Are We What We Watch?: An Interrogation of Current East Asian American Representation in Popular Movies

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The Ohio State University

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For decades, Asian Americans in Hollywood were relegated to playing racist caricatures such as the Dragon Lady or Fu Manchu based on racist assumptions by White audiences or rendered invisible through the racist practices of yellowface and whitewashing. Though these practices still linger in the film industry, recently there has been a boom in Asian American representation with a jump from 3.4% of all characters in movies being Asian in 2007 to 15.9% in 2022 with much of this representation being East Asian. This new visibility of East Asian Americans may look like progress, yet often this representation fails to depict the complex realities of East Asian Americans. Instead, it tends to reinforce racial stereotypes about East Asians with narratives of a proximity to Whiteness, multicultural redemption or colorblindness, and US exceptionalism dominating the market. This paper examines how the movies To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) continue to perpetuate racial stereotypes of East Asian Americans while the movie Everything Everywhere, All at Once (2022) breaks through White ideations of East Asians that are imposed on other films. With a focus on Everything Everywhere All at Once's ability to depict realities of many East Asians through its absurdism, it challenges what East Asian American representation can look like especially when juxtaposed with the other two movies. This paper navigates what creates “good” and “bad” representation, its implications, and what happens when East Asian American life becomes an image rather than a reality.



Asian American, Popular Film, Representation, Cultural Identity, Stereotypes, Meaning Making