Panel Recap: Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling
Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Representation of Asians in Film, TV, and Gaming was the first con panel I ever attended, so when I heard they were bringing it back for a fourth edition, I was thrilled.
This year’s #GGCPandas included archeologist-turned-illustrator-and-costume-designer Meris Mullaley, former Japan-based sports journalist and current writer, baker, and cosplayer Tony Loiseleur, GGC Twitter Administrator and self-proclaimed media binger Kristine Hassell, blogger and gamer Sonja Marcus, and former Virginia Tech professor and current video game creator and GGC Manager of Editorial Services JC Lau.
The panelists began by recapping the good and bad of Asian representation in media over the previous year. Meris mentioned the casting of white actor Ed Skrien as the Japanese-American character Ben Daimio in the upcoming Hellboy reboot. People protested the choice, prompting Skrien to step down from the role and Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim to be cast in his place.
Kristine pointed out that this is a deviation from the doubling-down on casting choices that we’ve seen in the past, including Scarlett Johansson as Motoku Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. There is somewhat of a current backlash happening against activism, Tony added, and it’s refreshing to see an instance where people who raised their voices for change had a very clear impact.
Although this casting choice is a definite step forward, JC said that Hollywood still needs to get to a place where Asian actors represent their specific ethnicities rather than being lumped into some homogeneous “Asian” identity. Sonja agreed, saying that, as an Indonesian person, she has never seen Indonesian people represented in media and, while she would much prefer Asian actors to white actors for Asian roles, she still wants to one day see Indonesian representation.
Meris asked Tony how, as a Hawaiian who moved to Japan for some time, his experience differs from that of other Asian Americans. He said that in Hawaii each Asian group has their own distinct culture and that in Japan racism is viewed very differently than it is in the USA. There is a contextual awareness of what constitutes racism. While in the US people were outraged by Scarlett’s casting in Ghost in the Shell, in Japan people were thrilled that a huge Hollywood actress was playing the character. Perspectives are impacted by experience and culture.
Tony went on to share that he had been living in Japan when The Last Samurai came out. While people in the US hated it, when he saw the movie in Japan there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. To Japanese people, Ken Watanabe was the last Samurai, not Tom Cruise. They saw a completely different narrative based on their culture.
Meris asked JC, who’s from Australia, if Australians get angry when a British person, for example, plays an Australian. JC prefaced her response by saying that Australia, like the US, is highly problematic with regards to immigration and race and is by no means the gold standard. She went on to explain that there is no concept of Asian Australians there—you are Japanese/Chinese/etc. and also Australian. Coming to the US, she found it weird to suddenly be described as “Asian Australian” or “Asian American,” terms she didn’t identify with.
As a gamer, Sonja talked about how she’s drawn to RPGs and MMOs as a way to see herself in gaming. She said that when she first tried to make avatars who looked like her, there weren’t options for her skintone or hair. While some newer games are finally starting to have enough options that she can create a decent representation of herself, several (like Wizard101) only offer more diverse human characteristics if you pay for them.
JC shared that she resolved in July 2017 to make it through the end of the year without playing any games where she has to be a white male protagonist. She said she’s discovering other games she wouldn’t have played otherwise and that it’s been really refreshing to see what else is out there. It’s small indie studios that are leading the way on highlighting diversity.
If you have POC creating games, Kristine added, you’ll have better, less racist representation.
Tony said that making mods is a great way to get into the gaming industry. By making content for games, people can both make a difference for players and catch the eye of people in the industry.
The discussion shifted to the cancellation of shows featuring Asian characters and actors and the killing off of Asian characters. Tony opened with the gruesome death of Eddie, a Walking Dead character, saying he hadn’t watched the show since. In the film Ex Machina, the Asian robot dies in service of the white robot, Kristine said.
Both Sense8 and Dark Matter, Meris said, were cancelled. She added that when she sees representation in shows and movies, she feels that she has to support them to help prevent their cancellation. Meris added that, in the case of Hawaii Five-0, the Asian actors left because of low pay. She encouraged everyone in the room to watch whatever the two of them are doing next to support their stand for better pay.
The panelists then opened the floor to questions, first fielding the query, “people see Asians as either fragile, robotic, or model minorities; how do you combat that viewpoint?”
Sonja said she’s a stage actor and is often told by coworkers that they didn’t realize she was Asian, as if her ethnicity somehow undermines her ability to be expressive. She said she wants to see more big names speaking out about these stereotypes. It would help to have Asians in all levels of the creative process, JC added. They would be able to create more realistic representation and avoid a lot of these stereotyping problems. Tony agreed, saying that having Asians putting out Asian stories helps people better understand the complexity of Asian experiences.
Someone asked how the panelists recommend creating more diversity in media without creating obvious plot armor for the characters. Tony said a big part of this is telling Asian stories outside of stereotypical action films. For example, the story of his parents’ experiences as Vietnamese refugees, or the story of a Japanese-American person visiting Japan for the first time. For some characters, Meris added, their whole identity is Asian, while others are characters who just happen to be Asian, like Baze Malbus, Chirrut Imwe, and Bodhi Rook in Rogue One.
Finally, an audience member asked how to respond to the accusation that Asian-led films and shows make less money than white-led ones. Meris said part of the way to challenge this is to do your research and know the data. For example, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a huge success. On the other hand, you can also point to the fact that white-led movies flop all the time and there is never a discussion of whether or not another white-led film should be made.
This wouldn’t be an issue if we constantly had a whole range of Asian actors in films, Tony said. We need to change the current reality and push back against the stereotype that Asian-led media makes less money to prevent this question from being asked in the first place.
Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling embodied one of my favorite things about GeekGirlCon—geeky people coming together to celebrate, call out, and discuss media through the lens of their identities and experiences. While Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to Asian representation, it was encouraging to be reminded that speaking out for equity makes a difference and can help shift the tide toward more diverse narratives.