It is easy to not notice a lack of representation when almost everyone you see on-screen looks like you. And it is easy to not realize that this is a privilege that not everyone has.
Asian representation in film or TV has always been limited, especially when it comes to East Asians. This is why Sandra Oh’s casting and Golden Globe for her role in Killing Eve may be the start of a big change.
Research has shown that women and men from minority backgrounds are often cast in minor roles, heavily stereotyped and/or depicted in a negative contexts. This is why the Korean actresses’ starring role on Killing Eve, which was complex and free from overused stereotypes, as sad as it is to say, was a unusual casting. For an actor of East Asian descent to play in a major project, their roles are usually riddled with generalizations— take X-Men: Apocalypse's ‘Jubilee’ or ‘Yukio’ in the Marvel Universe. What’s even more shocking is that ‘Killing Eve’ is a British show. By this I mean that the British screen industries are even worse for East Asian diversity in major roles, and the only other example I can think of is Gemma Chan in Humans. Oh being the second ever East Asian person to win a Golden Globe and for such a prominent role acts as a monumental symbol for change within the film and television industries in its commitment to ethnic diversification — of course much credit goes to Oh herself for landing the role.
"diversity is being celebrated and is visible"
Along with the release of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ which was astonishing for being the first Hollywood film to have an all East Asian cast, and not leave out Black Panther here for similar reasons, it is important that we acknowledge these attempts to showcase that that diversity is being celebrated and is visible. Especially when under-representation may lead to more damaging effects on ethnic identity, especially in the westernisation of beauty standards.
For example, the popularity of skin whitening and bleaching products, double eyelid surgery, along with rhinoplasty to achieve a high bridged nose for a more western appearance, in Asia is remarkable. Similarly, the removal of ethnic features for a more eurocentric image is also common in black communities where ‘lighties’ light skinned are considered more attractive.
An even more alarming study finds that it has been repeatedly demonstrated using the ‘doll test’ that when children are presented with a ‘white’ doll and a ‘black’ doll and asked a series of questions, children of all ethnic backgrounds report a preference for lighter skin tones, attributing positive characteristics to the light-skinned doll (e.g. smart, nice, good, pretty) compared with the dark-skinned doll (e.g. dumb, mean, bad, ugly).
Rather than allow Asian actors to accurately represent themselves, the industry would support the adorning of ‘yellow face’.
This is not helped by the prevalence of ‘whitewashing’ (where white actors assume ethnic roles) or ‘yellowface’ (where actors are made to have more asian features) in the industry concerning Scarlett Johansson's role in the adaptation of the Japanese classic Ghost in the Shell. As East Asian actors only make up a tiny fraction of the leading roles in Hollywood, when the chance for an Asian protagonist was passed over, many critics were furious with the whitewashing of the lead role of iconic Japanese character Kusanagi. Rather than allow Asian actors to accurately represent themselves, the industry would support the adorning of ‘yellow face’. This is elaborated further the detailed article by Jenn Fang: ‘Yellowface, Whitewashing, and the History of White People Playing Asian Characters’ which points to the history of whitewashing and prejudice in the film industry against asian actors. In the past Fang points out industry customs and guidelines such as the Hays Code prevented the casting of non-whites in any role where they might be perceived as a love interest of a white actor’s character, and this was used as an excuse in many cases to avoid casting other ethnicities in general.
Given the circumstance— I think it is about time that the screen industries are taking some responsibility by including more diverse public figures for people and more importantly the younger generations to look up to. So to Sandra Oh, and all those who have been changing the industry in their own right, I say thank you and long may it continue.