Banerjee: Asian characters aren’t disposable

The tendency toward killing off Asian movie characters and refusing to allow them any space outside of their small roles reminds a major issue in Hollywood.

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Banerjee: Asian characters aren’t disposable

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Anna Banerjee, Columnist

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The history of Asian Americans in Hollywood is rocky to say the least. From being simply missing from the silver screen to being recast and whitewashed to being trapped in inauthentic roles, Asian Americans rarely have the same degree of respect in Hollywood as many other people. Even in roles supposedly breaking from the norm, major Hollywood pictures fall back on racist sentiments, often tracing back to post World War II hostilities.

Asian Americans account for only 1 percent of all leading Hollywood roles, according to a study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. When Asian Americans are included in studio pictures, they’re relegated to set carbon-copy roles: the ethereal mystic, the quiet stoic, the meek seductress, etc. There is little room for experimentation, which is why such American movies as Crazy Rich Asians or the even more recent Always Be My Maybe are still vitally important.

Even when stereotypes are less apparently offensive, they are still deeply sewn into the fabric of the films. In the recent Godzilla movie, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the Asian characters are treated as very peripheral members of the team — despite Godzilla being a phenomenon starting in Japan. Instead of allowing them space to be part of the film on their own measure, their actions are entirely measured against the white leads. They are the support systems, the mysterious confidant, in some cases the martyr — never the leaders of their narrative. In order to prove their worth to people around them and their audiences, they have to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. What is worrying is that the greater good is always the American government or the American people.

Asian Americans in Hollywood are continually trying to prove their worth to an entity that either doesn’t trust them — presumably remnants of World War II hostility and fears of sedition. To prove our merit in the eyes of people who don’t trust our worth or place in the country, we have to perform acts of service or duty beyond what should be necessary. It means sacrificing our bodies and minds to save our white costars.

Sacrificing Asian characters — especially Southeast Asian characters — is “cultural” and noble. It brings to mind notions of seppuku, which is in itself a racist association. Even culturally respectful movies, like Bong Joon-ho’s English language Snowpiercer, fall into similar ruts, where to save the day, the Asian stoics must sacrifice themselves. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill duology does the same thing, placing Lucy Liu’s character into a set of predetermined boxes (even if her character is interesting and compelling). Even The Walking Dead fell into the trap with Glenn.

Hollywood — and film around the world — needs to do a better job in ensuring that people are properly represented. The fear surrounding Asian Americans in Hollywood is reductive and dangerous for anyone who wants to see themselves represented in a way that doesn’t end in a sad or noble death. We didn’t help build the foundation of this country to be considered as outsiders who can only come into importance if providing a service in some way. We deserve more than the quiet, brainy character who dies half way into the movie and whose mourning is thrown away.

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