Asian Representation in Hollywood: Why So Late?

Everything Everywhere All at Once’s awards highlighted Asian representation in Hollywood, but what took so long for Asian Americans to be seen?

After multitudes of success across the awards season, the widely beloved, Everything Everywhere All at Once won in multiple categories with the Academy Awards this past March. Seeing Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh receive their accolades at the most significant award ceremony of the year, not to mention the entire cast winning Best Picture, was a triumphant and heartwarming moment for Asian representation in Hollywood.

To be clear, I am thrilled at the reality of a movie that captured the intricate nuances of being Asian American. I am thrilled that queerness serves as an important aspect of the movie. It was not just passingly acknowledged, but a core component of the characters’ story. I am thrilled to see a Hollywood story that I could see myself in. These feelings of delight and excitement aren’t exclusively unique to my experience.

However, watching Everything Everywhere wasn’t the first time I felt seen or represented. Asian Americans have been telling our own stories outside of mainstream Hollywood media long before last month’s best picture win. Although Saving Face (2004) and Double Happiness (1994) were not Oscar winners, they were lovingly crafted and represented cultural experiences. Just like EEAAO, these films shared common themes within the Asian diaspora. So this begs me to ask: what took so long for us to be seen?

Who actually determines success?

The fact is that we’re still celebrating mainstream “firsts” that for some groups have always been a given. Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh were the first Asian actors to win their respective categories. While each of their speeches caused many Asian Americans to shed a prideful tear, the elevation of primarily white award shows as a key component to success only displays one version of “Asian American success.” This attitude is dismissive of art that had come before. Art that did not have awards recognition that EEAAO had; should we not be proud of these works too?

Acting as if Asian Americans have won only through the recognition of predominantly white institutions deprives us of our own pride and agency. It also dismisses existing art that we had made outside of the mainstream on our own terms long, before somebody else validated us. In short, we don’t need to measure our successes based off of whether or not the Academy declares a piece of art made to depict our experiences as award-worthy; rather, we can find that pride in ourselves and in our communities.

See also: Get to know Stephanie Hsu in Everything Everywhere All at Once

Asian representation in Hollywood
Stephanie Hsu, Ke He Quan, Michelle Yeoh, James Hong (L-R)

What does mainstream success do for representation?

Even more cynically, what does this award recognition entail besides individualistic success? It was not so long ago that the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 . It led to widespread praise and renewed platitudes of how much “representation matters.” But what has actually and tangibly changed? Has mainstream Asian representation in Hollywood changed? Even in 2023, Donnie Yen reported critiquing the initial orientalist conceptions of his character in John Wick 4. What does a win in mainstream Hollywood representation really mean for those that have found a lucky job break?

We have seen how Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh, and even Stephanie Hsu have faced a renewal of career opportunities following EEAAO’s success; a similar phenomenon was examined even with Simu Liu and Awkwafina following the 2021 premiere of Shang-Chi. Both films were labeled a representational success and a win for Asian Americans. But how can they be when the only successes they have only bolstered those who have already found that success? How can these films be labelled as Asian American wins when mainstream representation is treated as a one-and-done event?

See also: Why we need to support Crazy Rich Asians

Reconsidering what Asian representation in Hollywood means

Considering that there was a leap between 2018 and 2021 in which Asian Americans were considered a profitable demographic to market toward following the success of Crazy Rich Asians, in what ways are these successes moving toward actual material successes for other Asian Americans beyond the occasional mainstream “representational” film, movie, or book? 

This critique isn’t to deprive the inherent joy and specialness of this moment, nor does it intend to demean the achievements of the winners. On the contrary, a framework of white validation cannot and should not define Asian representation in Hollywood and Asian American success. 

This movement of Asian actors winning for an Asian movie that resonated across the diaspora is rightfully full of joy and celebration. The pride and joy that Asian Americans felt last month did not start at the Oscars, nor should it stop there. For every Everything Everywhere All at Once, there are many other pieces of Asian diaspora art that didn’t get that recognition or acclaim from the Academy. The Asian diaspora deserves to find joy, pride, and love in that art, too.

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