As always, 2010 was a year of both gains and losses for Asian Americans in the media. On the television front, we said goodbye to shows like “Trauma,” “Flash Forward,” and “Lost” (no long faces for “Heroes”—thank God NBC finally put it out of its misery) and hello to “The Event,” “Outsourced,” and the new “Hawaii Five-0.”
But CBS only did what was expected on that latter series, casting two white men as the main stars and using Asian Americans for the bottom two characters Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua. Although the re-booted program gives more screen time to those locals than the original 1968-1980 series did, if you see a dark-skinned person on the show, it’s probably a criminal. The producers are not balancing the racial quotient of good vs. bad, and with the recent introduction of Mark Dacascos as the new Wo Fat—the ringleader of the whole mess involving the Irish terrorist who killed Steve McGarrett’s father—expect it to get worse.
NBC’s “Outsourced” sports the fullest Asian cast since 1994’s “All American Girl,” but other than giving jobs to Americans, Canadians, and Brits of Indian descent, the new series is about foreigners in India. So how excited can you get about that?
Although Tina Cohen-Chang, played by Korean American Jenna Ushkowitz, wasn’t allowed to say many lines on “Glee” last season, at least she’s now paired romantically —though temporarily—with Mike Chang (Harry Shum, Jr.), and he’s getting to do more than just mesmerize us with his slick dance moves. Also, they give us one of the rare young Asian American couples ever to be seen on television.
But what’s with this trend of Asian Americans playing Jewish characters? Is that the only way we’re allowed to be regulars? Besides Cohen-Chang, there’s Dr. Cristina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Devin Rosenthal on “24,” and in the past, the chiropractor (James Saito) on “Eli Stone.” This Buddhist demands equal time.
Although “Jersey Shore” broke cable records, a pilot for “K-Town,” which would’ve showed the underbelly of Korean Americans, failed to get picked up—which is both good for those of us who can’t stand stupid people but bad for equal opportunity.
Then again, Archie Panjabi won an Emmy for “Best Supporting Actress in a Drama” for “The Good Wife.”
The Winter Olympics gave us a lot to cheer about, especially Apolo Ohno, who racked up his record-breaking eighth medal in speed skating.
On the music front, Far East Movement—made up of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Filipino Americans—broke through the glass ceiling, not only scoring a recording contract with a subsidiary of industry major Interscope Records but actually going all the way to No. 1 with “Like a G6” and selling over a million downloads.
Here, in chronological order, is my assessment of some of the media issues and events that affected Asian Americans in the past 12 months.
January: Cold Shower Award to Shania Twain for going gaga over “American Idol” contestant John Park. Beyond telling the 20-year old Chicago college student he had “a beautiful bottom end and low end,” she made it clear she wasn’t just referring to his singing voice, adding, “You have nice lips.” After judges Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi expressed shock at her comments, the pop/country star, clearly embarrassed, played with the drawstring on her blouse, slapped Jackson, and laughed loudly. After making the Top 24, Park told Twain—through the camera—that he’d marry her. Unfortunately, in December, Twain announced her engagement to someone else.
February: Third Time Lucky Award to Alex O’Loughlin (pronounced “o-lock-lin” but “o-ugh-lin” to me) for finally managing to star in a television series that wasn’t cancelled. Despite his presence not being enough to interest viewers in following “Moonlight” nor “Three Rivers,” the 33-year old Australian was handed the iconic role of Steve McGarrett in CBS’s refurbished “Hawaii Five-0” even though the actor has zero charisma.
Bachi ga Ataru! Award to Lee Ho-Suk and Sung Si-Bak. Following the South Korean team’s penchant for blocking American Apolo Ohno from advancing in the Olympic speed skating events (which is illegal), the two “coincidentally” tried to overtake Ohno at the same time in the 1500-meter final only to collide with each other, giving Ohno second place and Filipino American J.R. Celski the bronze.
Xenophobic Award to the producers of NBC’s Winter Olympics for creating profiles mostly on American athletes unless they faced some family tragedy, disease, or injury.
March: You Mean a White Star’s Not Enough? Award to Richard Gere for headlining “Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale”—the remake of the classic tear-jerker Japanese film about the loyal dog who kept waiting in vain for his professor/master to return from college after a fatal heart attack. Despite Hollywood’s conventional wisdom that an Asian American star can’t get a movie distributed, Gere’s participation didn’t help either. Although the film was released internationally, it only came out on DVD in the states.
You Call Yourself a Journalist? Award to Parade’s Hugh Ambrose for repeatedly using the racial slur “Japs” in his article (“A Fight to the Death,” March 14) in his profile of Dr. Sidney Phillips, a former Marine and retired physician. The reporter recounted some of the “light-hearted” things Phillips did at the mess hall, including often saying “Japs.” Nowhere in his article did Ambrose acknowledge the term is a slur and offensive, especially since he concluded that after nearly 70 years, it was great that former enemies are now allies.
Clueless/In Denial/Sellout Award to director M. Night Shyamalan for insisting that his film “The Last Airbender” was the “most culturally diverse tent-pole movie ever made” despite all of the white characters being good and all of the Asian/non-white characters being villains or victims. The once heralded director (“Sixth Sense,” “Signs”) proved how low his star had fallen with his nonsensical defense of this white-washed film, which garnered thousands of protests across the world and culminated in MANAA’s most successful demonstration since 1993’s “Rising Sun.” Reviewers hacked the movie to bits with noted film critic Roger Ebert calling it “an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.”
April: Liar Liar, Pants on Fire! Award to Sarah Silverman for her error-filled autobiography “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.” The comedian, still stung by her uh… shellacking on “Politically Incorrrect” in 2001, spent 14 pages talking about yours truly but, of course, conveniently left out pertinent facts that made her look like a victim as opposed to the offender. For instance: I attacked her on the August 2001 show because although she’d written a letter to me the previous month apologizing for the hurt she caused by using “chinks” in a joke on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” she then went on Bill Maher’s talk show and said I wasn’t really hurt by it (“He’s keeping his job!”), thereby gutting the letter of any meaning. Funny how she failed to remember that part. Eh, at least she spelled my name correctly and mentioned MANAA repeatedly…
May: You Can’t Do That! Award to the producers of “Lost” for keeping our “Romeo and Juliet,” Jin and Sun, apart for three years, only to have them unite but die in a sinking submarine less than 24 hours later. At least this time, fellow castaways on that strange island showed grief at the passing of one (two) of their own: Kate began crying, Hurley started bawling, and Jack walked out into the ocean, unable to contain his emotions, as if he was going to commit suicide. Online message boards lit up with emotional reactions and protestations that proved the show had done a good job of making the audience care about two Asian immigrants, one of whom barely spoke English.
June: You Call Yourself a Journalist? II Award to Claudia Eller. In her Los Angeles Times business article on the chances of “The Last Airbender” doing well over the upcoming weekend, the reporter wrote a puff piece that served as a mouthpiece for the director and Paramount executives to promote their propaganda, ignoring the Calendar cover story the paper had done just a month before on how MANAA and racebending.com were calling for a boycott of the film and had spoken to several colleges across the country asking them to not support it. Surely that was pertinent information that might affect the box office?
July: Positive Reviews for Hire Award to USA Today’s Scott Bowles for ignoring the white-washing issue of “Airbender” and offering gushing pre-publicity prose about the film in exchange for getting exclusive first shots of the movie. Despite my discussing with him the Asian-to-white casting of 2008’s “21” and leaving him a message about the likewise problem with “Airbender,” the writer was one of the few (8%) who ultimately gave the film a positive review.
Good Riddance Award to Cartoonist John Callahan, who died at the age of 59. In the mid-’90s, the quadriplegic drew a cartoon of a Santa Claus with slanted eyes, calling it “Slanta Claus.”
September: Arigato Award to the CW for allowing an Asian American, Maggie Q, to star in her own series, “Nikita.” Despite the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition urging the four top networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox) to cast Asian Americans as the stars of shows, it was the fifth-place network that did it on its own.
Repuglican [sic]Roots Showing Award to former Republican Loretta Sanchez for saying “The Vietnamese” were trying to steal her congressional seat. During a televised interview on Univision, Sanchez, already noted for being dumber than a doorknob, declared in Spanish, “The Vietnamese and the Republicans are—with intensity—trying to take away this seat, this seat for which we have already done so much for our community—[Taking] this seat from us and [giving]it to this Van Tran, who’s very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic.” Apparently, Sanchez, who was re-elected, only considers Latinos to be part of “our community.”
December: Arigato Award II to Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic Ann Powers for her article “Really? Black Eyed Peas and Jazmine Sullivan Revive the Phrase ‘Me Love You Long Time,’ ” which noted the stereotypical phrase popping up in several popular songs and concluding that it couldn’t be reinvented in good taste.
Open Season on Asian Americans Award to the producers of “No Ordinary Family.” It’s bad enough that Christina Chang was initially touted as a regular on the new ABC series only to be killed off in the third episode. Then, a researcher played by Reggie Lee uncovered the secret of his firm’s experiments that give people super powers, and he too was murdered.
Christmas Present That Never Arrived Award to “A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas,” which was supposed to have been in theaters this month but has been pushed back to next year.
Let’s hope 2011 is a better year for our community in the media. Thanks for your continuous support. If you’re interested in getting involved with the good fight, come to MANAA general meetings, which are held on the third Thursdays of each month in Chinatown. Go to manaa.org for more information or call (213) 486-4433.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open and Happy New Year.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.