THROUGH THE FIRE: Breaking Tradition for the Sake of Representation

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akemi-aielloBy AKEMI AIELLO

Alan Yang recently won an Emmy for his writing for Netflix’s “Master of None” and used his acceptance speech to bring awareness for Asian representation in media.

In one of the best episodes of the series, “Indians on TV,” Aziz Ansari’s character Dev and his friend Ravi (Ravi Patel) are two actors auditioning in New York. The two become frustrated realizing that the roles they are offered are stereotypes and extremely limited at that. Dev points out that it is not just them and that all Asian actors are also treated in the same way.

Up until recently there was limited dialogue about Asian representation in film and TV and I believe it is because of our traditional values. Growing up Japanese American, I was always taught to be kind and respectful, to hold my tongue and keep my composure. No one ever wanted to make a fuss about something that was wrong and would attempt to solve problems silently.

I watched my late grandfather, Bill Saito, audition and act in stereotype after stereotype, and tell me stories about how they wanted him to speak Chinese but he would just mutter Japanese because no one knew the difference. As proud as I am of his career and thankful for him because he is the reason I am pursuing a career in film and TV, I cannot stand silent like he did.

A scene from the 1998 Disney feature “Mulan,” in which the title character was voiced by Ming-Na Wen (with singing voice by Lea Salonga).

A scene from the 1998 Disney feature “Mulan,” in which the title character was voiced by Ming-Na Wen (with singing voice by Lea Salonga).

Right now Disney and Sony are in the works of making a live-action remake of the beloved film “Mulan.” This film is so important to all of us that have grown up as Asian Americans because the most fundamental element of the film is straying away from traditional constructs. Mulan is all of us who wanted to do the right thing so badly that it meant we would have to disappoint the ones we love the most. Growing up in the Asian American community, we all had those moments when the decision to be who we are was more important what was expected of us, but no matter what, how we were raised will always be a part of us.

It is how close “Mulan” hits home to us that is has inspired more people to start to speak out about how Asians are treated in the industry.

It had surfaced that a spec script of the film would involve a white man double the age of Mulan being the one to teach her to fight and serving as a love interest. From industry members to fans there was outrage, a petition, and dozens of articles that arose expressing the disgust with this spec and the importance of what “Mulan” is and what it should be. This backfire led Disney to promise that there would be no white male love interest and that they are on a global search to find Asian writers, directors, and actors.

For once we got what we wanted and all we had to do was say something. What my grandpa and so many others fear is that if they complain about the racist nature of the role they are in, they won’t get cast and so they’ll never work. It is scary to think that if all Asian Americans started to refuse roles, maybe Asian presence on screen could disappear completely. But from what we have experienced with the live-action “Mulan,” it is obvious that if we all come together to express our concerns that we will see results.

I want to work in an industry where I could see people like me every day as my colleagues. I want to write a character that relates to an audience on a mass scale that happens to be played by an Asian American because that person deserved the part. And if that means that I have to fight every day to up the current percentage is Asians in Hollywood, then I will do it. I will cause disruption and speak my mind.

I am sorry that it goes against how my family raised me, but I want them to see themselves on screen in a way that is true to who they are, not just a monk or a flower shop owner.

Akemi Aiello is a senior at Tisch School of the Arts within New York University. She is majoring in cinema studies with concentration in writing and producing. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

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