My first thought about the year just coming to an end is that we lost a lot of important figures related to Asian Americans in the media.
Larry Ramos, leader of ’60s rock group The Association, succumbed to melanoma in April.
James Shigeta, who singlehandedly upheld the notion of the attractive, romantic Asian American male in the late ’50s-early ’60s, passed away in July.
Legendary “American Top 40” disc jockey Casey Kasem, who spoke out at protests supporting MANAA in the ’90s, died in June due to Lewy’s body disease, but his passing was hastened by the crazy antics of his wife Jean, who tried to keep him away from the children from his first marriage, burying him in Norway only this week.
Longtime activist (SAG, AFTRA, Association of Asian Pacific American Artists, Media Image Coalition, and Asian Pacific American Media Coalition) Sumi Haru died from emphysema in October.
In May, Elliot Rodger (half Chinese/half white) killed six in the UC Santa Barbara area and wounded 13 others before shooting himself. In previous video postings, he came across as a spoiled, entitled brat angry at women for not being attracted to him, leaving him a virgin at the age of 22. He was a self-loathing (part) Asian who couldn’t believe full-blooded Asians could snag attractive white women when he couldn’t. Pundits analyzed him for weeks on levels of class and race, including his Asian heritage and the seemingly contradictory concept of white privilege.
One of the highest-grossing movies of the year — “Big Hero 6” — featured three Asian American voice actors in Ryan Potter, Daniel Henney and Jamie Chung, but there was grumbling in some quarters that the Japanese ethnicity of the characters was downplayed. Robert Lopez, who’s part Filipino, won the “Best Song” Oscar for co-writing Frozen’s “Let It Go.”
The big news was in television. This fall, CBS debuted “Stalker” starring Dylan McDermott and Maggie Q (who initially appeared to be the real star of the show and only due to a technicality is listed second in the credits) on top of Lucy Liu returning as the co-star of “Elementary” for its third year. Mindy Kaling continued to star in “The Mindy Project” for its third season on Fox. ABC cast John Cho as the romantic lead to Karen Gillan in the sitcom “Selfie” and greenlit the first Asian American sitcom in 20 years — “Fresh Off the Boat” — which will premiere in February.
At least on paper, as far as prominent Asian American regulars on network television is concerned, this was probably the best television season ever. Unfortunately, TBS’ “Sullivan and Son” starring Irish/Korean American Steve Byrne was cancelled after three seasons.
In what should’ve been euphoric news, Jeremy Lin joined the L.A. Lakers … and continued to not make headlines for his playing. “Linsanity,” sadly, seems so 2012.
Here, in roughly chronological order, is my take on some of the significant people, television shows, movies, and events that impacted Asian Americans in 2014.
January: Bachi ga Ataru! Award to the U.S. Figure Skating Association for making the unusual decision to choose Ashley Wagner over Mirai Nagasu to represent the U.S. in the Winter Olympics even though the former came in fourth at nationals and the latter, third. Cynics assumed that NBC exerted influence over the decision since the network had already been using the blonde extensively in promotions leading up to the games. In the end, Wagner placed seventh and for the first time in decades, the U.S. Women’s Figure Skating Team failed to medal in two consecutive Olympic figure skating competitions.
Tommy Award to those who asserted the cast of “How I Met Your Mother” donned yellowface to portray Chinese characters. Some in the press even reported the actors spoke with Asian accents. They did not. And dressing up in Chinese clothing but not using make-up to imitate Asian-shaped eyes is not yellowface. Are you really deaf and blind?
March: Not Ready for Primetime Award to Suey Park for her petulant, childish “you hurt my feelings and I’m a woman and you’re a white man and how dare you dismiss my opinion!” performance on HuffPostLive while debating Stephen Colbert’s use of “Chinaman” on his mock-conservative news show “The Colbert Report.” She spent more time being offended by interviewer Josh Zepp than discussing the controversy. Park knew how to use Twitter to get attention; she should spend more attention on not coming off as an annoying little twit.
May: Visionary Award to ABC President Paul Lee and his development executives for the most meaningfully racially diverse schedule in memory. Not only did he pick up new shows centering on black, Latino, and Asian families, but the programs also make use of their actors’ ethnicity to address racial issues. While other networks pride themselves on creating characters who “just happen to be” Asian, black, or Latino, ABC takes advantage of the fact that they’re people of color and shows us what it’s like to be in their shoes.
So far, the network has been rewarded — except for “Selfie,” all of these shows have earned a full-season order. Lee and his team have shown us the wave of the future. It’s one that must continue to build and not crash, and other networks must ride the surge.
July: What Were You Thinking? Award to HBO for deciding to air the offensive “Jonah From Tonga” starring 39-year-old Australian Chris Lilley in brownface make-up playing 14-year-old juvenile delinquent Jonah Takalua despite bottom-basement ratings in Australia and outcries from MANAA and the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition. The cable outlet deservedly got the same response from U.S. audiences but managed to offend a minority within the API community that lacked a high profile in the first place, only to be “put on the map” with this degenerate caricature.
Foot-in-Mouth Disease Award to Bob Beckel, a panelist for the Fox News show “The Five,” for referring to the Chinese as “a bunch of Chinamen.” In 2011 while defending his use of the term “redneck,” he included “Chinamen” on his list of people who could be rednecks. In 2013, he reported that after going swimming, “my eyes blew up, and it made me look Oriental.” Reportedly, Beckel had previously asserted that “Chinaman” was not a racial slur. Elected officials repeatedly called for the so-called liberal to be fired — not just for ignorant racial comments but sexual ones as well — but this is Fox News. You expect standards?
August: Flaky Friends Award to George Takei’s supposed large following on Facebook and Twitter, a large percentage of whom apparently couldn’t get away from their hand-held devices and computers long enough to actually pay money to see the documentary on his life, “To Be Takei.” It played in only two theaters in Southern California, left after a week, and a week later, was available in one sole theater in the entire country. Despite getting a 91% positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com, the film grossed a pathetic $51,481.
September: Foot-in-Mouth Disease II Award to “Cashin’ In” Fox News commentator Jonathan Hoenig for reasoning the U.S. should’ve used profiling after 9/11 because “the last war this country won, we put Japanese Americans in internment camps, we dropped nuclear bombs on residential city centers… it’s not on skin color, however, it’s on ideology.” Though Hoenig later apologized, saying the camps were wrong, he continued to push for profiling, still not understanding that Japanese Americans never fit the “profile” nor ideology in the first place and should not have been used in his example of why the U.S. won the war against Japan.
Same Excuse/Different Color Award to Shonda Rhimes for neglecting to use Asian Americans prominently in her various series other than Sandra Oh in “Grey’s Anatomy.” When Oh left at the end of last season, the Seattle hospital was left with no Asian American regulars but blacks in every single scene. Is this Seattle or South Central? Her tired excuse of “we just look for the best actor for the role” is clearly bullsh*t. That’s what white producers usually say to justify all-white casts. She just flipped the color.
The Kurt Cobain School of Speaking Graduate Award to Jadyn Wong for being unintelligible in almost everything she utters in the CBS drama “Scorpion.” The late Nirvana singer sounded like he had marbles in his mouth while singing; Wong’s speech is likewise garbled — as if she’s chewing her mouth — making the show unwatchable.
November: Spirit Award to hardcore fans of ABC’s “Selfie,” including Erika Lawson (who started a change.org petition to save the series), Heather Johnson (who stayed up all night tweeting and re-tweeting to ensure #SaveSelfie would “trend” in Southern California), and J.J. Delacruz (who listed the sponsors of the show on his website so activists could contact them and ask that they give the sitcom a chance to grow its audience).
The international online (and later phone call) movement targeted ABC (to keep it on the air), then Warner Brothers Television (when ABC canceled the show, to shop it to another network), then hulu.com (which ran the remaining unaired episodes) to pick up the program for a second season. An ABC executive told me the number of views on Hulu has been noteworthy, so the campaign has been working. Is it enough to hope for life after cancellation?
Vanguard Award to Emily Kapnek, the creator of “Selfie,” for casting John Cho as the romantic lead and making him the object of desire of at least four women, promoting the (unheard of!) notion that Asian American men can be attractive to women of all races. It was the kind of scenario media-watchers had long asked Hollywood for to counteract decades of shameful treatment in the media. Kapnek more than delivered in a funny and often warm-hearted show that reminded us that everyone has shortcomings and we need each other to help make us better people.
White Privilege Poster Boy Award to Mark Wahlberg, the former rapper and current actor and burger mogul who wants to be pardoned for past hate crimes — including beating two Vietnamese American men and yelling racial slurs at them — so he’ll be able to get his concessionaire’s license to open more Wahlburger chains across the continent. He only served 45 days for the crimes — something minority felons would’ve been grateful to get. Now he wants to pretend they never happened. Wahlberg, who’s worth $200 million, still hasn’t made a face-to-face apology to his victims nor offered monetary compensation.
General: P.W. Botha Award to “Hawaii Five-O” showrunner Peter Lenkov for continuing an apartheid-like system on the show where whites (who make up 30% of Hawaii’s population) and blacks (3%) are cast as authoritarian figures and the majority race — Asian/Pacific Islanders (60%)—are usually used as suspects and villains. Even recently added regular Chi McBride (black) has more screen time than Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park, and Masi Oka — but that’s been true with a long array of white recurring guest stars since Season 1. As Botha was eventually replaced by more open-minded leaders, those like Lenkov will fall by the wayside and be regarded as part of the ignorant past that kept people of color down and society from progressing. In the meantime we can kind of feel sorry for those who apparently are threatened by our success.
Thank you for supporting this column, now nearing its 23rd anniversary (!). If you’re interested in getting involved in changing the way Asian Americans are portrayed in the media, you’re welcome to attend monthly meetings of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), which are held on the third Thursday of each month in Chinatown. Call (213) 486-4433 for more info or email [email protected]
’Til next time, Happy New Year and 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.