It’s the same people

Recycling actors reveals a lack of Asian representation in the entertainment industry


A24, Meggie Chen

Recycled actors in purported Asian films ironically reveal the lack of diversity that plagues the film industry.

Meggie Chen

Recently at the Oscars, the movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once” won seven Oscars from 11 nominations, a historic achievement that hasn’t been seen in over a decade. With a star-studded, mainly Asian cast, it’s been lauded as a landmark for Asian representation in media, and rightfully so. In fact, the movie industry has seen explosive growth for Asian American Pacific Islander representation in the past few years, with a report finding that it has nearly doubled from 6.1% in 2020 to 11% in 2021. In light of this growth, “Everything Everywhere All at Once’s” Oscars seems to be conclusive evidence of the Asian representation people have been seeking for years.

However, despite all its positives, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” brings to light a key issue within this increased Asian media presence – the appearance of recycled actors. The movie’s titular character, Evelyn, is played by martial arts legend Michelle Yeoh. She is undoubtedly one of, if not the most recognizable Asian actor in Hollywood, with major roles in not only EEAAO, but also movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Shang-Chi.” But what becomes obvious when her discography is closely examined is her appearance in almost all of the prominent movies touted as Asian representation in the past couple of years. 

The biggest issue with recycled actors is, ironically, the very problem it often seeks to solve: diversity. By recasting the same Asian actors over and over, audiences are presented with the appearance of only a few people of color, which arguably tokenizes the character once again. Media diversity is defined as being concerned with representing all social groups and avoiding stereotypes. If the same actor plays the role of an Asian character in the multitude of TV shows that follow, it limits the idea of what an Asian character can look or act like.

Not only that, but the most commonly seen Asian actors, such as Sandra Oh or Awkwafina, are almost always East Asian and one of the “big three” races: either Chinese, Korean or Japanese. Asia consists of 48 countries — not to mention the multiple ethnic groups found within each one — including, but not limited to, countries like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Many of these countries are already chronically underrepresented, whether it be in academic fields like STEM, or in this case, visual media. A poll of MVHS students found that on average, students only know 15 of thte 48 countries, even when our demographic is majority Asian. That’s only 30%, a number that belies how little representation these movies actually have, when that diversity is most needed. 

The most apparent reason is that the movie industry has always had, and continues to have, a history of colorism. Black female characters are often played by a lighter skinned Black woman who fits Eurocentric beauty standards. Bollywood movie tend to avoid darker skin tones in favor of Indian actors with a paler complexion. These connections make it impossible to ignore the fact that East Asians, the ones who are typically cast in the industry, typically have lighter skin color, while Southeast Asians typically have darker skin. 

This phenomenon becomes extremely obvious in some of the most popular movies with Asian representation. One of the biggest complaints about “Crazy Rich Asians” was the lack of brown representation despite the story being set in Singapore, a place known for its multicultural communities. The closest Southeast Asia has come to mainstream media in recent years is Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which combined a multitude of Southeast Asian cultures into a singular, fictional one. In doing so, it wasn’t able to provide anything more than a shallow, surface level awareness, and failed to acknowledge the rich and complex cultures of the countries it tried to represent.

It’s easy to fall into the mindset that any representation is good representation. And to a certain extent, that’s true. But just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s the best solution — we shouldn’t settle for having the bare minimum in representation. Asia covers such a wide diaspora of people that is extremely difficult to properly represent in visual media, and near impossible when the same actors are cast over and over again. 

All this isn’t to say that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” did not deserve its accolades or that Michelle Yeoh was a bad casting choice. The representation that is present in it is vital, and it is unrealistic to expect representation to be perfect in every instance. Rather, it’s a call to be more aware of the deficits that the industry faces, so that they can be corrected in the future. Make the effort to watch movies that have diverse Asian American Pacific Islander representation. Educate yourself on the different ethnicities in Asia. 

And who knows, maybe there is some version of EEAAO in some universe where Evelyn is Indonesian or Vietnamese. After all, if Evelyn can have hot dog fingers and do Kung-Fu with solely her pinkies in some universes, there’s bound to be one where she’s brown too.