What is making it in Hollywood as an Asian-American? Is it a certain level of fame or financial success? Is it making a difference? Or is it just surviving?
Recently, Michelle Rodriguez spoke to a TMZ reporter in this video and said the following: “Because of this whole ‘minorities in Hollywood’ thing… It’s so stupid… Stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes. Make up your own.”
She then clarified her initial comment in another video, “The language that you speak in Hollywood is successful franchise… And I think that there are many cultures in Hollywood – that are not white – that can come up with their own mythology.”
Granted, she made it very easy for people to misinterpret her initial comment as an expression of solidarity with the racists that would like to keep minorities out of Hollywood. However, her second comment not only refutes that interpretation, but addresses a deeper problem in how Asian-Americans perceive making it in Hollywood.
The concept of racebending is useful here. By racebending, I simply mean re-imagining a character’s race. This has historically been used as a weapon against minorities (e.g. casting white people to play Asian characters). But in the other direction, it allows for a person of color to reclaim a work of fiction for themselves and insert a diversity into it that Hollywood consistently fails to provide.
Occasionally, the mainstream media actually does the re-imagining for us. Marvel now has a black Captain America and a Muslim Ms. Marvel. There is also a massive grassroots push for Idris Elba to play the next James Bond. This is obviously a very good thing. But is this making it? Because no matter how daring or original the artist is, the limitations of the character will always be present. Any liberty that they take is fraught with comparisons to their former white incarnation.
For many Asian-Americans, this is the goal. We have a desire to assimilate so completely into white American culture that our race becomes invisible. Invisibility is an attractive goal. Being a white stand-in gives you access to a host of cultural archetypes typically reserved for white people.
But let’s just imagine a world in which that occurs – a world in which the narratives, themes, and characters of Hollywood stay the same, but the color of the actors changes. Is that progress? In one sense, yes. It shows that people of color have the same cultural value and worth as white Americans. But in a much deeper sense, no. This ever-present desire for perfect assimilation has another name – respectability politics. Respectability politics is just self-hatred dressed up pretty for the camera. It demonstrates a disdain for all things unique to the Asian-American experience.
What we need, to quote Bell Hooks, is “radical self-invention.” That is to say, a conception of ourselves that is free from these cultural frameworks that have limited and oppressed us for so long. We need our own images, our own superheroes, and mythologies that come from a place of self-originality and authenticity, rather than imitation and moderated progress.
Dakota Hadfield attended the University of Michigan and graduated with a degree in film. He spends most of his time in front of a computer trying to turn words into screenplays. Being a Korean-American adoptee, Dakota has a unique perspective on what it means to be a child of this house called America and how we cannot understand the present conditions of our existence in this country without examining our past.