As an Asian-American woman, I've had any number of opportunities to see someone who looked like me on the big and small screen.
Since I was a little girl, I've seen Disney's Mulan, Trini Kwan from Fox Kids' Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey's Anatomy, to name a few. And while the portrayal of Asian-American women by Hollywood and television could use some work — too often they're oversexualized or rendered exotic — at least we're present and have some depth.
But Asian-American male characters have exactly the opposite problem. They're rarely cast in the sexy, romantic roles and are more typically relegated to stereotypes or caricatures.
"That's if Asian-American men have been portrayed at all," Phil Yu, who runs the Angry Asian Man blog, told me. "Usually Asian-American men have been pretty much rendered invisible. But when they're around, when you see them, it's usually sidelined to sidekick status or probably the butt of a joke like 'Asian Nerd,' wimpy guys, perpetual foreigners."
Think Long Duk Dong from the 1984 movie Sixteen Candles.
I by no means want to take away from the talents of Asian male pioneers in western film like Jackie Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Bruce Lee or George Takei. But let's be honest, they've all played the "perpetual foreigners."
A new Web short film called It's Asian Men! looks to do away with the image of Asian-American men as weak and effeminate by spoofing a movie that's all about male machismo: Magic Mike.
The film is only about seven minutes long, credits included, but it shows a completely different side of Asian-American men from what you see in Western film.
Without giving too much away, let's just say that the movie involves a bed, a dream, and four hot Asian men. Even its soundtrack is meant to send a message. "Backup Man" by Bo Haan, one of the film's actors, is all about the plight of the Asian-American male dating experience: always the safe choice; always the backup man.
The film left me wondering why I thought the juxtaposition of "sexy" and "Asian men" seemed strange. That happens to be the motivation behind the message the film's creators are trying to send to Hollywood filmmakers: There are plenty of attractive, talented Asian-American men who can play the romantic leading man you're looking for.
NaRhee Ahn, the film's writer, director and one of its producers, says she and her all-Asian-American female crew could have cast the film many times over.
"I just really want people to notice the talent that they have as well as their good looks, because there's a lot of actors like that available," she said. "They just aren't being recognized by mainstream entertainment."
(There's some real-world evidence that Asian-American men are less preferred by American women. Over the years, online dating website OKCupid has studied its user activity. Researchers found that Asian-American men receive far fewer "likes" and messages compared with men of other races on their site. Days before It's Asian Men! debuted, OKCupid found that that trend still holds.)
Yoshi Sudarso, the leading man in It's Asian Men! doesn't look like any of the Hollywood stereotypes. He's hunky with toned arms, a washboard stomach with a sweet smile and shining eyes. A stunt man turned actor, Sudarso is probably best-known for his role as the Koda on the series Power Rangers Dino Charge.
He was offered the part in It's Asian Men! when the filmmakers asked journalist Ada Tseng for casting recommendations from her calendar, "Haikus with Hotties," which billed itself as "a series where we ask hot Asian men to share poetry with us." (The 2017 version will be "Haikus ON Hotties"). The calendar served as the inspiration for It's Asian Men! and has partnered with the film.
To be fair, RIGHT NOW is probably the best time to be an Asian-American man trying to make a career in front of the camera. There are a number of television shows with Asian-American men in significant roles, like ABC's Fresh off the Boat and Dr. Ken, the CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and — until recently (spoiler alert!) — AMC's The Walking Dead.
And then there are all those attractive and talented male entertainers on It's Asian Men!
All four of them.
But it's getting better.
Julia Kim, a casting director and member of the Casting Society of America, told me that she's seeing more Asian-Americans, the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, showing up for casting calls. This, she said, gives casting directors more options to take to filmmakers.
That probably has something to do with a change in culture on the Asian-American side, Kim said. Traditionally, Asian parents want their children to enter solid, stable jobs.
"And acting is such a crapshoot and is such a risky occupation or career choice," she said. "But now that the opportunities are opening up and there's more shots at Asian actors having a career in acting, I feel like it's a viable option."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You have seen the Oscars so white stories. You've heard the frustrated awards speeches. Hollywood has a diversity problem. But for the Asian-American actors who do end up on screen, there's another big hurdle, one that NPR's Ashley Westerman has been noticing for years.
ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Growing up, I had a lot of celebrity crushes. There was Leonardo DiCaprio...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TITANIC")
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jack Dawson) I'm the king of the world.
WESTERMAN: ...Freddie Prinze Jr...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHE'S ALL THAT")
FREDDIE PRINZE JR.: (As Zack Siler) You know, I made that bet before I knew you, Laney.
WESTERMAN: ...And of course, all of the Backstreet Boys.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT IT THAT WAY")
BACKSTREET BOYS: (Singing) I want it that way. Tell me why ain't nothing but a heartache...
WESTERMAN: On the rare occasion I did see an Asian-American guy on-screen, I, an Asian-American gal, was just not that into him.
PHIL YU: I think that Asian men are kind of seen as just these stereotypes.
WESTERMAN: Phil Yu runs the blog Angry Asian Man. And he says they have been relegated to playing some predictable roles over the years.
YU: There's the evil Yellow Peril stereotype, like Fu Manchu. And then there's the stoic monk-like martial arts master and the nerd, like Long Duk Dong, "Sixteen Candles." It's kind of the most notorious example.
WESTERMAN: Actor Yoshi Sudarso knows the stereotypes very well. He's the guy often stuck performing them.
YOSHI SUDARSO: We are effeminate. We are not masculine. We are the best friend. We are the butt end of the jokes but not not the romantic lead.
WESTERMAN: Sudarso is starring in a new short web film called "It's Asian Men!" - exclamation mark. It features a group of hot and baby-oiled Asian-American dancers trying to capture the attention of an unimpressed young woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S ASIAN MEN!")
BO HAAN: (As character) You know what? You got this. Go get her man. You got this.
WESTERMAN: NaRhee Ahn wrote and directed the film to make a point.
NARHEE AHN: I think that the tired old argument that Hollywood executives and studios and casting directors have been hiding behind is that there are no Asian-American men capable of being romantic leads. And that's just patently untrue.
WESTERMAN: But here's the thing - in real life, there's some evidence that Asian-American men struggle, too. Over the years, online matchmaking service OKCupid has studied its user activity. It's found that Asian-American men receive far fewer matches and messages compared to men of other races on their site. For guys like actor Yoshi Sudarso, that stings.
SUDARSO: I've been left for and when I find out who it is, I was like, oh, non-Asian guy. That's cool. I think it's just they see us as the safe choice until they can get something better.
WESTERMAN: And those are attitudes Hollywood has fueled, not fought, through casting. Now, to be fair, Asian-American men are playing more nuanced characters. There's the loving father and husband in ABC's "Fresh Off The Boat," the main crush in the CW's "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and, until recently, actor Steven Yeun on the AMC hit series "The Walking Dead." Julia Kim, who is with The Casting Society of America, has even noticed more Asian-American men showing up for casting calls.
JULIA KIM: So as casting directors, we have more choices to present, and we're not just, you know, our hands aren't tied to this one Asian actor or the two Asian actors.
WESTERMAN: Yet diversity roles continue to lag for actors like Sudarso who see the problem as more than just landing major parts.
SUDARSO: It opens up so much more roles for us, not only just for the industry but in our daily lives. It puts us in a different position, and it will go into not just how people see you but how you see yourself.
WESTERMAN: He hopes that "It's Asian Men!" will help challenge some of those long-held impressions one sexy dance move at a time. Ashley Westerman, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKUP MAN")
THE BLEMISH: (Singing) I don't mind being your backup man. I'm the backup plan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.