in the same mold, she appears to have a normal, nonneurotic romantic life.
Clothes also tell a tale. Maggie Q fought some battles over her costumes in the early days of “Nikita,” and she has spent progressively more time in plain, covered-up (though still closefitting) workout-style ensembles and less in skimpy red dresses. Ms. Liu’s outfits, mostly chosen by the costume designer Rebecca Hofherr, have attracted a following of their own. The majority opinion seems to be that they reflect Watson’s quirky but confident style. To my eye, they have a clever awfulness, making Ms. Liu look good while signaling that perhaps she doesn’t spend as much time as she could in front of a mirror.
Either way, what Watson’s clothes don’t do is make her look ridiculous or hide Ms. Liu’s attractiveness. That’s the fate of some other Asian-American actresses in roles that play more obviously to geekiness or braininess, and are visually coded for easy comprehension. Liza Lapira wears fright clothes and dowdy haircuts as the sidekick Helen-Alice on “Super Fun Night” (ABC), something she already endured as the eccentric neighbor on “Don’t Trust the B — — in Apt. 23” last season. On “Awkward” (MTV), Jessica Lu, as the rebellious daughter of strict Chinese parents, sports a hat with ears while Jessika Van, as her Asian rival, is dressed in starched outfits that make her look like an Amish schoolteacher. Both Ms. Lapira and Ms. Lu are accessorized with glasses — big black ones — something neither appears to wear in real life. Also occasionally donning glasses is Brenda Song as a video-game company executive in “Dads,” on Fox, though her most distinctive costume remains the sailor-girl outfit she wore in the pilot, part of an extended joke about the sexualization of Asian women that didn’t accomplish much besides sexualizing an Asian woman.
And there are other actresses playing less evolved versions of the Nikita-style action hero. Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May, the black-leather-jacketed pilot in “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (ABC), is a stoic enforcer with a dragon-lady vibe; Grace Park’s Kono Kalakaua on “Hawaii Five-0” (CBS) is equally lethal (she often does most of the kicking and punching) but favors bikinis and tight jeans. On “Once Upon a Time” (ABC), Jamie Chung plays the Disney version of a mythical Chinese swordswoman.
It takes some looking to find Asian actresses in roles that don’t easily fit into one of these two broad categories. There are a few jobs in a third category, the manipulative or overly protective Asian mother: Jodi Long on “Sullivan and Son” (TBS), Lauren Tom on “Supernatural” (CW). On the entertaining but paper-thin “Beauty and the Beast” (also on CW), Kristin Kreuk stars as a cop who just happens to be mixed race. There is, of course, a major Asian-Canadian female television star not mentioned yet: Sandra Oh, whose Dr. Cristina Yang is not the lead but is a major member of the ensemble on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” As with Nikita and Watson, Yang displays some typical Asian markers — she’s a hypercompetitive, socially awkward doctor — whose race is matter of fact because there’s so much more to know about her. Yang, along with Watson and Nikita, could be considered exceptions that prove a rule, but I think the real lesson here is probably that TV would be a better place for women of all races if Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal”) could just write all the shows.