The Winds are Chang-ing!
TV watchers, there’s a new detective in town. Following in the wildly popular BBC show Sherlock comes CBS’ Elementary, a modern take on Sherlock Holmes. However, to the despair of traditionalists worldwide, Elementary’s Watson is neither a man…nor Caucasian. Instead, Lucy Liu dons the Watson moniker and immediately begins stealing the spotlight from Sherlock, played by Johnny Lee Miller. To be expected, backlash voiced outrage at an Asian woman playing a role reserved for a white man. Her acting capabilities were doubted, English capacity questioned, and intelligence probed.
The plot, writing, and acting aside, it’s important to look at the history of Asian female representation in mainstream media. From Anna May Wong depicting the infamous Dragon Lady character in movies such as Daughter of the Dragon (1931) and Daughter of Shanghai (1937) to Lucy Liu herself playing Alex Munday in Charlie’s Angels (2000) wearing chopsticks, a sexualized qipao, and giving massages with happy endings, Asian women have not fared well in the eyes of Hollywood. South Asians are almost nowhere to be seen while Southeast Asians are often cast as East Asians in stereotypical roles. When it comes down to ethnicities, we usually see Koreans playing Chinese, Chinese playing Japanese, Japanese playing Chinese, etc.
2012 has been a big year for Asians on television. Although Tina Cohen-Chang’s (Jenna Ushkowitz) character on Glee has been a staple member since day one, her spotlight is given to other characters 99.9 percent of the time. Her boyfriend on the show, Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr.), is similarly looked over. Tina’s more alternative style and Mike’s athletic background both shake the Model Minority myth of the math-obsessed Asian nerd. The criticism of Glee’s racial representation as tokenism rather than true representation will hopefully yield more screentime for Tina, Mike, Santana, and Mercedes. Once Upon A Time, an NBC show about fairy tales in modern times, is going to be featuring Chinese folk hero Mulan as part of a storyline this fall. Jamie Chung, a Korean-American actress, plays Mulan in full armor, and I sit on the edge of my seat to see how she handles this role.
However, not all is well in TV land. In the show Two Broke Girls, Han Lee (Matthew Moy), is a stereotypical goofy Asian man with a thick accent and social awkwardness. It’s like watching The Hangover all over again. On the same wave as Ken Jeong, Bobby Lee’s role in USA’s new show Animal Practice, is nothing new. Comic relief, goofiness, a heavy accent, and the usual antics. Much like Lee’s skits on Mad TV.
Back to Elementary. So far, so good! I’ve only caught the first episode, and Liu’s performance has blown me again. Miller is charming as well in an arrogant Sherlock kind of way, but Liu’s portrait of a strong and independent Asian woman who doesn’t take anyone’s bullshit is refreshing and inspiring. Liu says, “It’s nice to be able to portray an Asian-American on camera without having an accent, or without having to be spoofy. And I think that’s a big step forward, because there are still representations of people that are more comedic. And that’s not what I’m playing. I’m just playing somebody who represents anyone else who would be living in America or outside of it, who is just a regular person.”
I agree 100 percent. And for those who criticized Elementary before it even aired for the casting of Joan Watson, I invite you to watch and enjoy having your mind blown.