Why we need more Asian-Americans in film, on TV

‘Media’s depictions of Asian Americans have been inaccurate, irresponsible.’

‘Media’s depictions of Asian Americans have been inaccurate, irresponsible.’

By Zorinah Juan

Over the past 15 years, I’ve walked into so many sets and noticed the constant lack of Asian-American directors, producers, and actors. I have met a handful of Filipino-Americans in these positions.

According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 18.2 million Asian-Americans, with Filipinos numbering 3.4 million or about 20 percent. This makes us the second largest subgroup in the Asian American Pacific Islander community. I start to wonder. With these numbers, why do we see so few represented in film and television, telling the stories which we not only partake in but contribute to?

A Telling Moment
When I was 25 years old and an industry newbie, I was hired to produce an ultra-low budget feature film. I was excited because this small production company took a chance on hiring me, a young woman with very little experience. What they saw was a bright woman with a strong work ethic and a wage rate just above ‘free’ back then. I was dating someone who worked for them, so they were able to get two people almost for the price of one.

One day, at a producer’s meeting, I realized that I was the only woman and person of color in the room. The three other producers were older, white men. We were on a conference call with a potential distributor talking about cover art and the importance of casting. It was then that I heard one of them say, “You know this film won’t sell overseas if you put a black girl on the cover.” The ‘seasoned’ producers agreed. I was appalled. Horrified. Disgusted. In shock. It dawned on me then that some decision makers on how media is distributed and consumed, have absolutely no problem expressing these views in front of me, a woman of color, that they didn’t regard me as equal. It didn’t matter that I was at the same table or that I was always the first one in the office and the last to leave. In their eyes, I was not equal because people of color, like me, weren’t profitable. My experiences in this world, the way I thought about things, did not matter to them.

The harsh truth is that a lot of the media’s depictions of people of color, in this discussion — Asian Americans — have not been accurate. The depictions have been irresponsible. Asian-American men are typically represented as nerdy, weak, or as a punchline to some joke about virility. Asian-American women are often over-sexualized stereotypes who know martial arts, are mail-order brides, or can only speak broken English.

In some instances, Asian-American characters have absolutely no ties to their roots unless their obvious cultural differences can be viewed as something strange or mysterious and foreign. Our portrayals are often through the words and lenses of those who do not share our heritage and therefore can’t expound on our experiences.

The Dangers of False Images
With all of these false images in mainstream media, the myths cross over from fable to reality. Even in a place like New York City, there is a noticeable lack of Asian-Americans in positions of power and influence on sets. This could be attributed to the images that have been created in the entertainment industry about Asian-Americans. With the very industry to which they are employed by holding their true identities hostage, Asian-Americans may not be typically thought of to get a job done that might require firmness and ultimate leadership. Worse so, these false images have become so ingrained in the public’s perception that some folks utilize their cultural appropriation-driven thoughts as seemingly innocent topics of conversations in the real world.

On numerous occasions, upon learning that I work in the film and television, I’ve had to deal with questions like, “Do you do porn?” I’ve also had people supposedly jokingly tease me in mock Asian accent, “Will you love me long time?”

False images not only damage the true image of Asian-Americans, false images have a way of making their heritage seem as if it is something to be ashamed of. I’m proud to be Filipino-American and I infuse my pride into all of my work.

Changing public thought about Asian-Americans requires a serious overhaul of the conversation we are most often not included in. An increase of more honest portrayals of Asian-Americans can only be achieved by getting more Asian-Americans to be creative leaders that assume the roles of directors, actors, writers, and producers.

After years of wanting to see more truthful accounts and more visibility for Asian-Americans, I am creating content of my own. My sustainable travel show, “Don’t Be A Tourist” is currently being distributed by TV4 on the international streaming platform Vessel. Additionally, I am currently crowdfunding for my short film, “The Second Province,” the story of two estranged Filipino-American siblings who are forced to reunite when their off-beat, terminally ill mother elects Death with Dignity before the end of the week.

True change comes when multiple people air their grievances. Power is in numbers. By not vocalizing the need for change, people are allowing the perpetuation of stereotypes. Peace should not be confused with complacency. Asian-Americans, use your voice so that tomorrow’s generation can benefit from today’s actions.

Zorinah Juan is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. Her parents are from the provinces of Cagayan and Pangasinan in the Philippines. She and two older brothers were born and raised in New Jersey. She went to school in Emerson College. Her travel show, “Don’t Be A Tourist,” was nominated for best lifestyle/reality show at the 2011 International Television Festival.

Interviewing in Trinidad and Tobago for her travel show, ‘Don't Be A Tourist’

Interviewing in Trinidad and Tobago for her travel show, ‘Don’t Be A Tourist’

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