Brow Beat

2018 Was a Landmark Year for Asian American Representation

Henry Golding, Bao, Sandra Oh
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Warner Bros.; Pixar Entertainment; BBC America.

When Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs was released in late March, it seemed as if pop culture would be business as usual for Asian Americans in 2018. Sure, Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood’s first major film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, was on the horizon. But if you hadn’t been reading the trades, you might not have even known that, and no one could have predicted just how successful the history-making romantic comedy would be anyway. And so early spring found a lot of Asian Americans in a familiar place: missing from the screen, overshadowed by Orientalist tropes about “the East,” wondering when we’d finally be seen and heard.

Then it happened. First slowly, then all at once, the Asian diaspora found its way into pop culture, and its big-screen stars were doing everything from trying to lose their V-card in a raunchy sex comedy (Geraldine Viswanathan’s Kayla in Blockers) to cannibalizing their miracle child (the heroine of Pixar’s Bao).* On TV, Manny Jacinto’s Florida burnout and Jameela Jamil’s name-dropping aristocrat contemplated morality and the afterlife on The Good Place, while Nico Santos, Nichole Bloom, and Jon Miyahara’s characters struggled to get by on the minimum wage at a faux Walmart in Superstore. Asian Americans even got in on two of America’s favorite pastimes in entertainment: committing murders, as Darren Criss does in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, and solving them, as with Sandra Oh in Killing Eve. (A number of the actors and characters I mention here are Brits, Canadians, Australians, etc. They constitute “Asian American” representation insofar as they represent Asian and mixed-Asian faces and identities in Western contexts for Asian American consumers.) This phenomenon wasn’t limited to fiction: It felt like there were more Asians on American magazine covers in 2018 than in every previous year combined, while newly feted celebrities wardrobe-coached in a makeover series (Tan France on Queer Eye), hosted a political comedy show (Hasan Minhaj in Patriot Act), or got married in a jaw-dropping 75-foot veil (congrats, Priyanka Chopra). You might need to consume a lot of pop culture to notice this Asian omnipresence, but, seemingly for the first time, there was something to notice.

This cascade of representation crested, of course, with Asian August, a month in which a trio of high-profile Asian American projects seized the cultural zeitgeist. The biggest among them, Crazy Rich Asians, crystallized and affirmed a definition of second-generation Asian American identity that seems embarrassingly basic and yet proved stirringly powerful: We’re not (just) Asian, but Americans who have earned a place in this country by dint of our hard work, emotional ties, and innate dignity as human beings. Meanwhile, the desktop film Searching cast John Cho, a formerly reluctant mascot for Asian American representation, in a rare leading role. And the teen rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before carved a place for itself in the YA romance canon, featuring a mixed-race family battling against cultural erosion after the Korean mother’s death.

The success of Crazy Rich Asians in particular sparked a greenlighting frenzy for Asian American projects, including a Comedy Central sitcom for breakout co-star Awkwafina, who also hosted Saturday Night Live and enjoyed a scene-stealing turn in Ocean’s 8. Hopefully this preponderance means that, at least for the next few years, Asian Americans can stop worrying about mere visibility and consider what kinds of representations we’d like to see, and what we should see more of. Among the latter: queer Asians. Older Asians. Poor Asians. Southeast Asians. Non–English-speaking Asians. Undocumented Asians. Asians outside the context of Asian-white relations. Asians in dramas. Asians in reality shows. Meathead Asians. Scammer Asians. Messy Asians who love drama.

I’m not sure where’s the threshold at which Asian American representation will feel like enough, but I do think the way Asian American representation leapt forward this year—immensely, haphazardly, and cobbled together from seemingly a thousand different diasporic contexts—is the right direction. Asian American art and representation should follow individual performers’ interests and inclinations, whether those are pursuing serious art house roles that may not be immediately available stateside (Steven Yeun in Burning), making soul-searching documentaries (Sandi Tan in Shirkers, Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap), commanding the stand-up stage while pregnant and wearing skin-tight animal print (Ali Wong in Hard Knock Wife), replicating a culturally specific immigrant experience in a family-sitcom format (Ins Choi, creator of Kim’s Convenience), traveling the globe and getting serious about food and cultural appropriation (David Chang in Ugly Delicious), or simply trying to be the hottest man alive (bless you, Henry Golding). Imperfect as this distribution of Asian American representation may be, it spans genre and geography, normalization and idiosyncrasy, mainstream appeal and offbeat experimentation. True Asian American representation can only take place if it reflects the infinitely different ways Asian Americans can be.

It’s impossible not to observe that all of this pop cultural progress is taking place against a backdrop of emboldened jingoism, increased hate crimes, and horrifyingly underreported deportations of Asian immigrants and refugees, some of whom have lived in the U.S. for decades. Cultural headway alone is no match for the brute force of badged and armed scapegoating, but at least some of these movies and TV shows can help resist the gaslighting message that Asian Americans don’t belong, or even exist, in our own country. And even if “Asian American” is an artificial identity with few natural constituents, that doesn’t mean community and solidarity can’t be forged under the banner. It’s been wonderful to look back on 2018, however incompletely, to remember the progress that all of these Asian American projects and characters have made as well as to recall the thrilling effect of their totality. But I hope we’ll one day soon get to a year when their sheer numbers render even the idea of trying to list them a ludicrous and pointless proposition.

Correction, Dec. 21, 2018: This article previously included Jason Momoa as part of a list of Asian American stars. Momoa is not Asian.