“Ethnically oriented” versus “American” roles in Hollywood
Yesterday I had the privilege of attending V3con, the conference for Asian Americans working in the news and media industries. The event was put on by the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association and hosted at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. It was really great to meet and hear from people I’d only ever seen on the Internet, like Phil Yu (who gets introduced as “Phil Yu Angry Asian Man“) and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang. The big star of the event, of course, was civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, who got a standing ovation at the end of her interview with MSNBC news anchor Richard Lui.
One particular moment from the morning plenary session stood out to me. Local television news anchor David Ono was moderating the session on “Asian Visibility in Hollywood and Globally Online,” with Parvesh Cheena, Lynn Chen, Pradeepa Jeeva, and Lawrence Yee sitting on the panel. I don’t remember how the question was specifically worded, but at one point Ono asked the panel whether they preferred to take “ethnically oriented” roles (i.e. immigrant or foreigner roles) or “American” roles like that of Canadian actress Sandra Oh’s character in Grey’s Anatomy.
The panelists answered the question gracefully. Cheena, for example, said that he played an Indian monkey in a Dreamworks film, but that he really relates best to suburban housewives.
However, I and several others in the audience were not so happy with the question.
Must “ethnic” and “American” be juxtaposed and presented as mutually exclusive? Much of the talk about Asian American visibility in Hollywood is about the visibility of later generation, accent-less, “assimilated” Asians, but what about the visibility of Asian characters who are foreign or immigrant, and who do speak English with an accent? Don’t they deserve to be portrayed with dignity and respect?