Hsu: Breaking the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’

by Caroline Hsu | 11/16/14 6:18pm

“Fresh off the Boat,” an upcoming ABC comedy series, is a refreshingly genuine, multi-dimensional look at Asian Americans in everyday life. Although this show might be an anomaly amid a sea of stereotypes, it is nonetheless a huge step forward. Asian Americans have long been neglected by mainstream media, and when there is attention, it is normally a stereotype. Hollywood’s “bamboo ceiling” has resulted in characters like the blatantly emasculated Mr. Chow from “The Hangover” (2009) and the oft-ignored, silent Lilly from “Pitch Perfect” (2012). A 2008 report from the Screen Actors Guild revealed that less than 4 percent of Asian Americans were cast in television and theatrical roles in 2007 and 2008.

Given that Asian Americans already have minimal representation in the media, the harm done by negative stereotypes — the nerdy Asian guy, the submissive geisha girl, the model minority — is even more accentuated. In recent years, however, many young Asian Americans have taken the lead by using the Internet to show a long unseen side of themselves. This increase in Asian American presence in online media is a crucial step toward improving this long-entrenched cultural stigma.

From beauty guru Michelle Phan to YouTube comedian Ryan Higa, this recent flood of online media starring and produced by Asian Americans is a response to a severe case of underrepresentation in mainstream media. Through web series and YouTube videos, the new generation of young Asian Americans, itching to show the world that they are more than just manifestations of stereotypes, can share its voice. Phan started out with beauty tutorial videos and has since founded her own successful company. Wong Fu Productions, initially a group of guys having fun with a camcorder, has since produced independent films and collaborated with well-known actors.

These entrepreneurial artists serve as role models for young Asian Americans hungry for more diverse media representation. Asian-American kids are not satisfied with the stereotypes that Hollywood churns out. Mr. Chong just isn’t going to cut it. New, unconventional forms of media are free from the societal pressures that Hollywood faces, and thus allow Asian Americans to finally take the lead role.

While mainstream media must keep the public’s interests and cultural expectations in mind, online media can make giant strides because of its inherently democratized nature. After all, everyone and anyone can use the Internet. And according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, Asian Americans use the Internet more frequently than any other racial group. Nowadays, people can easily record and share a YouTube video, which can reach millions. The documentary “Uploaded: The Asian American Movement” discusses how new forms of media are helping young Asian Americans find their voices.

Hollywood reflects the public’s cultural beliefs and expectations. Its only goal is to make as much money as possible by showing people what they are comfortable with and what they are accustomed to seeing. Having an Asian American play the lead role in a non-Kung Fu movie would be much too revolutionary. American audiences want to see Indiana Jones, not Short Round, fighting off bad guys. However, Asian American presence in online media is starting to pave the way for more meaningful representation in mainstream media. Phan has countless devoted fans, both on and off YouTube, and Wong Fu Productions has more than one million subscribers. By proving to Hollywood that Asian Americans in the media can garner interest and profit, these Internet stars are making a huge statement. Slowly but surely, pop culture is opening its gates to Asian Americans.

Although we have come a long way since “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), in which the Caucasian actor Mickey Rooney played a thickly accented Japanese American, a long road still lies ahead. Thanks to the Internet, we now have a shot at shattering the “bamboo ceiling” long perpetuated by Hollywood and the like.