Friday, February 27, 2009

Asian Americans on “The L Word”

As a huge fan of the lesbian melodrama “The L Word,” I’ve been keeping my eye out for Asian Americans since the show began. Despite a petition last fall to see more LGBT Asian Americans on the show, it seems that the best we can hope for are mixed race Asians, or Asians playing other races. In looking back at past seasons, there are actually quite a few instances of this. Unfortunately, in the case of mixed race characters, their Asian American identity is never mentioned. This is particularly disappointing given the sensitivity that the show has given to the issue of Bette’s biraciality, which has resulted in one of the best portrayals of mixed race identity we've seen. It’s also clear that Asian American women can only stand in as brief love interests, and then they disappear forever.

Sandrine Holt as Helena’s love interest in season four. They have a weird relationship where Catherine seduces Helena into her high-stakes gambling career. Holt is half-Chinese, half-French.

This season’s hapa star—Mei Melancon as Jamie Chen, Alice and Tasha’s third wheel crush. Jamie is Chinese, Japanese and French. With the character’s last name “Chen,” Melancon is officially the first character to be actually noted as being of Asian heritage. We’ll see if this ever comes up in the plot.

Last but not least, it must be mentioned that Shane’s beautiful ex-fiancee Carmen was played by Sarah Shahi, who is Persian, and Janina Gavankar as the notorious Papi is Indian and Dutch. However, both roles are decidedly Latina.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Oscar night!

The new face of America's global cinema.

The Academy Awards aren't generally a big night for Asian Americans -- after all, there haven't been many noteworthy Asian American wins, and little recognition given overall within the community. This year, with the dominance of Slumdog Millionaire, it was exciting to see Asian faces light up the screen. Despite the fact that the movie can hardly be considered "Asian American," given its British crew and Indian locale, we're crossing our fingers that its impact will nevertheless be felt throughout the Asian American entertainment world.

Some of the major arguments used by studios against casting Asian Americans in lead roles is that they are unheard of, or that mainstream audiences won't come to see Asian actors. While we strongly disagree with the implication that Asian Americans aren't part of "mainstream audiences", or that there aren't enough Asian Americans going to movie theaters to warrant Asian American faces or narratives (um, hello, the spending power of Asian Americans is predicted to be $528 billion this you think they don't spend that on media?), we now have a terrific counterargument for both claims. Slumdog has shown that mainstream audiences will devotedly pour into the theaters to see actors they have never heard of, and stories that take place a world away. As long as the storytelling is strong and the narrative is compelling, there is always room to expand our image of what an actor, or a mainstream film, should look like.

While the film is still potentially problematic for its glorification of third-world poverty and what may or may not be exploitation of its child actors, we gleefully applaud the recognition of a film that opens our doors to a new idea of what American cinema could be.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

interview with Asian American Oscar nominee

MANAA member Lori Kido Lopez recently had the opportunity to interview Oscar nominee Steven Okazaki, who is up for short documentary yet again this year. One of the topics that came up was the absence of Asian Americans at these award shows -- a topic that MANAA cares about a lot! Here's an excerpt from the interview:

LKL: Big award shows like these are starting to recognize more African American filmmakers and performers, do you ever look around and wonder where the other Asian Americans are, or when their work is going to be recognized?

Okazaki: Well, I just won an Emmy a couple of months ago and the guy who handed the award to me was the actor on Heroes, and so I said, the first thing I said when I got up on stage was something like, wow, two Asian Americans on stage at one time. That doesn’t happen. When you said there were a lot of Asian Americans [nominated for Academy Awards], I seems like there should be a lot more. I think that Asian Americans are still really pigeon-holed, particularly the actors. I think the directors and producers are as well. I think I’m lucky, I work with HBO and they, I’m an independent filmmaker but I work with HBO a lot, and they don’t see me as an Asian American filmmaker, they see me as a filmmaker. Where I worked previously there were certain, you should only do Asian American subjects, and your opportunities are really limited. Obviously the actors suffer most for that. There are these tiny little breakthroughs, usually those are like one part in a motion picture or television season. I think it’s still rather dismal compared to what an important part Asian Americans play in our society and in our culture in general.

LKL: You’ve made a lot of movies about Japanese Americans and their stories. Do you think you’re done with making movies about Japanese Americans?

Okazaki: No I don’t think so. I think that I actually haven’t made that many about Japanese Americans, I’ve just made like two out of 20 films. I think that I wanted to explore different subjects from my own creative range, but I do see myself as Asian American filmmaker. I do think telling Asian American stories is important and a fulfilling thing for me. It’s not necessarily a mission or a chore, I find it a really fulfilling thing to connect. And making documentaries gives you an opportunity to dig really deep, deeper than if you were just having a conversation with someone, it gives you license. There were Japanese American subjects, sure, I think at the same time I really think it’s bad enough that people try to limit you because of what you are, so at the same time I want to open up those possibilities as well in terms of the kinds of things I can do. I’ve tried to do a range of documentaries and mess around with narrative films and thing. For me the biggest danger is being bracketed as one thing, or being limited to do only one kind of film or genre. That’s what I’ve tried to put my energy into. To fully express myself as a filmmaker. But I’m hoping to do other things related to the Asian American community. We’re working on things now, and I’m hoping to do things totally unrelated, things relevant and irrelevant as possible.

To read the whole interview, check out VC Online

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Letter to the producer of The Last Airbender

Lots of people have contacted MANAA about the casting of the movie "The Last Airbender." As a group we've discussed what the best way to join in these efforts. What follows below is a letter that MANAA sent to Paramount.

This issue is not over. Stay tuned for more.

February 11, 2009

Dear Mr. Mercer:

I left two messages with you—one with your assistant Ricky on Monday and another with Lauren yesterday. I’m writing on behalf of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), which is dedicated to monitoring the media and advocating for balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans. Since 1992, we have consulted with movie studios and met regularly with the top four television networks about ensuring diversity.

We would like Avatar: The Last Airbender to become a successful movie trilogy. However, given the recent outcry over the lack of Asian/Asian American actors in the lead roles, we fear bad word of mouth may doom the first film before it gets off the ground and stop the potential franchise dead in its tracks. Indeed, the outrage over its casting has been greater than anything we’ve witnessed in the last several years. On Entertainment Weekly’s website alone, there are 78 pages of comments from people who feel a strong emotional connection with Avatar, and most of their responses are strongly negative with many threatening to boycott the film.

Surely you have already seen or at least heard some of these concerns. While the show Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko created was a great success in creating a fantasy world inspired heavily by Asian and Inuit elements, M. Night Shyamalan chose Caucasian actors to play all four main characters. Recently, Prince Zuko’s character went to an actor of Asian descent, but otherwise, the only Asian presence in the film is in the sets and background characters.

Compared to other shows, including many anime imports, Avatar: The Last Airbender was unique because it was created for an American audience yet used Asian faces for its main characters. We appreciated that the Nickelodeon series (with the help of Asian American consultants) was intelligent enough to avoid using many of the common Asian stereotypes—both positive and negative--often seen in the media, and that it even made strides in casting Asian American voice talent.

The Asian American community, and the movie-going public at large, is used to seeing Asian men depicted as villains and rarely get the opportunity to see Asian heroes they can get behind and cheer for. This is also an historic opportunity to give Asian American actors a chance to shine in a big-budget film franchise which would bolster their careers for future projects. You will get deserved credit for launching those careers and can break down barriers by understanding that the audience that loved the television series is ready (and expects) to see Asian Americans playing those characters on the big screen.

One of the reasons the Avatar television series was so well-received was that our former Vice President, Edwin Zane, served as its cultural consultant for the first two seasons and helped the producers avoid ethnic missteps. Likewise, please take advantage of us as a resource. We invite you to dialogue with us about the film so that it can really be something fans of the show (and potentially new future fans of the movie) can get excited about. I can be reached at [number removed] or [email removed].


Guy Aoki
Founding President, MANAA

Mike DiMartino
Bryan Konietzko
Dan Martinsen, EVP corporate communications, Nickelodeon
Jenna Lutrell, executive in charge of production, Nickelodeon

Friday, February 06, 2009

Miley Cyrus claims pictures are just "goofy"

Although we would prefer for the private lives of celebrities to remain private, the latest photograph of Miley Cyrus caught our attention. We are saddened by the picture of Cyrus and her friends squinting and making slant eye poses for the camera. As young people, maybe they thought it was merely funny, but whether they realized it or not such gestures are commonly used to mock Asians and Asian Americans.

We are also surprised to see this group of teenagers repeating the mistakes of the Spanish basketball team, which was criticized for making the same gesture in an pre-Olympics ad campaign. Their “slit-eyed” pose showed a lack of respect for their Chinese hosts, and brought the heated issue of racially pejorative poses into the spotlight.

Cyrus and her friends seem oblivious to this controversy. As her recent apology on her fansite states, "I’ve also been told there are some people upset about some pictures taken of me with friends making goofy faces! Well, Im sorry if those people looked at those pics and took them wrong and out of context! In NO way was I making fun of any ethnicity!" We're left asking, what is the context that excuses offending your fans? Setting aside for a moment the question of what were you thinking, the problem is what you were physically doing. In case you didn’t know, pulling slanted eyes is offensive and demeaning to Asians and Asian Americans. (And no, having an Asian friend in the picture does not automatically make it OK!)

We wish that we could put this incident behind us and simply use it as a lesson about the unfortunate impact that private gestures can have on public audiences. Had this been an average group of party people on some college student’s Facebook, few would have noticed. But this is a world-famous celebrity with millions of fans.

Maybe if some of Miley Cyrus’s young fans wrote to her, at a real and personal level, about how much it hurts to get teased like this, then she and her friends will get why people are upset with the picture and not satisfied with the apology.