2018 saw a large increase in the amount of Asian and Asian-American representation in pop culture, most notably with the premiere of “Crazy Rich Asians,” Hollywood’s first movie with an all Asian cast in 25 years. In addition to this highlight, there have been other noteworthy milestones for Asians in the film industry. Pixar released the short film “Bao,” centering around a Chinese-Canadian mother suffering from empty nest syndrome. Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor made her mark as the lead in Netflix’s film “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and John Cho starred in a lead role in the Sundance Award winning film “Searching.”
Representation on screen is not the only platform where Asians have been gaining recognition; Asian artists have proven to be just as powerful in the music industry as well. During the 2019 Grammy Awards, an impressive amount of Asian artists were recognized for their work including H.E.R., a half Filipino, half Black artist who took home the award for Best R&B album. BTS, the worldwide sensation Korean Pop group was nominated for Best Recording Package, and the first female Asian American DJ; TOKiMONSTA (Jennifer Lee) was nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album.
While the story of the Asian experience becomes more recognized in mainstream media, does that mean there is enough Asian representation? Or will there ever be enough? At this point in time where there has been an upshot of Asian and Asian-American recognition in media, it is definitely something worth celebrating. However, we still have a very long way to go for these artists to truly get the credit they deserve.
For Asian-American artists, it has been hard to break into a market where they are a minority, and one that pits their identity against their art. In the past, Asian artists have had to unconsciously or consciously hide part of their identity in order to “make it” in the Western market. It isn’t a well-known fact that artists such as Bruno Mars and Darren Criss are of Asian descent because they don’t fit the typical Asian stereotype. This doesn’t invalidate their identity, but it may, unfortunately, have played a part in why they have found success. Because they don’t outwardly look like what most Western audiences perceive Asians as, they don’t get negative stereotypes attached to them, allowing them to go further in their respective industries.
Photographer Bao Ngo, who worked on Grammy-nominated Japanese-American singer Mitski’s album, doesn’t think that “adhering to Western norms or seeking such representation through something as White and oppressive as Hollywood or the American music industry is the way to go about gaining recognition (it).” Instead of trying to cater to the Western standard, Asian artists and creatives need to put out work that not only speaks to them but also to something people can connect with. Gaining validation from the community you represent rather than the one that oppresses you holds much greater value at the end of the day.
Being recognized as an Asian artist is something worth celebrating, but it is also important that artists are applauded for more than just the fact that they are Asian. Asians are still very much viewed through the Western stereotypical standard, making it hard for Asian artists to showcase their work and talent without being reduced to just another Asian artist or a “token.” For example, a study conducted by professors and scholars at six California universities found that while Asian actors have been getting more roles on screen, most of them are marginalized and reduced to the “token Asian” of the show or movie, playing on stereotypes such as the “model minority” or child prodigy.
There needs to be a point in which the work of Asian artists is celebrated for its merit and not just lauded for its visibility. It would be nice to see art that is praised for what it is without commenting on race or being tied to efforts to make it appeal to a Western audience.
Commending Asian artists for the work they do and increasing its presence throughout the media is a step in the right direction. 2018 proved to be a productive shift this was, as artists garnered even more footing in their respective fields. As consumers of media, however, we need to be mindful that Asian representation is still insufficient and that we are still very far from where we should be.