ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: #Thiswas2016

“When the house is going up in flames, does what’s on the TV matter?” That’s the question I kept asking myself as I sat down to write this year-end column.

In October, Michael Luo, then an editor for The New York Times, was accosted on the street by a woman yelling, “Go back to China!” After the incident, Luo tweeted about the incident with the hashtag #thisis2016 and encouraged others to follow his lead. The result was a steady stream of tweets from Asian Americans detailing incidents of racist harassment they had experienced in the tone of #thisis2016, this is incredulous. It implies, “this shouldn’t be happening in 2016.” Now that 2016 has come to a close, it feels almost like a summary statement for the year overall.

One exception, though, is the world of Asian Pacific Islander Americans in entertainment media.

Looking at APIs in entertainment, it did genuinely feel like 2016: A year of steady, if not entirely linear, progress toward better representation. Not perfect, but also not the undoing of decades of progress.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t still plenty of stuff that should not be happening today. We still have plenty of “white-washing” — white actors playing characters that were originally Asian in the works they were adapted from — i.e. Scarlett Johansson playing the lead in the live action adaptation of the “Ghost in the Shell” anime and Tilda Swinton playing “the Ancient One” in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange.”

This causes considerable and justified outrage. When the character is based on a real-life figure, it both obscures our place in history and removes a piece of the real person’s history. When it’s a fictional character, it’s a little different. Despite what many think, it’s not a matter of fidelity to the source material, it’s really more about the availability of roles for API actors. With so few opportunities for APIs in Hollywood, API characters from novels or comics or anime seem like a rare case in which the role will almost certainly go to someone of Asian descent. When they change the race of the character, it can feel like a slap in the face. The reason it’s not the same thing when a character goes from being white to non-white, is that there are almost limitless silverscreen opportunities for white actors. If actors of color had nearly the same level of representation the issue would all but disappear overnight.

And there’s still plenty of “white male centering” — Marissa Lee of Racebending.com wrote an excellent piece defining this phenomena (seriously, go check it out) but here’s an abridged version of the formula she lays out: “A) white dude main character becomes immersed in a culture that is not his own. B) The people of this culture… are skeptical of this man because he is an outsider. C) The white dude proves his mettle and teaches the Asians (or Other culture) that they were wrong to discriminate against him… In more extreme iterations of the trope, he even leads them to victory or saves them.” We can see this in the Matt Damon-starring fantasy epic set in ancient China, “The Great Wall,” and the upcoming “Iron Fist” from Marvel, which features a white dude learning supernatural martial arts in a fictitious Tibetan city and then using them to fight crime in New York. Oh, and in “Doctor Strange” yet again.

But the year also had some real markers of progress.

There was, of course, “Moana,” which stars actors of Pacific Islander-descent in its main cast. While the story contains few surprises (and is bogged down with some clumsy storytelling in its first quarter) it bursts with charm thanks largely to the leads, who are brought to life by their voice actors, Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and veteran Disney animators who are able to successfully transplant almost everything that is great about hand-drawn animation to a new medium.

Representation in “Moana,” however, is a bit complicated. If you read the character of Maui is as being overweight (which I didn’t personally, when I saw the film) then he’s something of a Polynesian stereotype, but also a rare example of positive representation for overweight people.

Nevertheless, the film is absolutely gorgeous. See it on the largest screen possible in 3D!

There’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” in which, best I can tell, four of the five lead characters are people of color — three of five are of Asian descent (Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen). And the white protagonist is a woman. Despite a protest movement, it’s breaking all sorts of box-office records as I type.

For the most part, TV seems to be leaps and bounds ahead of the silver screen, ABC alone has Marvel Comics’ adaptation “Agents of Shield,” with Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet in lead roles; political thriller “Designated Survivor” with Maggie Q and Kal Penn among its primary cast; and not one but two sitcoms centered on Asian American families, “Fresh Off the Boat,” loosely based on Eddie Huang’s autobiography, and the Ken Jeong-starring “Dr. Ken.”

Then there’s the musical sitcom “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which was, in my book, hands-down best comedy of the year. And its romantic lead, Josh Chan, played by Filipino American Bay Area-native Vincent Rodriguez III, is a strong contender for the most well-rounded, relatable and non-stereotyptical API characters to ever grace the television. This wouldn’t matter of course, if the show wasn’t good.

Fortunately, it’s incredibly funny and subversive, packed with entertaining and incisive commentary on gender.

This stands in stark contrast to “The Walking Dead,” which featured TV’s highest profile Asian lead — but the positive representation was undercut by the show’s overall fascist themes. (In all fairness, I haven’t seen the show since the first season, so I’m getting my information from critic Sean T. Collins, whom I generally trust on these matters.)

This spectrum represents the contrasts and contradictions of where APIs are in the entertainment industry in 2016. But there is one example that, in-and-of itself, says a lot about where we are: “Doctor Strange.” I’ve already mentioned that it both whitewashes a character and puts a white male protagonist in the center of a story that’s mostly about a fictional Asian-ish supernatural culture. But it also, in many ways, does better than its source material. One of the film’s main characters, who was white in the comics, is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Benedict Wong’s character is a marked improvement from the manservant of the comics. And Swinton’s character is actually pretty awesome. As she puts it, she “disrupts the ‘wisdom must be male’ never-ending story… (and she’s) a woman who’s a badass, over 26 and not simply bursting out of a bikini.”

So on balance, where does the film land? It’s hard to tell. I still believe that Swinton’s role should have gone to a person of color. But I would have gladly let that go if the main character, Doctor Strange himself, had been played by a person of color. (Which almost happened, Oscar Isaac was on the short list for the role). If that had happened it would be, on balance, clearly a success. And ultimately, I think it’s balance that we have to look at. We can’t ignore specifics, but they can sometimes narrow the scope of what we’re demanding. And fantasy/superhero films seem to offer a natural place for this. The built-in fandom/market for these films minimizes the risk of alienating white viewers, (and demographics are proving we can have lucrative films without them anyways). And Marvel does seem to be trying. Of the Netflix Original Series Marvel’s “The Defenders’” shows that “Iron Fist” is a part of (“Daredevil,” “Luke Cage” and “Jessica Jones”), “Iron Fist” is the only one whose title character is a non-disability-having white guy. That’s why, in my mind, “Iron Fist” was a bigger loss than the “Ancient One” in “Doctor Strange. It didn’t get as much coverage, because I think a lot of people felt like we had a better case for demanding an API actor for a role that was Asian in the comics. But I’m not sure that’s the case.

Complicating matters further, is the revelation of a conversation between Tilda Swinton and Margeret Cho. In the TigerBelly podcast, hosted by Bobby Lee and Khalyla, Cho explained that Swinton approached her to talk privately about the whitewashing controversy, they fought about it and, in the end, it left Cho feeling bad. Swinton’s publicist swiftly released the transcripts of the e-mails, which many felt undermined Cho’s version of events, because Swinton comes across as very polite and eager to help.

In many ways, Swinton comes out looking good. It’s clear that Cho had agreed to keep their convo private and then ended up talking about it publicly, and Swinton does come across as very well-intentioned. But NPR’s Gene Demby had a different (and accurate) take, “Swinton is exceedingly polite and charming in a way that almost camouflages the grossness of what she’s asking,” which he states is an “implied request for absolution.” (Omar Sakr of The Sydney Morning Herald makes a similar point). Examining the e-mails, Cho holds her ground, and, despite using a lot of polite and passive language, still states quite clearly that she thinks the role should have gone to an actor of Asian descent.

While Swinton does seem to genuinely want to do something to help, she doesn’t apologize privately or publicly, and sort of sidesteps it by saying, “I don’t feel it appropriate for me to add anything” to the criticisms, (which … really? You’re starring in the movie!).

So what do we take away from this? One of the big points, I think, is that we have to think about the power dynamics. While Swinton isn’t exactly a household name, she probably has a good amount more Hollywood clout than Cho. And that undoubtedly factored into the exchange. Demby and Shariff both write about how difficult it is for people of color to tell to someone more powerful than themselves that they are wrong — a challenge that the white person in the conversation often can’t see because of their privilege. Politeness is an important defense mechanism, and also a safeguard against exhaustion.

“If people of colour weren’t polite every time we’re confronted with problematic behaviour by powerful white people, we’d be rioting every hour of every day,” Shariff wrote in his piece on the controversy. But later in the piece, he adds, “If these e-mails show anything, it’s that being polite doesn’t help. Both parties walked away with a markedly different impression of the nature of the exchange, and nothing changed.”

To me, this comes close to being my takeaway from 2016, and sort of bridges the gap between the burning house and the battle over the TV. The lesson, it seems, is that we do have to start rioting every hour of every day. Post-election, many on the white left are saying we should jettison so-called “identity politics” under the assumption that simply addressing economic inequality in the broad sense will lift all boats, including those belonging to people of color, women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. This idea is dangerous and there’s a lot of historical precedent to debunk it. The truth is, we can, and must, work on everything at once.

And so even though we must fight injustice broadly, its more important than ever that children of color grow up in a world where they can see positive representations of them onscreen — and that white people get used to it as well. It’s important that we have media send them the message that they are full human beings, and that they matter, especially as the highest office in the land consistently tells them otherwise.

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine, and blogs about pop culture at nichibei.org. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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