Asian American Visibility in Media
with Stephen Gong of the Center for Asian American Media
Asian American representation in media has made great strides, but the fight for more visibility on screen continues.
Stephen Gong, Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media, joins host Tetiana Anderson for a discussion on the importance of Asian and Asian American representation in film and television.
April 30, 2021
Anderson: This year marked an incredibly diverse Oscar awards ceremony with some big wins for the Asian American community as the fight for Asian American visibility on the big screen continues. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. This work comes a year after "Parasite," winner of multiple awards, including Best Picture, at the 2020 Oscars. And joining me to discuss Asian American representation in film and on television is Stephen Gong. He is the executive director for the Center for Asian American Media. Stephen, thanks for joining me.
Gong: And thank you for inviting me, Tetiana. It's great to be here with you.
Anderson: So, no doubt, great strides have been made when it comes to Asian and Asian American representation in film and television, but it wasn't always that way. In fact, in 1935, there was actually a law on the books that said nonwhite women cannot be cast opposite white men. Set the scene for us. What was going on at that time?
Gong: Well, in terms of, you know, Asian Americans in American history, we were in a period what is known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, and even the presence of Asians -- or Chinese in America, and eventually all Asians -- was strictly prohibited. And this law did not change until 1942. So, there's no doubt a troubling history of erasing Asian Americans and Asian people from the screens in any kind of meaningful role or participation.
Anderson: So clearly since then, there's been a real transition when it comes to representation on-screen. The next phase of that evolution was something that people call identity exposure. And it's where we, you know, just see Asians on the screen. We graduated from that to what we're going through today, which is focused storytelling. We're hearing real stories of Asians and Asian Americans in film on the big screen. What are some examples of what we've been seeing? What are some of those films that really stand out?
Gong: Well, most recently, of course, "Minari," which is a wonderful film. And it really... What's so striking and important about it is the way that it situates a real Korean immigrant family in rural America. And yet it doesn't take an easy way out of sort of stereotypic kind of roles about, you know, who these people are and who the people are that they meet. In some ways, it's so wonderful and it's resonated so well because it feels true and authentic. But I would say leading up to this, you know, of course, with "Crazy Rich Asians" and then "The Farewell" and "Always Be My Maybe," there have been a slew of films and we think it's really the start of something profound and really game-changing, I guess I would say, for the representation of Asian Americans on the big screen.
Anderson: So, even though there's been all that progress, of course, things aren't perfect. And there still have been incidents, recent incidents in modern history, where Asians really just aren't in charge of their own identities on-screen. And there have been some pivotal examples of that. Can you talk to us about that issue?
Gong: Sure. I would think of, you know, "Ghost in the Shell" or "The Last Airbender" -- you know, narratives where it seemed like it was a perfect opportunity for an Asian American to be in a leading role and then somehow we weren't thought to be marketable enough. That kind of issue.
Anderson: So, that brings us to the issue of Asian Americans are making great strides in directing and producing and writing, but that doesn't necessarily mean they only want to tell Asian-focused stories, right? There's a whole breadth of art that they could be creating.
Gong: Absolutely. You know, that's what we hear from the creative community. And I think this is true to all people involved in storytelling and performance, the acting community. I think there is the natural and artistic desire to be able to inhabit any kind of role and to tell any kind of story. And I think we need to promote that, as well. So, it seems like we want to have the cake and eat it, too. But I think it would be best for all of us to be able to enjoy the fruits of really artistic freedom.
Anderson: There has been a notable backlash in -- against the Asian community, rather, in the space of coronavirus related to the moniker of the particular virus that we've been hearing about. Is there a connection between that backlash and the idea of representation on-screen?
Gong: Absolutely. You know, and it's a tragic kind of connection. I mean, for one thing is the discrimination against different marginalized communities is unfortunately sort of deep in the DNA of our country. And I believe we are moving towards, always moving towards a positive goal of understanding that America is unique. The United States is unique in the world for being able to, you know, base its citizenship on an ideal, not on a particular ethnicity. And as Dr. King said, you know, that we are bending this arc of the universe towards justice. And storytelling is no different. And it's an important part of what we're talking about. You know, I think... I think the latest, only this latest example of extreme xenophobia is part of a reaction to the real strides that we've made. And I think people in the entertainment industry also feel this kind of moral weight and ethical weight to tell authentic stories and to help move the country forward so that we understand one another's stories better. I can't help but feel that the lack of -- the relative lack of authentic Asian American representation until very, very recently has contributed to the kind of violence we see. That people could somehow believe that Asian people are somehow to blame for this terrible world pandemic only tells you, in a sense, how much our storytelling needs to keep up with the needs that we all have to understand one another better.
Anderson: Excellent, excellent point. And, Stephen, if people want to find out more about the work you do or the organization, what's the website?
Gong: It's caamedia.org. That's C-A-A-M-E-D-I-A, caamedia.org. And we would love to hear from folks and to push our work out to much greater communities.
Anderson: Stephen Gong with the Center for Asian American Media, thank you for joining me.
Gong: You're very welcome. Have a great day.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.