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May 30, 2017

“Asian Americans in Media” Panel Explores Inclusiveness in the Cultural & Entertainment Landscape

The Inclusion & Diversity Council’s most recent panel, Asian Americans in Media, welcomed journalist Juju Chang (ABC’s Nightline), actor George Takei, producer Stephanie Foo (This American Life) and playwright Rehana Lew Mirza for a discussion on the challenges Asian Americans face working towards more visibility and authentic representation in media.

Foo’s career began when she started her podcast “Get Me On This American Life.” She was eventually noticed and was hired for the program. Mirza, who is half Pakistani, half Filipino, works at the Ma-Yi Theater Company, where she creates dark comedies and other plays that are more politically inspired. Many people know Takei, who is a Japanese American actor, for his role on the Star Trek television series, his recent Broadway show Allegiance, and his work as an activist for LGBTQ and Asian American issues.

The panel covered a variety of topics, spanning from what drew them to certain roles, how they choose themes for their work, and how to make the cultural landscape more inclusive.

Mirza explained that she tries to make her characters “as heartfelt and emotionally truthful as possible.” Noting that there are not many Asian American stories available, she added, “There is a lot of pressure placed on few stories to tell the story of a whole people/culture. I focus on telling stories that are human and universal.” Stephanie agreed, stating that the first priority was to find amazing stories. “Even if you have an Asian American on screen, it is important to have an Asian American creating the story because they see blind spots where others do not,” added Foo.

All the panelists believe that the story needs to be the priority, not the heritage of the actors, and that Asian Americans need to be normalized as Americans.

The conversation also covered whitewashing, such as in recent movies like Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange and The Great Wall, when white actors filled parts for characters of Asian heritage. Takei called for more Asian writers to craft stories that Asian actors can fill, as well as more Asian decision makers at the top, while Mirza pointed out a Catch-22 of the casting business. “Casting uses the excuse of booking white actors for Asian roles because they are ‘bankable stars.’ How does a star become bankable if you’re not giving them an opportunity to prove themselves?”

One interesting sidebar was the reasoning behind the casting of Star Trek‘s Starship Enterprise. “Gene Roddenberry (screenwriter, producer, Star Trek creator) wanted to use science fiction as a metaphor for America at that time,” said Takei. “America was turbulent, but television did not reflect that. It was oblivious of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Cold War. So Roddenberry created Starship Enterprise as ‘Starship Earth.’ Its strength was in the diversity of and collaboration between the crew. Asia was represented by Mr. Sulu (played by Takei), Africa by Lieutenant Uhura; North America by Captain Kirk; Europe by Scotty. We all tried to flesh out the characters in our own way.”

Watch the panel in full below:


Image at top, from L-R: Juju Chang, George Takei, Rehana Lew Mirza and Stephanie Foo. Photo credit: Joseph Sinnott.

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