Last month, people around the world celebrated the underdog success of Korean film Parasite as it swept through the 92nd Academy Awards to win four Oscars. Each new award for the film ratcheted up a breathless excitement that culminated in a historic win for Best Picture, the first foreign-language film to ever take home that honour.
The victory was especially meaningful to Asian North Americans1Writing as I am from a Canadian context, I use the term “Asian North American” here to collectively refer to the broadly similar sociocultural categories of “Asian American” and “Asian Canadian”; however, I recognize that these categories warrant distinction under other analytical circumstances. , who took to social media in droves to express their pride in the film’s achievements. For decades, Asian North Americans have lamented the deplorable state of Asian representation in Western pop culture. In North American media, Asians have been either almost non-existent or, when portrayed, depicted through harmful racist stereotypes. In recent years, high-profile controversies surrounding films like Aloha and Ghost in the Shell– both of which featured the “whitewashing” of ostensibly Asian roles – have amplified the call for more Asian representation in Hollywood.
A positive shift in this cause has occurred over the past two years, with Asian-led films like Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe, and The Farewell garnering box office success and critical acclaim. These films, all helmed by Asian directors and featuring Asian actors in starring roles, have been praised within the Asian North American community for proving the viability of Asians in pop culture, authentically portraying our experiences, and debunking stereotypes. Add on Parasite’s Best Picture win, and it would appear as though Asians have finally broken through Hollywood’s bamboo ceiling.
However, the reading of these films’ significance as primarily tied to their success in achieving Asian representation reveals a limited capacity for Asian North Americans to critically evaluate their own media. The perceived scarcity of – and consequent hunger for – Asian popular media representation has foreclosed the possibility of talking about our successes in anything but celebratory tones. “If we don’t support our own at all costs,” the thinking goes, “we may never get another chance.”
Prior to tonight, Bong Joon-Ho called out the narcissism of American Hollywood while claiming the Best Foreign Language Film prize at the Golden Globes. “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said in his acceptance speech.
This is a truism many of us familiar with non-American film already recognize: amazing films are made around the world, and (whether in America or abroad) in languages other than English. Indeed, some of my earliest memories of of fantastic films are Chinese-language films introduced to me by my parents. And yet, only rarely do non-English films (even American-made ones like“The Farewell”) get recognized or celebrated by Hollywood — a trend that underscores the many ways that non-white films are still Other-ized.
When three Asian American children were trotted out in front of a national audience as both the props for and the butt of a joke delivered by Oscars host Chris Rock, mainstream attention was momentarily placed on the extent to which Asian Americans face racism. Ironically enough, Rock’s joke simultaneously demonstrated anti-Asian racism while it relied upon the model minority stereotype, a trope that has long served to obscure anti-Asian racism.
The problems with the model minority myth are legion. I am not here to debunk the model minority myth—thereismuchacademic and popularwritingonthesubject—but to examine one effect of its prevalence in public discourse: confused narratives of Asian American aggrievement.
For weeks we have endured endless chatter about #OscarsSoWhite and how to better increase diversity in Hollywood. Now that the awards season has officially ended and the Academy Awards have been handed out, I can finally give my two cents about this.