Hollywood's portrayal of AAPI community is formative, research shows

What we see on the big screen matters. Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen says research proves that "these images are formative. You can't be what you can't see or it's really hard."

But what we've seen of Asian Americans in film, has been lacking. It is why Crazy Rich Asians was considered so pivotal.

The movie's director Jon M. Chu says "after that movie, people came out of the woodwork and including people in my family." He says many were emotional saying "my older brother cried when he saw Nick Young come out of the house in his white suit and he was presented as the most handsome Hollywood leading man that you could as any big movie would."

That's because he'd never seen an Asian American Man protrayed in that way.

Wang Yuen authored the book, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. She says "Even Asian American actors today are pressured to fit into what Hollywood thinks they should sound like and look like and so one of the working actors I talk to says he still gets asked to do accents when he walks in."  

Justin Hoover, the Executive Director of the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco says representation has long been a problem.

"The Chinese in media portrayed in many ways. Charlie Chan, toothless and powerless, emasculated, the model minority, the servant, subservient and Asian women too the sex object the fetish object the servant."

Those themes are replayed in countless movies from Breakfast at Tiffanys, to Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles.

"I mean when he came on the screen there was a gong sound so it was very much he was the joke," says Wang Yuen, "and when it's the only image that is being seen then unfortunately Asian men are reduced to that image."

It's not just that those characters exists, it is that in large part they have been the only ones we see. And when you talk about the hypersexualization of women you only have to look at productions like Madame Butterfly, Ms. Saigon and Full Metal Jacket. Advocates say recent events show those perceptions have real world impacts.

"It's that idea, the stereotypical idea of hypersexualization of women that they are submissive," explains podcast host May Lee, "and that Asian women are there to give you pleasure all of that  still exists, the Atlanta shooting and that narrative is still being controlled by others."

Hoover says that narrative has deep roots in American history. "The Page act was designed to isolate Chinese women coming into America as prostitutes unless they could prove themselves of high moral character and that bar is set very high and very subjective irrational,"

Hoover says you can't have a full conversation "without knowing the history in which the U.S. government sought to objectify and fetishized Chinese women coming into america."

Wang Yuen say Hollywood is a critical change but that is complicated.

Chloe Zhao just became the first Asian female director to ever win an Oscar. But Wang Yuen says films like Minari about Asian American farmers in Arkansas, while critically acclaimed are still in part seen through a foreign lens.

"Minari is Asian American produced, directed, acted, written and its exciting it's the first Asian American story being nominated for best picture."  It won a Golden Globe but Wang Yuen says "This is the whole are we there yet? I mean it won the best foreign film for Golden Globes and I wrote a piece at NBC about it how it felt like a backhanded compliment like oh you have a great film but it's foreign, you are foreigner and that felt like, oh your english is so good."

And even in break through movies like Crazy Rich Asians there was a chance the movie could have been a much different one  

"I know that there was pressure to change Rachel Chu into a white character," says Wang Yuen, "because of the whole American equals white trope is so strong and to break that no there are Americans who look different."

Director and Bay Area native, Jon M. Chu says he was determined to be a part of change with that movie.

"And us as each generation is in charge of fulfilling that idea," says Chu, "and now I'm 40 I'm not messing around anymore.  This our time we are in places of power and we can fulfill that American promise that my parents always told me existed."

It will take time. "Hollywood still hasn't figured Asian American stories out," says Wang Yuen. But the conversation now is more important than ever.