By Stella Heo, Staff Writer
// God help the Asian kid who announces that he or she wants to be an actor. Asian parents generally prefer that their children pursue “stable” STEM careers, and this preference influences the pervasive underrepresentation of Asians in the film industry. However, a new wave of Asian representation ushered in by “Crazy Rich Asians” is crashing upon mainstream western media. One actress, in particular, is paving the road for future generations.
After the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018, Nora Lum, popularly known as Awkwafina, skyrocketed to fame, breaking barriers and stereotypes for Asian women across the world.
Many Asian parents push their Asian children to pursue steady jobs and thus dismiss acting careers. Although this means the current small pool of Asian actors actually translates to a higher opportunity to be chosen as an Asian character, there is not much Asian representation in movies and T.V. shows. According to a study conducted by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2017, Asians are one of the most underrepresented groups in Hollywood, making up a mere 3.4 percent of roles in films.
“I think it is mostly like this because producers or directors of the film are often not Asian themselves, thus leaning towards someone they relate to more — usually both parties are white,” sophomore Sylvia Deng said.
Before “Crazy Rich Asians”, the last major Hollywood film with a majority Asian cast that takes place in the present-day was 25 years ago: “Joy Luck Club.”
When Asians do make appearances in movies and television shows, they often portray “smart” characters, such as doctors and lawyers. With the continual depiction of Asians in these roles, the stereotype is only becoming worse.
“Many Asians are also seen as nerds for being smart and getting good grades, hoping to be a doctor or engineer in the future,” Deng said.
Breaking that mold is Awkafina. Daughter of a Chinese American father and South Korean mother, she was inspired by the lack of Asian representation in the media and in films. She is featured in hit movies, including as the crazy friend Peik Lin Goh in “Crazy Rich Asians” and the main character Billi in “The Farewell.”
Goh is a wild, rambunctious character who is direct, always speaking what is on her mind. Unlike the stereotype for Asians, she is a high-spirited and sometimes reckless partier. Goh’s outgoing personality is similar to Awkwafina’s true personality.
A stark contrast from a doctor or a quiet lawyer, audiences often remember Awkwafina for her loud personality as well as her unique, raspy voice.
“Her voice is her trademark because as soon as you hear that voice, you know that it’s her,” sophomore Ben Anderson said.
Because of her outgoing and bold personality, the characters she portrays are often extroverted and confident. However, Awkwafina has also played characters who are more shy and vulnerable.
In her 2019 film “The Farewell”, Awkwafina portrays Billi, an Asian American outsider who makes her way through China and figures out what to do after her Chinese grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This story hits close to home for Awkwafina because she was raised by her grandmother after her mother died when Awkwafina was four years old.
Awkwafina’s lead role in “The Farewell” exemplifies her status as a trailblazer for future Asian women in Hollywood.
“She really is a pioneer. [The Farewell] was predominantly all Asian and Asian culture, so I think she’s doing pretty well, and that was a really good movie. I cried,” sophomore Samantha Louie said.
Her efforts to break Asian stereotypes through her roles have not gone unnoticed; the awards she won are breaking the standard of white actors and actresses dominating film awards.
Despite her success now with her own television show on Comedy Central called “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens” and more upcoming movies, according to the Washington Post, her father did not believe that she would do well in the industry. While this may seem harsh, his opinion reinforces the fact that Asians are underrepresented in the film industry.
“We often don’t see Asian actors or actresses in popular movies. Up until recently, there were almost no Asian actors or actresses playing major roles in American films,” Deng said. “With the black representation movements, there has been more incorporation of African-American representation in films. I believe a similar thing is happening through the media now but with Asians.”
As a Korean American, I believe Awkwafina is doing a fantastic job breaking the stereotype of Asians having to be smart and working towards a STEM field. Her outgoing and energetic personality gives more life to her characters in contrast to other nerdy and almost robotic Asian characters.
Asian representation shouldn’t stop with Awkwafina and the movie “Parasite”, which won four Oscars. I want to see an industry where all racial groups are represented, not as a character representing their stereotype, but as a normal human being with a normal life.