Quote card by Opinion.

“Representation matters.” We’ve all heard the phrase before, and for those of us who can’t blend into a snowbank, it looms ever larger whenever anyone that looks remotely like us is on TV. But despite its ostensibly well-meaning intentions of diversity and inclusion, the phrase has begun to ring hollow, acting more as a marketing ploy for multibillion-dollar media conglomerates than a rallying cry for the marginalized. With Asians constituting a rapidly increasing share of the U.S. population, our representation in media and popular culture has increased to heights never seen before. But despite what it may seem, the issue of hollow, corporatized representation extends far beyond the silver screen, and we must demand better.

I had begun thinking about this topic back when “Crazy Rich Asians” first came out in 2018, but it wasn’t until recently that I developed a coherent perspective on the issue. In essence, the evolution of culture and identity are collective processes that cannot be driven by any individual or group of individuals. Every piece of artistic and personal expression contributes to an overarching cultural miasma in which art and the community that receives it clash, build on each other and interact with a complexity that defies simplistic binaries of “good vs. bad” or “agree vs. disagree.”

Through this dialectic, as critical theorists call it, identity is formulated with contribution from the community with full acknowledgment of its history and each of its members. However, this process’s commodification by the cruel, faceless march of capitalism robs it of its history and complexity, flattening it beyond even simplistic moral judgments into a superficial question of cold-blooded profitability. Just as De Beers synonymized matrimony with shiny rocks, our friends in Hollywood and the Beltway have undertaken the noble task of translating our very concepts of race, identity and history into highly profitable, mass-produced media products.

I want to be clear that even the most sterile, profit-driven film or media product can have some degree of artistic expression and thus contribute to the production of racial identity and culture. However, it’s crucial to confront the realities of where art ends and calculated, focus-grouped profit begins. From the music we enjoy to the shows we watch, the very fabric of our social and cultural interactions is dominated by a brutal process of exploitation that seeks to produce not for the sake of art, but for profit.

Unfortunately, media produced under these conditions loses its artistic integrity and is compromised in its ability to constructively contribute to the dialectical processes of community that constitute race, identity and culture. In the context of Asian representation in American media, the drive for profit inevitably pushes a conception of Asian identity that is designed purely to maximize engagement and ticket sales rather than genuinely reckon with the disparities and complexities of Asian communities.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in recent blockbusters like “Snake Eyes” and “Shang-Chi” that have been heralded as a turning point for Asian portrayal (or lack thereof) in Hollywood. It’s true that these films featured predominantly Asian casts playing both leading and supporting roles going against the usual tropes of Asian characters as meek, nerdy and exotic. Furthermore, I do appreciate seeing both veteran and upcoming Asian actors such as Michelle Yeoh and Awkwafina get much-deserved time in the limelight. 

However, a big break for a few actors won’t necessarily translate to change in wider society, in the film industry or even for those actors. “Shang-Chi” leading man Simu Liu encountered this firsthand during his time on “Kim’s Convenience” where, despite solid viewership and positive reviews, the mostly Asian cast was faced with “horsepoop” pay, overwhelmingly white producers and writers and “overtly racist” plotlines. As someone who is Asian and loves movies, I don’t hate Marvel movies, but making a movie tackling the question “What if an Asian guy was jacked and did kung fu?”, even if it plays to a different set of Asian stereotypes than the most common ones in American media, isn’t quite as transgressive as some might have you believe.

At the core of the issue, these movies don’t tell Asian stories. They don’t even attempt to weave a narrative that anyone can relate to, much less one that could possibly cut across the broad socioeconomic positionings of America’s growing Asian communities. There is a sentiment that is frequently trotted out when these movies come out that gushes over how America is finally “ready” for an Asian cast or an Asian lead.

In actuality, this is a pretense for the reality that these movies only get made because media executives realized that they are finally profitable enough to be worth the time and resources. Just look at the themes and casts of these big “Asian” projects. If they are achievements for anyone, it is East Asians, and for “Shang-Chi,” Chinese people especially. It’s insulting to tout something as “Asian” if it makes no effort to even superficially represent the more than 50% of the U.S. Asian population that isn’t from East Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea.

Even for East Asians who might have hypothetically been able to see themselves in these characters, these movies’ stories and images cater predominantly to the experiences and sensibilities of a thin sliver of elite-educated professionals, business owners and landlords. Unfortunately, as we were all brutally reminded of in the Atlanta spa shootings just a few months ago, beneath the rosy stereotypes of academic achievement, economic ascent and the smashing of bamboo ceilings, millions of Asian-Americans live in precarity largely unseen by purveyors of Model Minority narratives.

Asians in America have a long road ahead in the struggle to forge solidarity and identity across communities divided by language, culture, history and socioeconomic status. A crucial part of that process has been and will continue to be artistic expression. However, until the exploitative, profit-driven structures of production and consumption begin to be challenged by militant, multiracial working class power, we will only ever get superficial hype with only tangential contributions to our processes of cultural growth rather than art that is genuinely for and by Asians.

There is an expression in Mandarin that says “水涨船高”, or “The boat rises with the water.” The answer to the struggles of Asians in America will not be found at the box office or the C-suite. The boat will only begin to rise for more than a lucky few when Fuzhounese, Burmese, Korean and other Asian communities stand together to demand bread and roses, well-being and dignity, for all of us.

Justin Yuan is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at juyuan@umich.edu.