Child actors of colour deserve better

I didn’t watch the 2016 Oscars, for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I feel increasingly disconnected from what the mainstream Hollywood establishment wants to celebrate and what I enjoy viewing. The event has been criticised heavily from a number of angles, but I’m especially fed up with seeing limited diversity represented among nominees and professionals and creative works alike — thus we have Eddie Redmayne taking an Oscar for his cripface Oscarbait, and nominations for entirely white, nondisabled actors that we’re all supposed to jump up and down about. The show itself is a big, expensive production that usually manages to include some horrible thing like racism, sexism, disablism, or other -isms that leave the audience twittering with laughter, and it’s just not my thing. Or anyone else’s, if the falling ratings are anything to go by.

I do, however, keep a loose eye on things on Twitter, and of the many things that happened this year, one thing stood out: Host Chris Rock had the ‘accountants’ come out on stage with the ballots in a gag that had three child actors arriving from the wings in formal suits, carrying briefcases. Surely kind of funny for the audience, and a play on the stodgy, dull figures people usually think of when they hear the word ‘accountant’ (for the record, I know some pretty wild accountants/bookkeepers/other financial professionals).

But here’s the thing: All three actors were Asian, and they were introduced as ‘Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz.’ Brilliant send-up of model minority tropes about ‘Asians’ (always generic ‘Asians’) growing up to be accountants (or lawyers, doctors, and engineers) and stereotypes about the Jewish community and money (before you ask, yes, there are Jewish people of Asian descent), or nasty racism? Some audiences weren’t impressed, especially after the host, Chris Rock, made a crack that if people were ‘upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.’ Child labour! So hilarious! Few things entertain me so much as seeing people make light of labour abuses!

There are complicated lines and nuances here when it comes to commentary about race and society — coming from me as a host, that bit would have been categorically offensive, period, no dispute. Some might argue that Rock, as a man of colour, is standing on solid ground when it comes to racial commentary, especially since he’s actually quite famous for taking race by the horns and challenging the white community with its own social attitudes. But there’s also a complex relationship with anti-Asian racism and antisemitism going on here; are these jokes Rock’s to tell? That’s a question I don’t feel qualified to answer, because I don’t belong to any of the groups involved, but a lot of people had thoughts about it, they were all negative, and I am inclined to agree with them, as I was certainly put off.

Congresswoman Judy Chu definitely didn’t appreciate it, and neither did commentator Jeff Yang. Nor did George Takei, Ang Lee, and Sandra Oh. The Academy, already chastened for the lack of racial diversity in nominations, grudgingly apologised for the ‘joke’ three weeks later. Very few people of Asian descent have been nominated for Oscars, and it’s jarring to see child actors being played as the butt of a joke on a stage where their adult counterparts aren’t even in the running for an award. For the actors, it could be ‘just another job,’ but it carries a bitter sting, and it’s infuriating that child actors have to accept racist, terrible roles like this. Talented young men and women interested in developing acting careers should haven’t to choose between being the butt of stereotyped humour and not working.

In this context, the joke was incredibly complicated — some viewers thought it was racist, others thought it was a metacommentary, and the usual ‘stop looking for something to be offended about’ crowd made an obligatory appearance — but it’s not the only instance of this kind of role. For Chinese-American, Japanese-American, and other American actors of Asian descent, there are limited opportunities available. In roles specifically written for them, they’re heavily stereotyped: Dragon lady, geisha, courtesan, lawyer, doctor, accountant, engineer. For Jewish actors, it’s roles revolving around being cerebral or rolling in money. In roles that aren’t specifically coded for them, the default is white casting, and they might not even be considered (a problem with diversity across the board, where characters are white and nondisabled and straight unless explicitly labeled otherwise).

From a very young age, actors like these are learning hard lessons about Hollywood. Even as a surge of discussion about diversity in representation sweeps the industry, their roles are still quite limited, and if they want professional experience and the ability to make connections, they’re stuck playing caricatures. It’s hurtful. It’s a death by a thousand cuts, with a constant reminder that in the eyes of Hollywood, they’re nothing more than playthings to be used and discarded, rather than people offered the opportunity to develop rich, complex, mainstream careers. Very few Asian-Americans have risen to prominence in the industry while playing a diversity of roles, with Lucy Liu being perhaps a glaring exception, and that’s unacceptable.

It’s unacceptable for children of colour who are interested in entering the industry to find that the only way they can join the acting community is by giving away bits and pieces of their souls. Youth of colour deserve access to a full range of opportunities, including enough roles that they can make a conscious decision about what they do and do not want to play. For these actors, this was being caught between a rock and a hard place, and it wasn’t fair.

Image: Happy Chinese Girl!, Beardnan, Flickr