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Wang Leehom, set to star in The Annihilator

The Rise of Asian Representation in Popular Media

Growing up, as an Asian-American girl, it was (and still is, but considerably less – call it progress) uncommon to see people who looked like me represented in the media. Besides London Tipton on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and Jackie Chan, there were next to no Asians at all in the TV shows I watched, books I read, and images I viewed, not counting those in minor, unspeaking background roles or just plain ethnic caricatures solely presented for comedic relief. However, things seem to be changing for the better.

As I walked down the streets of San Francisco the other day, an ad of the Chinese model Liu Wen for Tiffany & Co caught my eye. As the first Asian face for Estée Lauder, one of the current faces of H&M, as well as being the first Chinese model to walk for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show – and doing so for four years in a row, she seems to be everywhere these days. It’s no wonder that she’s currently the top 5th fashion model in the world, according to the Top 50 list at Models.com. When I went past Prada, not even bothering to stop since I couldn’t afford to even look at anything from such a distinguished designer brand, the latest campaign for Fall/Winter 2013 looked unextraordinary to me, besides the fact that the Chinese model Fei Fei Sun was featured in it, notable because Prada’s models are usually almost exclusively white. She’s also in Models.com’s Top 50 – the 14th, actually. As a matter of fact, out of all the models on the list, 16% percent are of Asian descent. Three of them were cast in Dsquared2’s Fall/Winter 2013 campaign, a campaign in which all five of the female models featured were Asian. I like to think that this expresses to the many young Asian girls growing up in the West who wish in vain to somehow possess blonde hair and double-lidded blue eyes (an unfortunate side effect of growing up almost never seeing Asian faces presented in a positive light) – attention, surprise, Asians can be beautiful. Chin up.

The fashion industry is not the only one experiencing a jump in Asian representatives. Behold the entertainment industry, which has been no friend to any person of color throughout extensive history. Lately, though, it appears that the industry has made an effort to move beyond these offenses. I recently had the pleasure of watching the movie Pacific Rim directed by Guillermo del Toro, in which Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi plays Mako Mori, an orphaned girl-turned fighter and Jaeger (German for “hunter”) pilot. Moreover, in the TV series Elementary, which is a twist on the classic detective series Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lucy Liu plays a gender-and-race-bent version of Sherlock’s trusty companion, Dr. John – or in this case – Joan Watson. Unlike the one-dimensional, subservient, trophy wife-esque way the entertainment industry has regrettably tended to portray Asian women in the past, Kikuchi and Liu’s characters, as central characters of each respective film or show, have been explored thoroughly, given complex backstories and much character development. And let’s not forget about the men, who have been frequent victims of the token nerdy, heavily accented trope usually given about five lines tops. Just one of the many newfound roles for Asian men that aren’t that dreaded trope include Taiwanese-American actor and singer Leehom Wang set to star as Ming, the titular role of Marvel’s upcoming superhero film, The Annihilator. You read that correctly – an Asian actor starring in a mainstream American action movie – not just as a silent, ninja-like sidekick or villain. And coming from a franchise whose casts (never mind titular character) are often nearly completely exempt from people of color, this is huge.

So, what’s the reason for the sudden rise in Asian representation of late? Maybe the media is simply finally embracing human diversity. Maybe they’ve realized that, as long as Asia is steadily gaining global power, that’ll be where the money is. Maybe it’s finally occurred to them that Asians have talents and unique characteristics outside the nerdy stereotype, and the usual inadequate representation we receive isn’t going to cut it. But whatever the reason, I’m not complaining – it sure is refreshing to see people like myself on TV, magazines, storefronts, and the big screen, etc. Whatever it is that you’re doing, media, please keep doing it.

About Jerry Xu

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