Arts and Entertainment

More Than A Stereotype: What Everything Everywhere All at Onceโ€™s Oscars Sweep Means for Asian Representation

๐ธ๐‘ฃ๐‘’๐‘Ÿ๐‘ฆ๐‘กโ„Ž๐‘–๐‘›๐‘” ๐ธ๐‘ฃ๐‘’๐‘Ÿ๐‘ฆ๐‘คโ„Ž๐‘’๐‘Ÿ๐‘’ ๐ด๐‘™๐‘™ ๐‘Ž๐‘ก ๐‘‚๐‘›๐‘๐‘’ and other Asian-led films dominated the 2023 Academy Awards, marking major steps for Asian representation in film.

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Byย Chloe Huang

In 1920, Asian Americans could only dream of seeing themselves represented on the silver screen. At the time, Hollywoodโ€™s only Asian โ€œrepresentationโ€ was Chinese actress Anna May Wong, who was constantly forced into supporting roles that promoted stereotypical โ€œAsian mannerisms.โ€ Instead of allowing Asian Americans to play Asian characters, the film industry hired yellowface actorsโ€”white actors who taped their eyes back in a mockery of East Asian facial features. For decades, Asian Americans in the entertainment industry faced heavy discrimination and struggled to land lead roles that were not blatantly racist stereotypes.

But an entire century after Anna May Wong, Hollywood has finally started to make progress toward remedying these years of mistreatment by elevating Asian voices. With the recent box office success of movies like To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018), both featuring Asian cast and writers, Asian talent and stories in film have captured the attention of the American public. Movies showcasing Asian narratives, such as the wildly popular childrenโ€™s animation Turning Red (2022), have surged in popularity, earning overwhelming acclaim. And just three years ago, the sensational Korean thriller Parasite (2019) received some of the highest honors in film, winning four Oscars at the 2020 Academy Awards. As the first non-English-language film to receive the Oscar for Best Picture, Parasiteโ€™s wins marked a huge milestone for the advancement of Asians in film, highlighting their creativity with an entirely Asian cast. Following in Parasiteโ€™s footsteps, several Asian-led films have been recognized at the 2023 Academy Awards. The Indian documentary The Elephant Whisperers (2022) won Best Documentary Short Film and โ€œNaatu Naatuโ€ from the Telugu action-drama RRR (2022) won Best Original Song. Furthermore, the wacky and iconic Asian-led sci-fi thriller-comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) received 11 Oscar nominations and secured a whopping seven wins. Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAAO), which follows a strained Chinese-American family attempting to navigate the multiverse together, is a fresh and much-needed portrayal of the Asian immigrant experience. With aching honesty, the film explores generational trauma in Asian American families and the struggle to achieve the American Dream, breaking completely away from stereotypes in order to tell an authentic Asian American story. EEAAOโ€™s Asian characters are quirky, flawed, relatable, and, above all, undeniably human.

EEAAOโ€™s well-deserved Academy Awards victories thrust three talented Asian Americans into the spotlight. The Best Director Oscar went to EEAAOโ€™s director duo Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, making Kwan the fourth Asian to win the award in the Academy Awardsโ€™ 95-year history. On top of that, Michelle Yeoh made history as the first Asian to win Best Actress for her performance in EEAAO as Evelyn, a struggling laundromat owner who is tasked with the impossible mission of saving the world. Yeohโ€™s co-star, Ke Huy Quan, became the first Asian to win Best Supporting Actor for his role as Waymond, Evelynโ€™s dorky but lovable husband.

Yeoh and Quan, both immigrants from East Asia, have overcome years of oppression in Hollywood to get to where they are today. The Malaysian-born Yeoh initially rose to fame after starring in a series of Hong Kong action films and continued her film career in the United States, securing lead roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). Though these films brought her success, they also stifled her potential by placing her into heavily stereotypical roles. Yeoh was continually casted into roles as a one-dimensional martial arts master, and even as she gained increasing recognition within the film industry, her restrictive roles limited her from winning any major awards for her workโ€”until recently. The star dedicated her Oscar in part to โ€œall the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight,โ€ acknowledging the thousands of Asian American children who grew up without ever seeing people like them highlighted in film; in fact, only 5.9 percent of actors in recent top-grossing American movies are of Asian descent. However, Yeohโ€™s win has defiantly declared to the world that Asian actors are capable of greatness and deserve to be seen. She hopes that more Asians will pursue their dreams of acting and that her victory will help Asian American children feel accepted and represented.

Likewise, Quanโ€™s early film career presented significant obstacles. Though Quan, who arrived in the U.S. as a Vietnamese refugee, received brief recognition as a child for his roles in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and The Goonies (1985), he faced great difficulties pursuing acting as an adult. Discouraged by the lack of opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood, he left acting to become a film producer. He was inspired to return after seeing the success of Crazy Rich Asians. Quan decided to take a chance and audition for the role of Waymond in EEAAO. His passion and versatility brought Waymondโ€”a goofy father and husband desperate to keep his family togetherโ€”to life. Quan made Waymond more than a disillusioned immigrant; he made him a resilient man capable of overcoming immense hardship, yet also a person whom viewers can sympathize with and relate to. Quan received enormous praise for his emotional performance, and, nearly two decades after he first left acting, tearfully accepted his historic Oscar.

Of course, two Asians winning acting awards does not erase centuries of anti-Asian sentiment, but it provides a glimmer of hope. Yeohโ€™s and Quanโ€™s wins are major steps toward the validation of Asian stories and talent in mainstream media. The recognition of their performances as two immigrants who demolish the stereotype of the docile model minority is an acknowledgment of what Asian actors can offer Hollywood. It tells the world that Asian actors have the capability to play more than the typical foreign martial arts warriors or quiet, nerdy FOBs (fresh off the boats: a derogatory term for unassimilated immigrants) that the entertainment industry often reduces them to; EEAAO is anything but typical. It is poignant, brutal, bizarre, and fresh; it is riotously funny while also being deeply profound. Ultimately, even though the filmโ€™s authentic representation of Asian Americans is indescribably important, that alone is not why it won seven Oscars. EEAAOโ€™s brilliance does not rely on the fact that it tells an Asian narrative and has an Asian cast. If one were to remove all the filmโ€™s Asian elements, it would still have a compelling storyline, creatively choreographed action sequences, and enchanting visuals. The film does not pigeonhole its Asian actors into narrow roles, but it still manages to celebrate their heritage and the immigrant struggleโ€”that is true representation. The Oscarsโ€™ recognition of this is not only a monumental addition to the achievements of Asian Americans in film but also a victory for the entire Asian American community: for Asian Americans who are constantly pelted with harmful labels, for Asian Americans who grew up with only Mulan and Jackie Chan, for Asian Americans who have been robbed of the opportunity to see heroes that have their features or speak their language, and for all the Asian Americans who have ever felt alienated and excluded. EEAAO is a love letter to Asian Americans, whose voices have gone unheard for so long. Its Oscars sweep is a chance for the Asian American community to find solidarity and amplify their experiences.

The wins show how far Hollywood has come in terms of Asian American representation, but there is still much progress to be made. Asian American actors must continue to fight to establish themselves and eliminate the stereotypes that the American film industry has pushed onto them. Furthermore, efforts must be made to elevate all Asian Americans within film, including frequently underrepresented South and Southeast Asians. Progress cannot stop until every Asian American feels represented on screen. In the words of Yeoh, EEAAOโ€™s victories are โ€œa beacon of hope and possibilities,โ€ proving that Asian Americans are infinitely more than the stereotypes that Hollywood paints them out to be.