I love watching movies but never paid too much attention to award shows. I knew the names of some of the biggest film celebrations, like the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I would scroll through my Instagram feed and maybe see a couple posts about which film won Best Picture, but that was about it. This all changed when “Parasite” came out.
The movie came out this past summer while I was in Korea and I had the opportunity to see it in theaters. The movie is directed by Bong Joon-ho, one of South Korea’s most famous and critically acclaimed directors, and stars Song Kang-ho, a top South Korean actor. Because of the film’s star power, everyone had high expectations for it. I left the theater in awe of how good it was. This well-made thriller about coexistence, centering on an impoverished Korean family that begins to work for a wealthy one, satires our modern-day class system. As much as I would love to talk about the plot, I will not spoil the movie for those who have not seen it yet.
Currently, “Parasite” is collecting many of the most prestigious cinematic awards worldwide. It won the Palme d’Or — the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival — as well as some Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards. As a Korean, I am immensely proud to see a Korean film enjoy such an unprecedented amount of success. But what feels better is the sense of acceptance and validation finally being awarded to Asians in media.
For her role in 2019’s “The Farewell,” Awkwafina became the first Asian American to win Best Actress for a Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes. Netflix apparently had to win a bidding war to secure Ali Wong as the hostess for stand-up comedy specials after the success of “Always Be My Maybe.” “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first major Hollywood studio film with a majority Asian cast in a modern setting since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993, also enjoyed commercial and critical success. It became the highest-grossing romantic comedy film in nearly a decade. Disney’s live-action “Mulan” and Marvel’s first Asian hero film “Shang-Chi” will arrive in theaters soon.
Before these recent successes, Asian representation in traditional media took a number of unfortunate turns. Only a handful of Asian roles existed before “Crazy Rich Asians,” and some of these roles were blatantly racist or heavily stereotypical. Mickey Rooney — who is white — played the role of a Japanese man named Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Randall Park, who starred in “Always Be My Maybe” alongside Ali Wong, remarked to TIME magazine that he played doctors maybe a few too many times. Asian Americans make up about six percent of the entire population, yet only one percent of all leading roles in Hollywood were played by Asian Americans as of 2018. One study from professors at six California universities proved that only one-third of the 242 scripted shows on broadcast, cable and streaming TV had an Asian Amerian or Pacific Islander character who was a series regular.
Media lives off of stereotypes and, to some extent, is responsible for furthering them. While stereotypes are not the most sincere form of judgment, I must admit they are based on some truth. Asian parents are widely recognized to be passionate about their children’s education and, not to much surprise, want their children to become doctors or lawyers. However, this does not mean that the media should exploit such stereotypes and further consolidate them.
I still remember one of my high school friends showing me a clip from “Family Guy” where an Asian dad, in his heavy Asian accent, scolds his son for not being a doctor at the age of 12. This was during my first year in America, and I instantly knew that was how we were portrayed. The stereotype and its presentation lingered on and was stuck in the back of my head. I unconsciously put myself under the stereotype and even wanted to live up to it. I never liked math or science, but felt like I had to ace those classes, and felt proud when a non-Asian peer of mine approached me to ask questions on those subjects.
Limited and stereotypical representation in the media certainly played a part in driving me toward the pre-established stereotypes. There were no cool Asian characters in any shows or movies. There was nobody for me to rely on.
Then, once again, “Parasite” came out and is now collecting numerous meaningful accolades. Asian Americans have only recently gained some momentum in media representation and I hope the film’s success can be the breakthrough. I hope the film, along with individuals like Ali Wong and Awkwafina, can bring some spotlight to Asians so that we can correctly represent ourselves. I do not expect all stereotypes to be wiped out, but I sincerely hope that these collective achievements can provide society with the more diverse and appropriate representation we deserve. I hope we can be better assimilated into society as who we are: wonderfully talented, culturally diverse and capable of many different things, just like everyone else. We are not just good at math or science; we are more than just doctors or lawyers. We can be award-winning movie directors, actors and actresses, comedians and even superheroes.
Min Soo Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.