Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
After moving to the Los Angeles area in 1983, I learned of the importance of the original “Star Trek” television series. Asian Americans from Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco all told the same story: Everyone — including Grandma with her walker — would rush into the living room to catch Mr. Sulu, played by actor George Takei. Why? Because for once they were able to enjoy someone who looked like them, didn’t speak with an accent, wasn’t an embarrassing stereotype and was one of the good guys.
People, especially minorities, have an intrinsic need to see their existence validated on the big and small screens. Why? Because it means they matter.
An even more common story is Asian Americans talking to white people who say, “Wow, you speak pretty good English! How long have you been in our country?!”
Maybe if Westerns had shown Chinese immigrants building the railroads, or World War II films had acknowledged the 100th/442nd, they might’ve considered the possibility that we may have been here longer than their own ancestors.
Every year between 1996 and 2005, I was flown out of state to give media workshops at college conferences (I’ve either since fallen out of favor or their budgets have been cut.). With sometimes a dozen topics to choose from, mine was always the most- or second-most popular, mainly because the topic was that important to them.
I’d show the Media Action Network for Asian Americans — MANAA — documentary that I directed (narrated by my old “American Top 40” boss Casey Kasem), which chronicled the various issues we took on (view it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUQHlhn3KUM. That’s me going after the top morning deejay in Los Angeles for saying he was “tired of seeing slanted-eyed figure skaters winning all the time” and two days later getting him to apologize on-air for the first time in his career. That’s me at a 2001 press conference wondering why “Pearl Harbor” (on which I consulted) focused on the discrimination of a black officer and not Japanese Americans who were put in concentration camps for three years. That’s me debating both “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher and comedian Sarah Silverman for saying “Chinks” in a joke on Conan O’Brien’s talk show.
One of the students at a Harvard party held my shoulder and said, “Thank God for you, Guy! Thank God for you!” And yet, when I return to Hawai‘i every December for vacation, some of my adventures play to blank stares.
If you’re an Asian/Pacific Islander living in a state where you’re 60 percent of the population, I guess caring about how you look in the media seems about as necessary as a job fair for Asian Americans on Kaläkaua Avenue.
Yet, even growing up in the 50th state, you can’t help but be affected by what you see about your own people. Years ago, an aunty admitted it wasn’t until she was in her 40s that she realized that the hero of all the books, television shows and movies she’d grown up with were always white. Subconsciously, despite the many attractive Asian/Pacific Islander suitors around, she’d rejected them all, holding out for the white man on the white horse.
I’ve heard many Asian women say they never wanted to date Asian men because it’d be like dating their brother or father. Can you imagine a white woman saying the same about white men? This only happens to minorities who are constantly fed negative misinformation about their own people. They internalize it until somehow their male counterparts become too close for comfort. After all, until relatively recently, Asian women were always paired onscreen with white men who usually had to rescue them from an evil (or, at least, chauvinistic) Asian man. Every Asian guy seemed to know martial arts, but the white guy always knew it better, beat the crap out of them and walked off into the sunset with an Asian female on his arm.
And who put out those fantasy images and, therefore, benefited from them? White men — they write 70 percent of all primetime TV series and 80 percent of movies. It’s a vicious cycle.
A noted activist from Hawai‘i told me, “You know, Guy, sometimes I think I’m flirting with a white woman; only later, I realize she wasn’t even taking me seriously. As soon as they see you walking up to them, they see Long Duk Dong coming.” Dong was the infamous exchange student from 1984’s “16 Candles,” who became the burden of Asian men. Asian caricatures are imbedded in many other classics, like Mickey Rooney pulling his eyes and donning buck teeth to play the oafish Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.”
When Lucy Liu, star of ABC’s “Cashmere Mafia,” kissed Jack Yang in 2008, the internet lit up with a common question: “Is this the first time we’ve ever seen a young Asian couple kiss on TV?!” It wasn’t, but the fact that it was an honest question spoke volumes.
Since 1999, I’ve been part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, which meets annually with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox to push for inclusion of more APIs as writers, producers, directors and actors. I’ve tried to proactively tell them what we’d like to see more of to make up for past depictions. Last year, ABC cast John Cho as the romantic lead in “Selfie,” in which Karen Gillan chooses him over her white boyfriend. When it was taken off the air due to weak numbers, a white woman in Kentucky launched a change.org campaign to try to keep it alive.
And, yet, there is an alarming trend of “white-washing,” in which Hollywood takes projects that include Asian characters, but cast white actors instead. Scarlett Johansson will soon star as Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost In the Shell.” Tilda Swinton will play “The Ancient One” (an old Tibetan man in the comic books) in “Dr. Strange.” In real life, the math professor who taught most of his students how to win at blackjack in Vegas and the one who won the most money were Asian American. “In 21,” they were played by white men with the smallest roles going to two Asian Americans.
For years, I’ve read CBS the riot act for using guest APIs mostly as suspects or villains and, insultingly, whites and blacks as authority figures on the rebooted “Hawaii Five-O” (a black governor? Give me a break!). In the summer of 2012, the network’s VP of casting and head of diversity gave workshops at the University of Hawai‘i to meet more local actors and help them get better headshots (so job fairs are still necessary for APIs in Hawai‘i!). And although casting director Margaret Doversola gave me/CBS a list of locals for whom she vouched, not much has changed.
Why should we care about how Asian/Pacific Islanders are portrayed in the media? It reflects upon our value in this country and affects the way people treat us. It also impacts our self-esteem.
Besides, where’s our pride?
Guy Aoki was born and raised in Hilo and is founding president of the media watchdog group, Media Action Network for Asian Americans.