Emma Stone, Big Hero 6, and Agents of SHIELD - Multiracial Asians in Pop Culture
written by Meris Mullaley (@FabricAlchemist)
It is possible that you’ve been too busy rewatching Mad Max: Fury Road or prepping for the release of Jurassic World to pay much attention to a summer rom-com called “Aloha.” I had only stumbled across a few unimpressed reviews of the film while I searched the web for Star Wars rumors. Romantic comedies are usually not my cup of tea, so I had no intention of digging deeper into this film. Then a editorial caught my eye on EW.com - I'm not buying Emma Stone as an Asian-American in Aloha.
Emma Stone’s character Allison Ng is a Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish mix. Specifically, she is 1/4 Chinese, 1/4 Hawaiian on her dad’s side - that means she is as white and as “ethnic” as me.
So many thoughts and feelings zipped around my head. I felt angry, frustrated, confused, and a bit bemused. The deep pit in my stomach came from not feeling surprised at Hollywood for making such a blatant casting misdirection. This is worse than whitewashing (taking a ethnic character out the source material and making the character Caucasian in the movie) this is Yellowface.
This isn’t about phenotype. This is about representation and respect. The Hapa Project by Kip Fullback showcases a beautiful range of people who have a mixture of Asian and many other ethnicities. There are absolutely Multiracial Asians with naturally blond hair or green eyes. So, why couldn’t they actually cast an actress who could claim part-Asian ancestry? Are we that invisible? Are we unicorns?
Instead Cameron Crowe cast a fully Caucasian woman, gave her dialogue that emphasizes her mixed background, and hoped (or expected) the audiences to accept or not even notice what he had done?
Angry half-Asian, all dragon lady.
The rant poured out of me on Facebook, and again when I got home and told my husband about this stupid casting decision. As I was writing this post, my anger and frustration toward the perpetual misrepresentation of Asians and Multiracial Asians in popular cultural and visual media kept spewing out. I tried to temper my anger with my perception and respect for Emma Stone as a straight forward feminist. But the rant just kept growing.
The gloomy Seattle weather this past week fed on my sour mood and I truly struggled to break out of that funk. I won’t blame Aloha for this bout of depression, but my negativity toward the film’s racism was clearly fueling my sad mood.
The sun came out today. And I remembered that I am writing for Lifted Geek. There is a problem with cultural appropriation and racism in Hollywood. You need to read Undercover Asian: Multiracial Asian Americans in Visual Culture by UW Professor Leilani Nishime. I’ll wait. We can and should spend time talking about what Hollywood and the game industry keep doing wrong and encourage them to give us diverse character representations and story arcs.
Part of this discussion has to include examples of positive representation and I am here to call out and elevate 5 moments in pop culture that stood out for me as a Hapa. The times I celebrated multiracial Asian actors and characters.
Being Hapa: A Whole Made of Parts
First, let me show you who I am and why I care so much about this topic.
Here is my genetic ancestry, courtesy of 23andMe. I am half-Chinese/half-Caucasian:
OK, technically there is an unknown 0.1%. Alien DNA perhaps? Cylon?
A note on terms: I am using multiracial Asian to refer to people who are mixed Asian and other heritage or ethnicities. We can spend hours discussing the differences between ethnicity and race. I am using race, because like Leilani Nishime’s book "Undercover Asians," the social concept of race is how these categories are being perceived and digested. The use of “Hapa” is mostly my shorthand for my own identification. It originated as a Hawaiian term referring to anyone with mixed heritage, but has been adopted more widely by the Asian American/Pacific Islander community to refer to Multiracial Asians.
Being Hapa means that I get excited about representations of my composite parts. I enjoy a good Irish-American meal of corned beef and cabbage and the German cookies that my grandma made every Christmas. I also grew up on a well-curated diet of Chinese cinema - Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Peking Opera Blues were some of my mom’s favorites. She also made sure we were well versed in vintage Jackie Chan films (Drunken Master, anyone?). I rejoiced in the theater when I understood Jackie Chan saying he was looking for the restroom in Rush Hour. A Cantonese word I knew was in a big Hollywood summer action movie!
But I do not live my life in third parts. I do not compartmentalize my experiences into the Chinese half, the Irish quarter, or the German quarter. I experience my job, my commute, my hobbies, and my relationships as a whole singular person. In fact, as much as I love all the Chinese cinema my mom put in front of me, those characters and settings were like unattainable dreams. I honored the Chinese part of my heritage, but I never saw myself in them. Nor did I expect to. For a long time, I didn’t really expect to see myself in American cinema either.
5 Moments Pop-Culture Made Me Proud to be Half-Asian
Superman is Asian
Did you know that Dean Cain is part Japanese?
My mom always made sure my brother and I knew which actors were part Asian. I’m not sure if she was consciously trying to give me “role models” or if she herself was simply eager to learn about other Asians in visual media. Watching the New Adventures of Lois and Clark with my brother, it was like a fun secret, knowing that Superman was actually a little bit Asian like us. After the 15th viewing of Speed, my mom also informed my brother and I that Keanu Reeves was part Asian as well.
I kept tabs on anything these actors did. However, the roles I knew them best for in Speed, New Adventures of Superman, and The Matrix were not ones that called out their mixed heritage. On the one hand, let’s celebrate that being mixed didn’t preclude them from awesome roles. Ethnicity didn’t matter to these characters’ role or to the narrative. On the other hand, most mainstream audiences perceived them as white - I know I did - making them more digestible in summer blockbusters. Some might call this an example of post-racial America. It is not. By classifying (or encouraging classification of) someone who is multiracial as a single race - usually Black or White - a false binary is created and discussion of any other race experiences is swept under the rug.
This is why you need to read Undercover Asian. There are many part-Asian male actors and celebrities whose Asianness is invisible in visual media. (Mark Paul Gossler, Chad Michael Murray, Enrique Inglesias, Tyson Beckford, Rob Schneider - seriously?!) So while I was thrilled to learn that these men were mixed like me, their characters still did not represent me.
Ann Curry becoming the co-anchor Today Show
Across the country, household wake up to a Multiracial Asian face on their morning news.
The abrupt end of Ann’s tenure on the Today Show is another debacle that frustrates me. However, the day Ann Curry took the desk as co-lead, I rejoiced. Connie Chung was a well-known Chinese-American news anchor from my childhood, but Ann Curry was mixed like me. I followed her personal stories about her family and I saw my family in those stories. As a journalist Ann is inspiring, asking tough questions in hard news interviews and often focusing on human rights. Many people will say that she wasn’t the right fit for a show with so much fluff. Still, I hoped her promotion was signaling a shift in t.v. news diversity.
The Face of Things to Come on Battlestar Galactica
Hera, the daughter of Cylon Sharon Valeri and human Helo Agathon, represented a blending of two species that were at war with each other and was proclaimed as the “shape of things to come.” I couldn’t help but notice that she was played by a multiracial Asian girl.
I used to daydream about the final season of BSG jumping so far ahead in time that Hera would be a young adult and clearly I would be asked to play her. (I’ve had no other Hollywood aspirations.) Forget the Caprica prequel series. I would love to see how Hera navigated being part human and part Cylon. How would she have led the colonists? Hera was meant to be special in the story, and she was special to me.
Undercover Asian discusses the representation of Hera in BSG and calls attentions to some issues that have parallels in our society. Particularly that she is always being separated from her parents. Hera cannot be trusted with her Cylon mother, so she is taken away by Roslin. Don’t let her Cylon side manifest. How is that different than colonial and missionary schools that sought to teach away the cultural traits of brown children across the world?
Big Hero 6
Hiro and Tadashi live in a fictional hybrid city, San Fransokyo. Their entire world is a mixture of American and Japanese culture. On first glance, these brothers seem to have Asian facial features and their aunt Cass (who serves as caregiver) is Caucasian. My personal inference was that they were mixed Asian-American and EuroAmerican and Aunt Cass was the sister of their mom. It would be like my blond Aunt Rhonda caring for me and my brother.
They are multiracial Asian characters, but that characteristic doesn’t preclude them from being the lead hero in a movie. Nor does it require them to use karate or kung-fu to fight the bad guys. This is the kind of representation I crave. My heart swells with love when I think about the film. More please!
Bonus - not only were the characters multiracial Asian-Americans, but the actors were as well. Ryan Potter voiced Hiro and Daniel Henney voiced Tadashi.
Skye in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
From the moment Skye appeared on screen, my hapa-senses were tingling. I recognized she was like me, some mixture of Asian and Caucasian.
I felt a mix of excitement and apprehension. Skye as a character could easily have been any ethnicity, her parents could have been living in any rural village in the world when S.H.I.E.L.D took her away. Yet they cast a multiracial Asian woman, one would would eventually be mentored by Mulan - er, Agent May - another cool Asian character.
Was Chloe Bennet’s ethnic composition going to be part of the plot? Were the writers going to pass Skye off as fully Chinese or fully white? Was she going to be hyper-exoticized and sexualized as many Asian and multiracial women have been in visual media?
(SPOILERS for Season 2)
Or were they actually, truly going to give her mixed parentage? They did! Oh my god, I think I fist bumped the air.
Like Hera, Skye’s ethnic mixture is a visual stand in for her other inter-species genetic mixture - that of Human and Kree. She is an example of how that species intermixing does not need to be feared, even if some of her friends feared her when they learned the truth. People that fear Skye, focus on her alien side. People who support Skye, focus on her human side, and the fact that she is a S.H.I.E.L.D agent.
When we meet “orphan Skye” we see Hera might have grown up if Roslin had succeeded in keeping her away from her Cylon mother. Skye grew up without any concept of who or what she truly is, or who her parents are. Then we see her meet her parents, interact with them, question them, learn from them, and then become her own whole person because of and in spite of them. We get to see what Hera might have become as semi-human adult, being raised by Cylon and Human parents.
I could go on forever about Skye. If you have seen the finale or possibly read the comics, you know what kind of responsibility she is given. Like Hiro, she is not the side kick. She is the Hero, the Leader. And I am getting choked up thinking about it right now, because she is me, and I never realized how desperately I wanted a hero to look like me, to represent me down to my genetic core.
Closing thoughts -
A multiracial Japanese friend of mine, who incidentally was in the final running for Tadashi in Big Hero 6, walked away from his dream of being an actor in Hollywood because of the racism he continually faced at auditions. He was told by his reps to learn kung-fu to beef up his resume (as if martial arts movies are the only places where Asian or part Asian actors can work). He was perceived as too ethnic for some roles, and then shown then door by other casting directors who were looking for [full] Japanese actors. He was both too ethnic and not ethnic enough.
Chloe Bennet, the actress who plays Skye reported that it wasn’t until she changed her surname to Bennett (from Wang, her father’s surname) that she was able to land any big roles in Hollywood.
One of Cameron Crowe’s apology statements struck me - he emphasized that the character of Allison Ng (before any actress was attached to play her) was proud of her ethnic heritage but people never saw that in her and because of that “mistaken” identity she constantly proclaims her heritage to anyone within earshot.
You know what? I get that. You saw my genetic make-up and you’ve seen my picture. I don’t always register as “Asian”, even to my husband. I am 50% Chinese, but 100% Meris and Meris has grown up in white, middle-class, American society. But I a fiercely proud of my Chinese heritage and when I am in a professional setting counting minority representation, I always count myself among them. I am also keenly aware that there are people I read as “white” but are probably multiracial as well.
I said before that this isn’t only about appearance (even if the EW article called out her strawberry blond hair and green eyes). This is about honest representation and diversity in popular culture. I implore you again to look Part Asian, 100% Hapa or take a look at these user-made lists of Multiracial Asian actors and actresses. Hapas come in all shades, sizes, and textures.
Yet Crowe casts a 100% Caucasian in a role that makes a big deal about being Multiracial Asian American and Hawaiian. If a specific ethnicity is important to a character’s arc and story, then cast an actress or actor with that ethnicity. Simple as that. Likewise, if the character’s motivations and arc remain unchanged by race or gender, then why default to the white-cis-male setting?
“Aloha” - Goodbye and thanks for reading
If you want to read more specifically about the film Aloha, in the week and a half since its release, multiple media sources have weighed in:
NPR’s Code Switch wrote about the racial weirdness of the film.
The New York Times Arts Beat simply asks “Emma Stone as Asian-American?”
The best takedown I’ve read (and who has been cited in the other articles is E. Alex Jung’s post on Vulture.
Meris is a friend of the website and an avid cosplayer and overall crafty lady! Follow her exploits on her blog The Fabric Alchemist.