More Than #StarringJohnCho

You’ve seen #OscarsSoWhite. Last week it was #TonysSoDiverse. This week it’s #StarringJohnCho. Diversity in entertainment has been an even bigger topic than ever over the past couple of years, mainly because people are starting to speak up about how there isn’t any.

Recently, there was a lot of hullabaloo about whitewashing in two upcoming movies, with Tilda Swinton playing The Ancient One in Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson as the Major in Ghost in the Shell, both characters that were Asian in the original comic books. And you may remember that horrible film Aloha, in which she played Chinese-Hawaiian soldier Allison Ng. If you weren’t aware – all these ladies are white.

In response, a social media project called #StarringJohnCho was started, in an attempt to prove that Asian-Americans can be lead actors in movies too. The movement places John, arguably one of the biggest Asian actors who could actually carry a film (see: all the Star Treks), Photoshopped into other blockbuster movie posters.

You might be thinking, ok, that’s great and all, but John Cho’s not a “movie star”. Well, a recent study from USC shows that only 1% of lead roles in Hollywood films go to Asians, while 1 out of 20 speaking roles go to Asians. Statistics for John to even get a chance to be a bonafide movie star are slim.

One of my favorite quotes regarding diversity in entertainment comes from Viola Davis’ Emmys speech last year, when she straight up spit the truth in front of all of Hollywood.

“In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.” That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. Hollywood execs are refusing to even consider POC, because the only color they really see is green. “We can’t cast Harry Shum Jr. in the lead role because he doesn’t have a successful box office track record.” Studio execs need only look at the numbers yet again – for example, the Fast and Furious movies (while albeit a bit tedious), feature a diverse cast AND crew, and its seven movies have grossed nearly $4 billion globally. Moreover, a UCLA study even noted that films with diverse leads not only result in higher box office numbers but also higher returns of investment for studios and producers.

Not to mention the mere impact casting POC would have culturally – I talked about it when I wrote about Fresh Off The Boat, but growing up, it was slim pickings when it came to idolizing Asian-American actresses. White ladies? Sure, I can name you minimum 240. Not so much with the Asians.

ALL THIS TO SAY is that Asian actors just need to be given the chance to be in the lead. It’s not just #StarringJohnCho, it’s #StarringINSERTANYOTHERASIANACTORHERE. So in the spirit of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (yes, that’s a real thing every May), here are just a few picks for younger actors and actresses who deserve to be in the lead just as much as any white person.

Constance Wu

If you’re not watching Fresh Off The Boat, what is wrong with you? Like, legit what kind of ailment is prohibiting you from watching one of the best, well-written, funniest, culturally important programs on the air right now? Here is just one reason why you should watch it – the matriarch of the family, Jessica Huang played by Constance Wu. Constance plays Jessica as a bit of a tiger mom, but one who also truly cares for her kids and can sit and play Mario Kart with them. This clip is just a fraction of Constance’s brilliance on the show.

Conrad Ricamora

Conrad be representing for my fellow Filipinos! He’s best known for his work in theater, including Imelda Marcos musical Here Lies Love and is currently on Broadway in the revival of The King and I. However, you might know him best as a member of Shondaland in How to Get Away With Murder. He’s only half of the best couple on the show, #Coliver. Honestly, they’re the best. Anyways, Conrad is super talented (as seen above) and has leading man good looks, so what more can you ask for?

Kimiko Glenn

You probs know Kimiko as Brooke Soso from Orange Is The New Black or her current stint on Broadway’s Waitress. However, I know her from being a creep. Fact: I saw the first national tour of Spring Awakening years ago in Boston and saw it thrice during its entire run in the city (I’ve mentioned this before but it doesn’t make it any less true). I became slightly obsessed with the show and music, of course, but also weirdly followed the touring cast on social media? It’s fine. Anyways, Kimiko was part of that cast, and during their stops across the country, the cast would hold benefit concerts, usually covering popular songs. Here’s one of those concerts and one in which Kimiko covers Jason Mraz. I’ve listened to this too many times to mention over the past few years.

Phillipa Soo

If you’re a member of Hamiltrash, I don’t even have to explain why Phillipa needs to continue being a leading lady. If you haven’t seen this precious cinnamon roll sing Copland in this Ham4Ham, drop everything you’re doing and watch it now.

Utkarsh Ambudkar

Yes, this is the dude from Pitch Perfect. However, he’s also Mindy’s brother Rishi on The Mindy Project, a role I think he’s perfectly cast in. Every time he comes on screen, I can’t wait to see what ridiculous thing he’ll say and it’s Utk’s delivery is always spot on. Also as a bonus, he’s BFFZ with Lin-Manuel Miranda since they used to do Freestyle Love Surpreme (improv rap group) together. *sigh*

Ki Hong Lee

Dong!!! Ki is probs one of the millennial-era actors who’s the closest to leading man role, having not only starred in Kimmy Schmidt but also in all The Maze Runner films. And if you’re wondering, his real accent is American.

Albert Tsai

Next to Happy Endings, Trophy Wife will always go down as one of the most tragic cancellations in TV history. We were big fans of it here, and one of the main reasons was the nugget, Bert, played by Albert Tsai. He’s a natural comedian and has potential for greatness in the future. He’s already got a role on Ken Jeong’s Dr. Ken, so hopefully there’s nowhere to go but up.

Keiko Agena

Ah Lane Kim. If you’re only familiar with her work on Gilmore Girls, check out her other work in shows like Scandal and Shameless. Keiko also has a podcast called Drunk Monk, in which she and her co-host Will discuss episodes of Monk – you guessed it – while drunk. Also, she does a lot of improv in LA at Upright Citizens Brigade and is really good at it. I’m not just saying that. My friend and I accidentally saw her do improv at UCB on a total whim. And she was fantastic.

POV on FOB: Why We Need Fresh Off The Boat

If your life was made into a movie, who would play you?

I’ve been asked this a few times throughout the years, and I always end up resorting to the same two actresses: Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu. Chances are, if you’re not Asian, you don’t have this problem. You probably have never even thought about how that question would be a much deeper question than it is on the surface.

When it came down to it, I always picked Margaret Cho. I just looked more like her than the skinny, tall, perfectly straight, long-haired Lucy Liu. Part of this answer may also have to do with the fact that in 1994, I saw Margaret Cho and her Korean-American family on TV in a show called All-American Girl. I guess I didn’t realize it until then, but it’s the first time I saw anyone that remotely looked like me depicted on TV. I was a nine year old who already watched too much television (go figure), and so I was used to seeing families like the Tanners and the Winslows, but never anyone like the Kims on All-American Girl.

The show may have been groundbreaking, but it was also criticized for its blatant use of stereotypes and basically became a caricature of itself. It ended after just one season, and there hasn’t been a show featuring Asian-American families ever since. Until last night.

20 years later, a new sitcom called Fresh Off the Boat premiered. Twenty years. That’s two decades. That’s a college student that is months away from being able to legally drink. Even I was surprised when I read that fact. Has it really been that long? Have we really not progressed in the past 20 years that there hasn’t been a show about Asians on American TV? While I think we’ve definitely made steps towards diversity in the media in terms of African-Americans, Latinos, and LGBT characters, it’s a little weird we haven’t seen bigger strides for Asians in terms of leading their own film or TV vehicles.

But perhaps it’s just a situation of good timing.  Fresh Off the Boat is based off a memoir by Eddie Huang, in which he discusses his Taiwanese immigrant parents, their move from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida, and his assimilation as an Asian kid who loved hip-hop. IRL Eddie is an outspoken guy who isn’t afraid to speak his mind or be politically incorrect. He wrote a piece for Vulture in which he talks about how ABC executives wanted to “turn his memoir into a cornstarch sitcom and me into a mascot for America”, to which he replied, “I hated that”.

With someone like Eddie at the helm, the problem ABC encountered 20 years ago with All-American Girl becoming too ‘white’ probably won’t happen. He’ll be there to make sure the show doesn’t cross the line into a parodic program. Moreover, lest we forget that racism is an even more prevalent topic in America today. I think part of the problem with racism in this country is that people are afraid to confront it. It’s such a taboo subject that people avoid it. They brush it under the rug pretending it doesn’t happen – but as last year’s events clearly show, it does. With a show like Fresh Off the Boat, it deals with the obvious cultural differences and racism head on. In the pilot, a kid calls TV Eddie a ‘Chink’ and they get into a fight over it. The show takes place in 1995, but I assure you it’s still happening 20 years later.

But this is what we need. Fresh Off the Boat is funny, well-written, smart, and deals with race issues in an accessible way that doesn’t sugar-coat it or blatantly insult Asians. Do you remember that episode of Full House when Stephanie gets glasses, and Joey advises her to make fun of herself with the new specs before her classmates can make fun of her? It’s kind of similar to that. Once we open the gateway of being able to talk about things like assimilating into American culture or what it’s like being the only Asian kid among a sea of white people, it’s easier to have that conversation about race without it being uncomfortable.

And as for the name, I have no problem with it. ABC execs briefly titled the show “Far East Orlando”, and for some reason, I find that more offensive that Fresh Off the Boat. IRL Eddie defended the title to Entertainment Tonight recently, comparing it to the N word – it’s a way to claim the term back to its people, and not have it used in a derogatory way.

And while I may strongly relate to this show because I, like Eddie (who I’ve deemed my spirit animal), am a first generation Asian-American, this show isn’t just about this group of an underrepresented culture (I know, I just wrote all those paragraphs about Asians), at its heart, it’s about exclusion. It’s about inclusion. It’s about family. It’s everyone’s story.  A story that has yet to be told from this specific view of a race that makes up nearly 11% of the American population. It’s a show that’s funny – like actually, laugh out loud funny. So funny that there are multiple GIF sets I will be reblogging on Tumblr later. It’s a show that deserves to be on the air because of all of these qualities. And who knows – maybe this will lead to even more Asian-centric shows in the future. And perhaps my possible future children won’t have a shortlist of just two Asian-American actresses to play out their life story.