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Asian Americans are Hollywood’s new leading men. It’s not as progressive as you think

Today’s diverse onscreen heartthrobs are often also white

Alex Cochran / Michelle Budge / Shutterstock

In elementary school I learned that America is a melting pot. Gluing cartoon images of flags and multicultural people onto a cutout of a cauldron was my earliest lesson in diversity. “It’s what makes our country special,” I imagine my teacher saying, projecting over the muffled chatter of class. “Wouldn’t it be boring if we were all the same?”

This exercise is likely digitized in today’s curriculum, but 20 years ago, laden with cardboard paper, dull scissors and paper cuts, commemorating immigrant assimilation as a Taiwanese American in Southern California felt significant.

Outside of school and in the media — the second largest expenditure of a kid’s attention — the melting pot metaphor fell short. The characters in movies and TV didn’t look diverse, they mostly looked the same. Researchers at USC found more than 70% of characters in 700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014 were white, trailed by Black characters around 10% and Asian or Asian American characters at 5% or less each year. Likewise, UCLA’s 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report found only 2 in 10 lead actors in film and 2.2 in 10 lead actors in broadcast scripted television from 2011-2017 were people of color.

A uniform narrative informed my pop-cultural upbringing and, for a long time, my romantic interests. My first crush in the third grade named Parker was white. As an adolescent I ogled at Hayden Christensen of “Star Wars” prequel fame and Rider Strong, Cory Matthews’ edgy-for-suburbia neighbor in “Boy Meets World.” My first boyfriend when I was 17 was Jewish.

On screen, Asian and Asian American men were either excluded or existed on the margins, devoid of depth and sex appeal, usually there for comic relief. Manic mobster Mr. Chow in “The Hangover” trilogy and Chinese app developer Jìan-Yáng in “Silicon Valley” were modern editions of the foreign, delusional, sexually untouchable Asian male trope.

Global advertising and media markets are worth hundreds of billions of dollars because repeated imagery is powerful — harmful rhetoric linking the pandemic with the Asian American Pacific Islander Community has prompted Asian hate crimes to surge 150% in 2020. And showbiz is a natural extension. I’ve heard women declare they’re “not that into Asian guys” and felt pangs of anger and guilt run through me. Studies from OkCupid, Columbia University, and Facebook found white men to be the most attractive suitors, Asian women as highly attractive and Asian men as the least attractive. The data aligns with Hollywood’s big picture wherein white men are center-stage, Asian women are embodiments of submissive or excessive sexuality, and Asian and Asian American men frequent as bottom dwellers of the sexual hierarchy.

That is why while watching Amy Poehler’s “Moxie,” Netflix’s latest teen movie about rebel high schoolers “smashing the patriarchy,” I was struck by a growing Hollywood trend: A biracial Asian man as a romantic lead. His character, Seth Acosta, grew a foot taller over the summer and entered junior year a head-turner (and budding feminist). In an early scene, he smiles in slow-motion before turning away, backpack slung casually over one shoulder. “That’s hot,” one girl says to another in a classic Who is he? moment. He was not the subject of infatuation I grew up with.

Mixed-race Asian actors jump out at me like an easy game of Where’s Waldo? Their likeness to myself — most maintain the fair skin and dark hair associated with their Asian lineage — paired with features that lend to the learned intrinsic value of whiteness is a hard combination to miss. I pulled up “Moxie’s” cast list and confirmed that Nico Hiraga, Gen Z heartthrob, actor and skateboarder, is of Japanese and European descent.

An improved version of racial representation in America is downloading. 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first all-Asian cast in 25 years, was a hit, and honest attempts to diversify stories and reattach personhood to minority roles should be praised. Less talked about are the shaky ways Hollywood navigates this era of change: soft-landing biracial actors onto audiences and adhering to a minority-white binary in an increasingly mixed-race world.

Henry Golding in “Crazy Rich Asians,” “A Simple Favor” and “Last Christmas”; Darren Barnet in “Never Have I Ever”; Ross Butler in “13 Reasons Why”; Charles Melton in “Riverdale” and “The Sun is Also a Star”; and Hiraga in “Moxie” are paving paths as Hollywood’s desired Asian leading men, but it is no coincidence that they are all also white.

By casting mixed actors as drool-worthy characters to make audiences squeal, Hollywood suggests there is a bliss point of Asian appeal — ethnic enough to satisfy minority groups and palatable enough to maintain Western audiences. For years I’ve celebrated each time a face that resembles mine emerges onto screen and for years I’ve had a hard time letting go of the sense that Hollywood continues to perpetuate the Eurocentric beauty standards that distinguish against minorities in the first place.

A half-Korean, half-white actor and singer I spoke with put it this way: “Us forgotten, redheaded stepchildren are now being fetishized. It’s Hollywood dabbling, trying to find a formula. For decades they’ve whitewashed film and TV and feel the need to keep a piece of that working formula moving forward.”

It makes sense for a business that relies on streaming subscriptions or ticket sales to be wary of straying from what sells (or what it thinks sells). And it bears mentioning that western beauty standards are global. In the East, plastic surgery to achieve wider eyes and pointed noses is commonplace, and some of the most embraced models advertised on trains and billboards are multiracial.

Jeff Chang, an American historian, cultural critic, and award-winning author of volumes like “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation,” named the smartest book of the year by The Washington Post in 2016, grew up in Honolulu where “everyone is mixed” and Japanese talent scouts searched for new talent. He observed that those with light skin and less indigenous looks were invariably chosen, despite a plurality of multiracial populations. “And that’s across the board for all communities of color,” he added. “We’re talking about colorism which is an offshoot of racist beauty standards.”

Audiences shouldn’t need a “lite” version of an Asian character to identify with or find agreeable. Minorities in America have long learned to embrace stories with white characters because alternatives are limited. What is second nature for me is now a task for broader America, and if racial progress in this country is authentic, there should be no discomfort seeing non-white actors stand where white actors once stood.

In 2015, Emma Stone apologized for playing a biracial Chinese woman in “Aloha” and in 2017, disheartened audiences watched Scarlet Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in a Shell,” the live-action remake of a Japanese manga. Separate from claims of appropriation, attempts at passing white actors as minorities is Hollywood’s way of tooting diversity and inclusion while keeping the ball in home court. It also begs the question: If a white actor shouldn’t play a biracial character, should a similar standard apply to a biracial actor meant to play a character of full Asian descent?

In Hollywood the answer is sure. British actor Naomi Scott — of South Asian and English descent — played Princess Jasmine in 2019’s “Aladdin”; reality star Matt James was ABC’s “first Black bachelor,” and Malaysian British Golding delighted as Singaporean almost-royalty in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

It works both ways, too. In the popular To All the Boys movies,” Vietnamese American actor Lana Condor portrayed a biracial Lara Jean. And for those who applauded the decision to cast her as the lead, I clapped too — but remembering that Asian women are more romantically accepted than Asian men makes it less creative.

The onus falls not on biracial actors — they have their own set of compromises, and booking the role is a shared goal among all actors regardless of race — but on Hollywood. As the notion of a melting pot evolves into that of a salad bowl: a harmonious combination of separate entities instead of one homogeneous blend, the broader narrative evolves too.

In an interview with Teen Vogue, Hiraga admits he asked his manager if he should audition for Seth because he seemed “pretty built out for some white dude in Hollywood,” later saying he was surprised when he got it. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow. Let’s go. Hollywood, I see you. Netflix, do your thing.’”

2019’s “Always Be My Maybe” spruced up the familiar friends-turned-more plot with Randall Park’s everyman, Daniel Dae Kim’s good looks and Keanu Reeves’ wry cameo as himself all vying for comedian Ali Wong’s affections. GQ recently profiled “Walking Dead’s” Steven Yeun right before he made Oscars history for being the first Asian American nominee for Best Actor for his role in “Minari.” And later this year Simu Liu will star in Marvel’s upcoming installment, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Asian men’s allowance for sex appeal is growing.

But subtle ways Hollywood manipulates beauty and conceptualizes race in absolutes are worth noting especially as the country diversifies. If the goal is to end a long and public affair between disparaging roles and non-white actors, then for rich, anti-disparaging roles, the unambiguous are those I would like to see more of. Until then, acknowledging the preservation of problematic norms is as necessary as measuring racial progress. Without both, we miss half the point.

Correction: A prior version incorrectly listed Paxton Hall-Yoshida as an actor in “Never Have I Ever.” Paxton Hall-Yoshida is the character’s name. The actor’s name is Darren Barnet.

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