Deeper than awful Asian jokes at the Oscars: Hollywood's vanilla reflex doesn't just hurt artists—it's bad business, too

Asian artists protested offensive Oscars jokes—and the Academy's response shows how far Hollywood has to go

Published March 17, 2016 2:54PM (EDT)

Children acting as accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers take the stage at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 28, 2016.   REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni  - RTS8GOV (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
Children acting as accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers take the stage at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni - RTS8GOV (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Three weeks after Chris Rock hosted the White People’s Choice Awards (formerly known as the Oscars™), the Asian-bashing that took place during the ceremony has unexpectedly prompted some Asian members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) to become activists for diversity in film.

Rock’s opening monologue for the ceremony had been “brutally” hilarious regarding America’s race problem, but he was sharply criticized in its wake for having reduced “diversity” to a literal Black and White issue, largely omitting Latinos, Natives, Middle Easterners, Asians, and women in general from his riffs. When Rock eventually brought three Asian children onstage, there were used as props for a woefully bad joke about accountants and sweatshops. It did not help that the only other time Asians were mentioned was in a crude ad-lib by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

“After at least 150 years of Asians existing in America,” Rebecca Sun commented, “this year’s Oscars jokes about them still began with ‘dedicated, accurate and hardworking’ and ended with ‘tiny dongs.’ They were tired attempts at humor, and utterly unsurprising—the worst sin in comedy.”

Twitter reacted with immediate outrage, but it took a little longer for two dozen Asians members of the Academy (a tiny percentage out of a group of about 6,000) to write an open letter to the leadership of AMPAS. Submitted earlier this week, the letter asked, in part, “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.”

Signatories included Oscar winners such as Ang Lee, Chris Tashima, Ruby Yang, Steven Okazaki, Jessica Yu and Freida Lee Mock, as well as actors France Nuyen, Sandra Oh and George Takei. (The full letter and list of signatories is here.) Additional Asian members of the Academy did not sign the letter simply because it did not get to them in time, as a wry tweet from Chris Tashima pointed out.

Academy CEO Dawn Hudson responded with a letter that was, at best, very weak sauce--a pro-forma, sorry-that-you-feel-this-way sort of document infused with the same kind of patronizing attitude that had produced the situation noted by Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man):


It was such a crappy response that it made the situation worse. Many who had signed the open letter reportedly fired back at the Academy to press for specifics. As a result, the Academy issued an apology for having sent out an “apology” that failed to acknowledge the issues. (“Can the Academy also apologize for giving ‘Gladiator’ the BEST PICTURE AWARD over ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ while they are at it?” asks comedian Kristina Wong.) Heads of the Academy will now be meeting with the signatories in order to discuss their concerns in person.

What might these concerns be? What are “unconscious biases,” anyways? For starters, there is the matter of persistent “Chinamen” stereotyping of the kind described by actor Justin Chon, who walked out of an audition rather than fake a demeaning accent. This is why marginalized people say that bad representation is worse than no representation, because it often amounts to quota-filling, window-dressing, and tokenism. Too many gatekeepers in Hollywood are functionaries bereft of imagination (see: first Academy response letter), and so for Asians---a large, growing, and diverse group inside the US—representation amounts to being a thumb jutting in the frame, accidentally covering up a corner of the camera’s lens. Sounds like an exaggeration, but the hashtag #OnlyOnePercent, started by Jaya Sundaresh, refers to the fact that only 1 out of 20 speaking roles, 1 percent of lead roles, and 1 percent of Oscar nominations have gone to actors of Asian descent.

The way to fix this problem starts behind the scenes, by diversifying the director’s chair and prioritizing complex storylines. Oscars don’t go to “Geisha no. 3” or “kung fu guy on street,” but to actors who convince us we can transform ourselves. As Kunal Nayyar (Raj Koothrappali on “Big Bang Theory”) remarked: “For me, it starts with the writing. In India, we need to nurture better writing.” The same advice holds true in the U.S.

Yet inside various creative circles, there is a lot of yimmer-yammer about how treacherous it is to include diverse characters because disabled/religious minorities/women of color are so darned quick to take offense. (Like, why is saying “almond eyes” or “chocolate skin” racist? Can someone please explain why Natives are so upset with J.K. Rowling for putting “Skinwalkers” in her new book? And now the director of the Nina Simone biopic is suing the studio for hijacking her film! Is there no pleasing you people?)

Vanilla used to be safe. Today, however, studios risk seeing their whitewashed films tank at the box office as a result of sticking to a talent pool salvaged from the 1950s. The lazy executive’s excuse is that audiences want escapism, race & gender is political, and controversy is bad for business. Yet report after report has not only confirmed that diversity sells but that Hollywood’s vanilla reflex is costing it serious money. It’s not that the stories aren’t out there. It’s that producers aren’t looking. I’m confident there are already screenplays floating around that would make terrific films and televisions series; I just don’t have access to them. But there are slews of books written by people of color who have capably crafted characters inhabiting complex, thrilling worlds, and some authors, such as Jenny Han and Ellen Oh, have built up large followings ready to support them, should their books be adapted for television or film.

The Only Thing To Fear,” by Caroline Tung Richmond, is a terrifying alternative history where the Allies lost WW2; 80 years later, a mixed race outcast named Zara risks her life to defy Nazi rule. Heidi Heilig’s acclaimed debut of 2016, “The Girl From Everywhere,” combines history, myth, and fantasy to give us a time-traveling Hapa-Hawaiian pirate girl named Nix. Cindy Pon’s terrific cli-fi “Want,” just acquired by Simon Pulse, is set in near-future Taipei, and offers dystopian darkness with a profound social conscience. Amalie Howard’s “Alpha Goddess” and the forthcoming sequel, “Dark Goddess,” dares a biracial main character and epic fantasy based on Hindu mythology. I.W. Gregorio’s “None of The Above” successfully takes on the challenge of a main character who is intersex. Mike Jung’s latest, “Unidentified Suburban Object,” finds a girl named Chloe Cho discovering there a reason why she always feels like a total alien. (Yes, boys read books with girls in them. That’s Hudson Yang of “Fresh off the Boat,” doing his very best impression of the goldfish on USO’s cover.)

Maureen Goo’s untitled latest book, recently acquired by Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, is about a girl who tries to get a boyfriend using tropes from K-drama (Korean drama), and is perfect for a film along the lines of “The Duff.” The author of “Under A Painted Sky,” Stacey Lee, has told me that she dreams that Ang Lee will magically pick up her book and decide to film it. And why not? It’s an amazing 19th-century historical fiction about a Chinese girl and a runaway slave who disguise themselves as boys and head to California to search for gold. Bethany C. Morrow’s “Last Life of Avrilis” releases this fall, and is a “lyrical sci-fi steampunk novel” about a Black heroine who, with her Asian love interest, has to figure out how to change the script that is literally running—and ruining-- their lives. It’s the kind of story-about-writing-stories that Hollywood loves, so let me put a flea in Ava DuVernay’s ear, as it would be a natural segue from her next project, “A Wrinkle in Time,” to filming “Avrilis.”

Adapting any of these suggestions for the big screen would start to ameliorate “the bias and racism toward any group[my emphasis]” pointed out in the protest letter signed by Asian members of the Academy. This is not just about one subset of minorities gaining ground but about modernizing the institution itself. Notably, the Academy has now taken concrete steps to pre-empt the third installment of  #OscarsSoWhite by appointing Latino, Asian, and African-American members to leadership positions. Inside the factory of dreams, the reality of the dreamers themselves may finally be sinking in.


By Paula Young Lee

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas "Best Book" award of the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently writing outdoor adventure books for middle grade and young adults. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee

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