Entertainment and my experiences as an Asian-American drama major

Marc Manaloto

Growing up, all the faces on my television and movie screens blended together to form a sea of white-flooded monitors, feeding me nothing but a false societal beauty standard and a misconception of what my culturally white-dominated daily life should be like. More importantly, I was exposed to the truth about who could and couldn’t make it in the entertainment industry. A part of me always believed that I would be the first Filipino-American to join the ranks of those A-list celebrities, the Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies. However, as years and years went by with little to no Asian faces appearing in the spotlight, I couldn’t help but doubt my own aspirations. Sure, Asian-American appearances as extras on a primetime TV show or major motion pictures felt (and feel) like victories for the Asian community. However, these minor roles still usually followed dehumanizing Asian stereotypes. Waiting for more Asian faces to populate the TV shows and movies I watched grew irritating and, later, unbearable.

Everything changed last summer, when the film industry finally opened their eyes to the world of Asian-America. Films like Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before gave way to a rare phenomenon in entertainment: Asian people being humans first, cultural identities second.  After years of being forced to connect and empathize with the same white faces over and over again, being able to witness Asian people experience emotions, live normal human lives, and face quotidian hardships without being placed into stereotypes was an exhilarating experience.  

I started acting in 6th grade when I auditioned for a local production of Hairspray. The show itself dealt with the civil rights movement and the segregation of Baltimore’s entertainment industry. I was cast as part of the white ensemble. It was my first realization that skin color was unavoidable when entering the entertainment industry, especially when partaking in a show which centers a discussion of race. Being categorically framed within a white America against my own cultural upbringing opened my eyes to the complications of being Asian in the acting industry. In my senior year of high school, I was cast as the chief of an indigenous tribe in a production of Peter and the Starcatcher. I didn’t want myself to be represented in this light, but I also felt that I had no choice but to accept. I felt stuck.

As I dive deeper into the world of acting as a drama major, I run into issues while selecting material to work on for my scenes. It’s difficult to find plays that I can both authentically connect to and contextually fit in. My accumulating frustrations only grow fiercer. These issues are emblematic of my larger struggle: When will my talent take precedence over my appearance? Why has it taken so long for this recent interest to be drummed up? Why did I have to feel the limitations of my skin color while pursuing my dreams in the first place?

Sure, the recent burst of Asian-American visibility is a net-positive for Asian-Americans, but it is merely reflective of what should be normalized for American audiences. Movies have included elements of Asian culture in their narratives. However, white-washing and yellow-facing are often tied to the incorporation of Asian-American characters because of  a cultural inability to appropriately handle such material. In movies such as Aloha, Dr. Strange, 21 and live-action adaptations of popular Japanese animated titles including Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, and Dragonball: Evolution, we see white actors step into roles written for Asian-Americans and in the process deflate and flatten characters whose depth is tied to identity. It’s not something new, and it’s humiliating: it implies that Asians are incapable of playing themselves, depriving us of our right to self-representation.

I know that we are powerful. And I want the rest of America to know that too. I want to see an Asian person as a superhero, and not just “Asian Hulk.” I want to see an Asian man as a dashing romantic lead, something that hasn’t really been seen since Sessue Hayakawa. I want to see an Asian woman to play a getaway car driver. Sure, we occasionally see an Asian-Americans pop up on screen as an extra or cameo but we need to reach a point where seeing Asian-Americans in these roles is no longer a surprise to us. We must reach the point where seeing an Asian face onscreen is no longer considered a victory or news. The point where it is normal to see Asian faces on the TV screen.

It goes beyond simply having a few Asian faces on the TV screen. You can’t simply replace a white face with an Asian face and call it a day if the Asian heritage (a fundamental element) of a character is ignored. In creating these characters, cultural identity should be included because it can become an opportunity for non-Asian audiences to bridge the gap between broader American culture and Asian-American culture in a healthy manner. Obviously, cultural identity shouldn’t be the only thing that constitutes how the character is portrayed. But, sometimes it should be! There is now space to explore even deeper issues within the Asian-American community, such as how first generation Asian-Americans deal with mental health issues or the toxic masculinity that is prevalent in the Asian-American experience. It is vital that writers find balance between struggles revolving around culture and struggles revolving around cultural identity. Every Asian-American experience is different and it is imperative that these differences are reflected. It will take a lot of time before we can reach this point in the industry and there will certainly be growing pains. However, we can’t desert the fight simply because it is difficult. We have to do something. By increasing our visibility on-screen, we overcome our collective marginalization and put on display the variety and beauty of our Asian-American experiences—all 17 million of them.