Kelly Marie Tran’s role as Rose Tico in Star Wars, Constance Wu’s debut in Crazy Rich Asians and Lana Condor in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before are all incredible examples of powerful, relatable and beautiful Asian women cast in leading roles. With the collective and widespread success of these movies, the question we should be asking is, why has it taken this long to see prominent Asian women on-screen?
Due to being bombarded by racist online harassment surrounding her part in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Tran deleted her social media accounts and subsequently dropped out of the public eye. Following months of radio silence, Tran has returned to express her feelings and tell a bit of her story and struggles as a Vietnamese-American actress. Through an op-ed in the New York Times, Tran exposes the underlying racism in society that put a dent in her confidence and self image.
“I had been tricked into thinking that my body was not my own, that I was beautiful only if someone else believed it, regardless of my own opinion. I had been told and retold this by everyone: by the media, by Hollywood, by companies that profited from my insecurities, manipulating me so that I would buy their clothes, their makeup, their shoes, in order to fill a void that was perpetuated by them in the first place.”
The industries described all benefit at the expense of women, especially women of color, by shoving things they hate about them in their face and offering a solution to “fix it”. All of their money comes from minorities who learned from a very young age what society’s definition of beautiful meant: being white. Celebrities and actresses of color are often praised for their features according to how they line up with Eurocentric standards of beauty. I.e., a small nose, big “colorful” eyes, pale skin, silky smooth hair and a thin figure.
Any woman that doesn’t fit this mold quickly realizes that they are considered “other” as Tran dubs it, and due to their inability to conform to societal norms they see themselves as ugly. This is the reality. No woman should be shamed for the way she looks. Nor should she shame herself. But in this case when there’s so little representation of Asian women in particular in TV and movies, it’s hard to believe for Asian women and young girls to believe that they are beautiful and acceptable.
In every romantic comedy and action movie when all you see are the white women being doted upon, it reinforces a dangerous narrative…
“Because the same society that taught some people they were heroes, saviors, inheritors of the Manifest Destiny ideal, taught me I existed only in the background of their stories, doing their nails, diagnosing their illnesses, supporting their love interests — and perhaps the most damaging — waiting for them to rescue me.”
Here Tran delves deep into her oppressive experience believing in the white savior trope we all grew up on. Over and over again, like pounding a nail into a coffin, the idea is repeated. White people get extraordinary romances, white people save the day, white people are the center of every plot. With white actors and characters always front and center, it makes minority members feel that their story lines- their love stories and quirks, their lives- are unimportant in comparison.
The Asian community is not a monolith; everyone’s story is different and deserves to be seen on-screen. It’s truly a travesty that such a diverse community is reduced to such restrictive stereotypes and professions in the media.
Earlier in the letter Tran shares personal anecdotes from her life as a woman of color; how she gave up speaking Vietnamese because of bullies, being mistaken for a foreign exchange student, and the pain she feels at how her parents’ names were “American-ized” for easier pronunciation. The pressure to assimilate to a Western lifestyle has forced many immigrants and people of color to forsake elements of their culture in order to maintain the status quo. As a result, many marginalized groups can feel as though they have lost their identities pretending to be people they are not.
Towards the end Tran is transparent about her sentiments for the future and how things should begin to change.
“I want to live in a world where children of color don’t spend their entire adolescence wishing to be white. I want to live in a world where women are not subjected to scrutiny for their appearance, or their actions, or their general existence. I want to live in a world where people of all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, gender identities and abilities are seen as what they have always been: human beings.”
Her feelings are no doubt shared by women, principally women of color, who have felt the need to alter who they are their entire life in order to be loved and welcomed by society. And her demands are not so outrageous.
The only way to stop racism and hate is to stop ostracism. Stop leaving out people of color. Start including actresses and actors of a different ethnic background to play the role you were going to cast a white person in. What we need to do is get people used to diversity on a global scale. Once viewers see content that goes against the stereotypes they’ve been fed all their life, their opinions begin to shift, and their intolerance lessens.
Let’s humanize people of color, LGBT+ people, plus sized people and disabled people by placing them in roles that show every aspect of their humanity. It doesn’t matter if the character was supposed to be straight and white. Mix it up, rock the status quo, make people rethink everything they’ve ever learned. Just like gay people shouldn’t be told to censor their love on-screen, Asian women shouldn’t be told they have to look a certain way to be beautiful or earn a leading role in a top-grossing box office hit.