By GUY AOKI
2015 was the year that proved “diversity” in the media didn’t mean only African Americans.
After 15 years of lobbying the top four networks, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (of which I’m a founding member) celebrated the first Asian American family TV series in nearly 20½ years when ABC debuted “Fresh Off the Boat” in February. Not only did critics like it a lot more than the last one — 1994’s “All-American Girl” starring Margaret Cho — but many asserted Constance Wu should receive an Emmy nomination for her breakout role of Jessica Huang, the stingy but loving mother of the Orlando/1995-based Chinese/Taiwanese American family. Some even suggested the sitcom get a nod for “Best Comedy Series.”
Although neither came to pass, nominations did follow from the Critics’ Choice (for Wu, the show, and Randall Park as husband Louis Huang) and the NAACP Image Awards (Hudson Yang for “Outstanding Youth Performance” as Eddie Huang).
If that wasn’t enough, in October, just eight months later, ABC premiered “Dr. Ken” starring Ken Jeong as the head of a Korean/Japanese American family. And the previous month, Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra headlined the spy thriller “Quantico.” Three shows starring (first name in the credits) Asians, not to mention Ming-Na continuing to get second billing in “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.EL.D,” all on ABC.
In addition, there was Fox’s “Mindy Project” starring Mindy Kaling (since cancelled but moved to hulu.com) and the CW’s “Beauty and the Beast” (Kristin Kreuk) and series with Asian Americans second in the credits — CBS’ “Stalker” (Maggie Q) and “Elementary” (Lucy Liu) and the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (Vincent Rodriguez III). On cable, Cliff Curtis starred in AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead” and Daniel Wu top-lined “Into the Badlands” to record ratings (and don’t forget Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” on Netflix).
Clearly, 2015 was the best year for Asian Americans on television ever. EVER.
Building upon the notion of Asian men as love interests for white women (who even choose them over white suitors!) — revived in 2014’s “Selfie” with John Cho — 2015 also saw the loveable Dong Nguyen in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix) and Josh Chan in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (The CW).
Unfortunately, not only did Asian Americans continue to be denied significant roles in movies, their parts were often given to white or black actors. Thankfully, the press has caught on to this “white-washing” concept and wrote articles based on MANAA’s press releases blasting such projects within a couple hours of their being issued.
Here, in roughly chronological order, is my take on some of the significant people, television shows, movies, and events that impact Asian Americans in 2015.
January: What Were You Thinking? Award to Margaret Cho for playing a squinty-eyed, stoic North Korean journalist on “The Golden Globes.” The comedienne claimed she was mocking North Korea and dismissed her critics as white and “racists” (ignoring the fact that many upset with her were fellow Asian Americans), but she offered no specific points and therefore just perpetuated stereotypes about Asians in general.
February: Field of Dreams Award to the hundreds of Asian Americans who turned out for community screenings of “Fresh Off the Boat” (1,400-1,500 in New York and over 300 at JANM in L.A.) to prove their personal investment in the first Asian American family sitcom in over 20 years (ABC built it, they came). What’s more, despite news breaking over Brian Williams lying about his overseas war experience (which led to him being fired as anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News”), the hashtag #FreshOffTheBoat ultimately became Twitter’s #1 trending topic nationally, beating #BrianWilliamsMisremembers.
March: “But It’s So Unfair!” Award to Deadline.com for Nellie Andreeva’s much-criticized piece sympathizing with agents of white actors who complained their clients are having a tough time finding work with all this “diversity stuff” finally giving more opportunities to minorities. The writer also pointed out that a pilot about the 1972 Boston police force cast a black woman as one of its four regulars (25%), too high since at the time, blacks only made up 16% of the city. Oooh! (Try comparing current ethnic populations to current shows! How many of them proportionally include minorities?!) Five days later, Co-Editor-in-Chief Mike Fleming, Jr. apologized, concluding that the most offensive part of the article was its title (the word “ethnic”).
Sigh… If that wasn’t enough, Fleming — in trying to understand the controversy — had a public discussion with Peter Bart. Known for throwing around racial slurs while at Daily Variety, Bart treated the subject like a professor in a white ivory tower.
April: Arigato Award to Mexican director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde for “Little Boy,” in which the title character — who hates all Japanese for the war his father is fighting in — is forced to befriend a Japanese American concentration camp internee (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who becomes his surrogate father. American directors should be so enlightened to educate their audiences to what this country did to its own people.
May: Pig of the Month Award to Chrissy Teigen for making a fool of herself on the Billboard Music Awards. Trying to explain why they were “fully qualified” to host the event, Ludarcis reasoned: “You see, I’m a hop-hop artist, a former radio personality, and I’m blessed to be in one of the biggest box-office hits of the year (“Furious 7”).” “And,” added the “supermodel,” who looks like a hairy man with a spray tan and boobs, “I bang a musician (husband John Legend)! Hey!” Gross. If that wasn’t enough, she later walked through the crowd warning, “You don’t want to miss anything I’m wearing — or not wearing — next. It’s underwear.” Please go away.
“I Love Fellow White People” Award to director Cameron Crowe, who said he loved the people and culture of Hawaii and wanted to share them with mainlanders, yet cast over 30 white actors in his movie “Aloha” and relegated all Asian Pacific Islanders to a seven-minute scene where the only significant speaking role went to someone playing himself. The media uproar forced Crowe to write an apology for casting Emma Stone as a half Hawaiian/half Chinese character and Stone to admit she’d learned about the lack of opportunities for API actors and acknowledge that she’d become the butt of many jokes (including comic strip “La Cucaracha,” a “Star Wars” fan video where minorities — including Stone’s smiling mug from “Aloha” — were inserted into scenes, “Crazy Rich Asians” novelist Kevin Kwan, and later, “Saturday Night Live”).
June: Take a Hint Award to Bobby Jindal, who released a video of him telling his children he was going to run for president. Their lack of enthusiasm should’ve warned him of the likewise reaction from the rest of the country (he dropped out in mid-November, sparing us from seeing more of the homeliest politician in memory).
Represent! Award to James Huling, the Korean American who, despite calling himself a “good ol’ Southern boy,” proved to be much more — a straightforward but caring man, accepting of gay and even transgendered players (even crazy ones who deserve to be ejected from the game). Despite being evicted long before the “Big Brother” finale, he was voted the audience’s favorite of all 17 players, winning $25,000.
July: What Were You Thinking? II Award to Ken Jeong for doing a skit with A-Rod and Joel McHale on the ESPY Awards and — in reference to his nakedness in the “Hangover” movies — called his penis “tiny, grossly misshapen and unpatriotic.” Though the comic was talking about his own uh… unit, many in the community rightfully felt betrayed by a fellow Asian American perpetuating stereotypes about the supposed shortcomings of Asian men in general.
August: Happy Trails Award to George “Horse” Yoshinaga, the longtime Kashu Mainichi and Rafu columnist who passed away at the age of 90. Despite being a hypocrite and on the wrong side of the draft resister debate (and many other issues), he was an entertaining writer and kept many loyal readers subscribing to The Rafu.
September: Chicken Little/Amnesia/Asleep at the Wheel Award to many concerned about the sale of Keiro to Pacifica. Most expressing their fears in these pages were high on emotion and confusion and low on clarity (e.g., it should only be sold to a non-profit? Not at all? Would an Asian company alleviate concerns?). They claimed there’d never been a public hearing on the sale of the care facility, when there were several beginning in 2013. They said nothing when Keiro found a buyer in Ensign in July 2014 (which eventually fell through) and only slowly began expressing reservations after the sale to Pacifica was announced in September.
But Keiro CEO Shawn Miyake and some of his board members further exacerbated a PR nightmare when they tried to control the town hall meeting by preventing the fearful from talking for an hour. Also annoying is Keiro’s vague notion of how they would spend the $41 million from the expected sale (they would go toward programs and services helping the community? You need that much money for that?!).
October: Aloha Oe Award to Ed Sakamoto, the noted playwright who passed away at the age of 75. The fellow Hawaiian had been a friendly presence as a copy editor at The Los Angeles Times when I worked there in 1988 and early 1989.
Serial White-Washer Award to “The Martian” director Ridley Scott for changing the race of Korean American and Asian Indian characters in the book version to white and black for his big-screen adaptation. Keeping the races intact would’ve created a larger Asian American presence in this “feel-good” film about the many efforts to rescue Matt Damon from the Red Planet. When Scott got flack last year for the equally white-washed “Exodus” — where he cast mostly white actors to play Egyptians — he was unapologetic, saying he wouldn’t have received tax credits if his star was named Mohammad.
Arigato Award II to Rachel Bloom, the co-creator and star of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” who said she intentionally cast an Asian American to be her love interest on the CW comedy because she’d hung out with Asian Americans and never seen the men portrayed as romantic. Not only does the show regularly use Asians and Latinos in other speaking parts and in backgrounds — reflecting its Southern California location — it also included a warm episode where Bloom (Rebecca Bunch) spent a satisfying Thanksgiving with Josh’s Filipino family.
Take That! Award to Ken Jeong for having the last laugh against critics who called the pilot of his sitcom “Dr. Ken” the worst of the season (Entertainment Weekly gave it a D+!) and breaking the curse of the Friday 8:30 p.m. timeslot that felled “Malibu Country,” “The Neighbors” and “Cristela” by being a hit. What’s more, as co-executive producer, Jeong is addressing Asian racial/cultural issues and populating his sitcom with many Asian American extras. And in the noteworthy “Kevin O’Connell” episode, he set up Will Yun Lee as one of the hottest things women of all races had ever seen.
October/November: Arigato III Award to Aziz Ansari for writing a New York Times essay and speaking out in numerous interviews about the lack of opportunities for Asian American actors in Hollywood and doing his part to include them and address Asian cultural issues in his critically acclaimed Netflix series “Master of None.”
General: Visionary Award (for the second year) to ABC’s Paul Lee (president), Samie Falvey (head of comedy) and Keli Lee (head of casting) for providing a model for the industry about what true diversity is by airing TV series starring blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans and taking advantage of their ethnicity to address racial issues.
Bakatare! Award to Clarence Thomas, David Bowers and Donald Trump for making comments condoning the Japanese American concentration camps. Trump, once again talking without thinking, later backtracked. Thomas, the dumbest fool on the Supreme Court, incapable of reasoning, doesn’t deserve any more space here. Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, called for halting “further Syrian refugee assistance,” rationalizing that President Roosevelt “felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.” Most of whom were American citizens and the others weren’t allowed to become naturalized. Apparently, Bowers didn’t hear every president since Reagan condemn the camps. Is Virginia not close enough to D.C.?
As always, I appreciate your feedback on and support of this column. If you’re interested in getting involved with helping to change the images of Asian Americans in the media, please come to monthly MANAA meetings, which are held on the third Thursdays of each month (second in December) in Chinatown. For more info, call (213) 486-4433 or email [email protected]rg.
Let’s hope 2016 is an even better year for Asian Americans in the media. ’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
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.