On Looking for Your Minority Self in Movies and TV

You know the shot of hope when a person like you appears, and the swift disappointment of realizing he or she is just another bad joke, another stock character that makes you squirm in your seat.

Annie Atherton
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readDec 5, 2013


I remember the exact moment I was first compared to a celebrity. I was twenty-three, and the celebrity was Olivia Munn. Despite the fact that Munn is ethnically half-Chinese and I’m half-Japanese, we’re both half-Caucasian. It’s worth noting that neither she nor I exemplify these “identities” cleanly … she was born in Oklahoma and spent substantial time in Japan as a child. I was born in Seattle, as was my Asian grandfather. Still, I was excited. Finally, here was a Hollywood Babe I could (sort of) call my own. Because as few minorities as there are in movies, there are even less Asian actors, and even less that don’t seem pulled out of some freakish cartoon (ie. The Hangover). Being “like Olivia Munn” made me feel included, for once. Like I was a visible part of this country in which I was born, and raised, and taught how to be.

It’s not a problem specific to Asian woman, or even ethnic minorities. If you are even remotely overweight, or transgender, or in a wheelchair, or in any other way non-normative, you know the special sadness of looking, always looking, to see yourself in someone else on TV. You know the shot of hope when a person like you appears, and the swift disappointment of realizing he or she is just another bad joke, another stock character that makes you squirm in your seat.

After my inaugural comparison, I began to follow what Olivia Munn was doing. In her thirty-three years, she has been a correspondent for Comedy Central and worked a number of roles within the “TV host” sphere -- absolutely admirable, and yet not far outside the scope of the “anchorwoman” stereotype (see: Family Guy’s Tricia Takanawa). It was fitting then when on The Newsroom, she became Sloan Sabbith, Senior Financial Reporter for a news network. Sloan is a dynamic character, citing her intelligence as the reason she can’t get a date, yet the fact remains that she’s a reporter and a math nerd … not exactly a “mind-bending” role for the Asian girl. She is also told that she’s hired because other qualified economists “don’t have her legs.” Incidentally, on New Girl, she appears for several episodes as Nick’s stripper girlfriend. Which is fine. It’s funny. I guess it’s just … the most widely quoted line from an Asian actress is probably “me love you long time” from the prostitute in Full Metal Jacket. What I’m trying to say is, every time an Asian girl plays some hypersexual side role, I die a little inside. Trust, I’m not mad at these women … they’re hot and cool and they have every right to play these roles. It’s just that when Asian women appear in only three big movies over the course of a year, and two of them are geeky/hyper-sexual/otherwise predictably one-sided, then that leaves so little else. I can’t help but think of the early Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong who, in 1933, told the LA Times, “I was so tired of the parts I had to play.”

I wrack my brain for other potential heroes. There’s Tina from Glee, who is rarely central to the plot. There’s Rinko Kikuchi of Pacific Rim. She’s the first Japanese actress to have been nominated for an Academy Award in fifty years (for Babel), although her being non-American means I can’t quite identify (read: hardly at all. I’m fourth generation U.S.). Though I look nothing like Mindy Kaling, I’ll rep her with the broadest sort of solidarity.

There’s the argument that Asian Americans are still a very small piece of the U.S. population. It’s true, we’re just below 6%...but that means we account for over eighteen million people. Eighteen million viewers who must turn on the TV each night knowing not to expect any reflection of themselves. Ironically, they mostly reside in New York and California, those magic hubs where mass media is born.

Sometimes I feel indifferent. Hollywood is Hollywood—it doesn’t discredit the waves of minorities making huge strides in real life. I think, “Oh well ... it doesn’t really matter.” But that’s just not true. Despite its seeming triviality, mass media does matter. It permeates everyday conversation and gets embedded into the social DNA. Human beings have always had stories and heroes from which to craft their own identities, and it's only natural to look to those at the cultural fore. Whether it’s told around a fire or watched in a theater, this is how we communicate ideals and hopes. For those with active imaginations, those who revel in fitting their lives into narratives, this issue is all the more important. And yet, one of the emblematic examples of classic Hollywood—Breakfast at Tiffany’s—includes an old white actor playing the part of a grotesquely exaggerated Japanese man. What kills me most about this example is that I love classic films. I love Truman Capote, love Audrey Hepburn, and desperately wish that this glamorous epic wasn’t tainted with the ugly scar of blatant disrespect.

Asian issues aside, two recent shows do an amazing job of showcasing groups of people that never get their time in the sun. Orange is the New Black features Laverne Cox, an African-American woman who is not only transgender on the show, but in real life. And in Game of Thrones you have Peter Dinklage, who was born with Achondroplasia, a common cause of dwarfism. His character fights constant discrimination, which Dinklage portrays so well that it’s earned him an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award. In an interview with Rolling Stone (for which he was on the cover!) he spoke of eschewing roles that subject little people to demeaning and childish stereotypes. Whether it be fantasy or prison stories, these actors are making an important impact.

My meditation on Munn brings me back to a memory from middle school. As part of our Spirit Week, we had “Celebrity Dress-up Day,” in which I chose to be Jennifer Lopez. As I have no curves to speak of, I’m not sure what motivated that decision, except that maybe I figured J. Lo was vaguely ethnic and Lucy Liu was taken. I still remember the eyebrow-raising sneer some girl gave me when I told her who I was. And it makes me think: if I went to a party like that today, then I would come dressed as Lucy Liu playing Dr. Watson on Elementary, the CBS Sherlock Holmes spinoff. As Indian-American actor Aziz Ansari aptly stated in his recent interview with Conan O’Brien, having an Asian woman play an old white man shows that in some ways, we really have come full circle.