Chloé Zhao Is Making History. But Hollywood Is Still a Nightmare for Asian Women.
‘Nomadland’ director Chloé Zhao may become the first Asian woman to win the Best Director Oscar. But Hollywood has a long way to go when it comes to its treatment of Asian women.
“I want more stories of women who try hard to raise their voices, but are shut down by society,” says Vietnamese American memoirist Le Ly Hayslip from her home near San Diego.
One of Hayslip’s books became a benchmark film by Oliver Stone called Heaven and Earth. While we’ve had 184 “Vietnam War movies,” most all of these have been from the point of view of the soldiers who fought there. Only one Hollywood Vietnam War movie centers a Vietnamese woman—the one based on her life.
On March 16, 2021, a gunman murdered six Asian American women in Georgia. In its wake, those who have punched down on Asians for decades, like comedian Jay Leno, have suddenly issued public mea culpas. But nothing will change until AAPI women’s stories are funded and produced. That horrible mid-March show of brutality, on the anniversary of the My Lai Massacre (the slaughtering of elders, women and children during the American War in Vietnam), has brought attention to the over-sexualization and erasure of AAPI women by Tinseltown.
When speaking of Asian-diaspora or Asian American women, we must make the distinction between those of East Asian descent (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) and Southeast Asian roots (Vietnamese, Laotian, Filipino, Indonesian, Malaysian, Hmong, Cambodian, Thai and more), or as comedian Ali Wong put it in one of her stand-up comedy specials: “fancy Asians” and “jungle Asians.” Southeast Asians are more discriminated against by other Asians and less visible in American culture and media that gets exported around the globe, as are their South Asian (Indian, Pakistani and others) counterparts.
When I brought up Le Ly and the upcoming 30-year anniversary of Heaven and Earth to two female AAPI “diversity leaders” in Hollywood, they replied, “Who’s that, some washed-up actress?” This is why we can’t have nice things. With few exceptions (see: Crazy Rich Asians), Asians in Hollywood have had to make do with crumbs in the form of minor characters written by non-AAPI in films or episodic television.
It’s been nearly three decades without another story about a Vietnamese American woman from mainstream Hollywood. And next up is a Vietnam War movie about a “beer run” starring Zac Efron from the guys who brought us Green Book (really). I wonder how many “me love you long time” jokes will be in this bro-y “comedy” about a devastating war.
Adele Free Pham, director of the PBS documentary Nailed It—about Vietnamese women who came to the U.S. and revolutionized the nail salon industry—believes we haven’t seen another Vietnamese working-class woman centered in a film “because they don’t care about us. We fit a certain trope that they’re fine with. We’re the ones who have to say, that’s not who we are.”
When the Oscar nominations came out in mid-March, The Wrap branded it “#OscarsSoDiverse”—a supposed reversal of the popular hashtag #OscarsSoWhite that has circulated for years to call out the Academy’s glaring lack of inclusion. But the battle is far from over. Filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who is Chinese, is the first woman of color to be nominated for Best Director in the entire 93-year history of the Academy Awards for her film Nomadland, about white migrant laborers. She was also the first woman of color to win Best Director at the Golden Globes.
Andrew Ahn, director of the award-winning Spa Night and Driveways, starring Golden-Globe nominated actress Hong Chau, has ideas on how to reform Hollywood and center Asian American women once in a while, instead of leaving them sidelined.
“Like many Asian American filmmakers, I feel optimistic about our work as a community because of Chloe’s success with Nomadland,” he offers. “At the same time, it’s difficult for me to celebrate the Golden Globes win because of the fact that there are no Black members in the HFPA. This is the insidiousness of white supremacy in this industry.”
On making the lead of his last feature a Southeast Asian American woman, Andrew explains, “When I read the script for Driveways, the role of Kathy was written as ‘open ethnicity.’ I think many directors would have read the script and assumed she was a white character. It may be a bit reductive to say this, but because I’m Asian American, I saw her as Asian American. I’ve pitched to producers on other projects, ‘What if we make these characters Asian?’ and it’s never worked. I pitched this to Driveways producers Joe Pirro and James Schamus and they thought it was a great idea. Selfishly, I also just wanted to work with Hong Chau! I saw her in Treme and thought she was so great, so soulful. I knew that she could bring the right mix of tough and vulnerable to the role of Kathy.”
Andrew thinks that mentoring is key to leveling the playing field for AAPI women creators in the film and television industries. According to Cheryl Bedford, co-founder and leader of Women of Color Unite and #StartWith8Hollywood (of which I am a co-founder), a global initiative that matches women of color above and below the line with A-list mentors, due to existing power structures in Hollywood, women of color like Zhao are better equipped to craft stories about white people than the other way around.
“It’s because marginalized people have to know about all about those in power to exist. It isn’t that the entertainment industry needs to have a couple of marginalized folks in the writer’s room or one director or producer, etc. It should be the other way around,” she maintains. “All marginalized people can write for those in power, but the opposite isn’t true.”
Dr. Vincent N. Pham, who teaches in the Civic Communication and Media Department at Willamette University, is worried that when Asian storytellers make films that center white stories, like Zhao or Ang Lee, they’re taken more seriously than those who make movies with Asian/Asian diaspora characters and actors. “I also think it’ll remind people that Asian/Asian-American women are behind the camera,” he says. “That they make great movies—narrative, documentary, and in-between—and that they have the capacity to do so.”
After nearly a century, Chinese American actress Anna May Wong still stands as an example of how AAPI women are screwed over by Hollywood. The film studio MGM refused to so much as audition her for the role of a Chinese woman in 1937’s The Good Earth, instead opting for Luise Rainer, a white actress in yellowface. Rainer would go on to win the Best Actress Oscar for the role.
Of course, Hollywood’s preference for white actresses in yellowface over Asian actresses has continued to this day. Who can forget Emma Stone as Allison Ng in 2015’s Aloha, Tilda Swinton in 2016’s Doctor Strange, or Scarlett Johansson in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell (all directed by white men). It’s not only racist erasure but also looks absolutely ridiculous.
The insults don’t end there. From Crazy Rich Asians writer Adele Lim reportedly being offered 90 percent less pay than her white male co-writer to Kelly Marie Tran being relentlessly harassed online for being the first woman of color Star Wars character, Asian American women have been discounted and insulted even when they make it to “the top” in massive studio movies.
So, what of the next generation of Asian American women? The Cameron sisters are from Seattle, Washington, a far cry from Los Angeles and the blinding glare of Hollywood. They’re half-Black and half-Filipino. Ginger, who is 14, says that Chloé Zhao winning at the Globes was inspiring because she also hopes to be a writer and actor. Ginger’s active in the theater at her school, even though she says most of the plays she acts in “are written by old white guys.” Her younger sister Pepper, 10, says that because she is more noticeably Asian than her sister, she’s been on the receiving end of more bullying since the pandemic began, due to the anti-Asian racism that’s been circulating. But she’s “glad that an Asian woman was being put out there and looked up to.”
But when it comes to improving the representation (and portrayal) of AAPI women in Hollywood, filmmaker Adele Free Pham has two words of advice: “Pay us.”