Where Are All The Asian Actresses?

My parents’ Game Club hosted an Oscars viewing party and naturally, they asked me (the film buff) to come up with 50 pieces of trivia regarding the Academy Awards. I’m always interested in both film and procrastination and I eagerly jumped into the project, surfing the web for bizarre and funny factoids. And it was all fun and games, until I hit this little gem:

In 85 years of Oscars, not ONE SINGLE BEST ACTRESS OSCAR has been awarded to an Asian woman.

Two Asian men have been nominated for Best Actor, and they both won. (Ben Kingsley was nominated again as well). Six Asian men have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor and one (Haing S. Ngor) won. Five Asian women have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress and one (Miyoshi Umeki) won.

But only ONE Asian woman (Merle Oberon) has been nominated for Best Actress. And that was back in 1935; A.K.A. the EIGHTH Academy Awards ceremony.

I know I say this a lot, but I feel like there are no other words:


Are there no Asian actresses? Have we only ever had like five at one time? Are they all just terrible actresses? And guys, too, because ten nominations are nothing to write home about (especially when Ben Kingsley is responsible for four of them). Seriously, what’s the deal?

I asked my mom on her theory, and she suggested that maybe it’s because acting isn’t considered a “worthy” profession in Asian cultures. And I understand where she’s coming from, but you also have to assume from her suggestion that the problem is there simply aren’t that many Asian actresses.

(For the sake of clarity, let us define Asian here as people from or descendants of people from the Middle East, Eastern Asia excluding Russia, and Southern Pacific Islanders excluding Australia.)

So how many Asian actresses are actually working in Hollywood these days?

Off the top of my head, I came up with Lucy Liu (of Charlie’s Angels, Elementary fame), Jamie Chung (of Once Upon a Time fame), Frieda Pinto (of Slumdog Millionaire fame), Sandra Oh (of Grey’s Anatomy fame) and then of course, Brenda Song, who I mostly know from The Social Network.

So that’s, what, five ladies? That’s only enough for one year of Best Actress nominees. I started to wonder if my mom’s theory had credence.

I turned to Google, where I read over a few lists of Asian actresses. There are definitely more of them out there, I just either have never seen anything with them in it (a lot of action movies) or I could recognize them but had no idea what their name was. It was all very disappointing.

But I stumbled upon this article from Inquirer Entertainment, where they talked to Lucy Liu about what it’s like to be an Asian-American actress in Hollywood. It’s definitely worth taking a look at, but this bit jumped out at me:

In general, Asians have much quieter cultures. You don’t see us going out there and screaming. We have a different, quieter way of expressing. We don’t voice our opinions as much as Caucasians or African-Americans do… so our voices are not heard as often. Sometimes we’re disadvantaged because of that.

Okay, more points to my mom’s theory. So is it a cultural difference?

We all know Hollywood has a really hard time with diversity. Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win Best Actress in 2003. (Maybe next week’s project will be on African-American actresses.) Shows like Glee and Modern Family caused people to freak out over their depictions of gays and lesbians:  they’re just like us! (And I know neither show is the first to do this, but these were big mainstream hits.) And don’t even get me started on the sexism in the industry.

Lucy Liu also talked about how she sometimes gets turned down for roles because she can’t play so-and-so’s sister, mother or other relative. And it’s not just that; think about all the lead, and even supporting, female roles you’ve seen in movies. How many times was an Asian actress cast? Maybe just as the best friend, the co-worker, the new girlfriend, whatever? It’s ridiculously difficult.

9/11 really caused people to start judging or being wary of men in turbans and women in hijabs, and I suppose that might have some impact on the lack of Indian and Middle Eastern actors and actresses. Even the presence of an African-American President doesn’t stop people from using the n-word or the KKK existing.

But Hollywood may want to start including people of color. Especially if they’re Asian. Here’s why:

In 2010, China was the third biggest film industry in the world, with ticket sales hitting  $1.5 billion. India is the largest producer of films and is the BIGGEST FILM INDUSTRY in terms of ticket sales and the SECOND LARGEST in terms of films produced. Who was number one in films produced and revenue? Yeah, the United States. But uh, for how long?

We’re starting to fall behind while India and China grow. While it’s true that revenue is increasing, ticket sales are declining. Basically, we’re paying more money for less movies and while that sounds like the Hollywood ideal, it isn’t a business plan that will last forever.

Take this example from Looper, released last September. Rian Johnson had the main character of Joe learning French at the beginning of the movie with plans to move to France, before he was persuaded to go to China instead. As it turns out, this was a pretty savvy economic move. The film needed more money, and DMG Entertainment, a Chinese studio, came in with the money; for filming in China. So production took place in Shanghai rather than Paris, and Old Joe’s wife became Chinese actress Summer Qing.

Films are already being edited for international audiences. Captain America was released as The First Avenger internationally so as to not seem so pro-America in countries where that’s viewed negatively. With the Best Picture nominated Lincoln, the opening Civil War battle scene was changed to a black-and-white photograph background while an overview of what was happening in the U.S. is read; for viewers in Japan, a pre-taped segment had Steven Spielberg himself explaining what the deal with the American Civil War was. The newly released Iron Man 3 was subject to censoring for its release in China: for one example, the villain named “The Mandarin” became “Man Daren,” which doesn’t mean anything in Chinese. It must’ve worked, because the film grossed upwards of $63 million in its opening weekend there, making it one of the biggest releases in China.

I don’t think Hollywood should stop making American history films or films about gays and lesbians, but I think they might want to start thinking about including more international actors and actresses. Psychology has already proven that we like to watch beautiful people (hence why actors and actresses are so ridiculously gorgeous).

Maybe it isn’t much of a stretch to think that we’d also like to see people who have at least one major thing with us in common.

You can read more from Kelsey McGlynn on her blog.

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