Yifei Liu in Disney’s “Mulan” (Disney)


Opinion: How western entertainment is doing East Asian representation wrong

East Asian representation in the Western film industry has grown, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/elenacupid/" target="_self">Helaine Zhao</a>

Helaine Zhao

December 13, 2021
Disney’s recent remake of “Mulan” in a live-action format was a debacle. The film was highly anticipated — the first animated Disney “Mulan” film was a box office success, and who doesn’t enjoy the epic story of China’s great woman warrior? However, audiences were not only disappointed by the failure of the live-action to live up to the hype, but it also ended up being a failure in accurately representing Chinese culture. 

Linda Chong, a graduate of the Communication department at UCSB, writes in an article on The Bottom Line, the all-white director and writers of “Mulan” misrepresented the patriarchal system of Confucianism and oppression of women in ancient China. 

Western entertainment not only misrepresents East Asians but also doesn’t represent them enough. According to a study conducted by Dr. Nancy Yuen and several other researchers in the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative project, across 1,300 top-grossing films in Hollywood from 2007 to 2019, there were only 5.9% Asian and Pacific Islander characters in total, and this statistic is including those with heritage from other regions of Asia and the Pacific Islands, revealing how little representation East Asians have in the film industry. 

East Asians comprise around 1.7 billion people, about 20.5% of the entire global population; by producing more films with East Asian characters, there is already a large group of people willing and waiting to support these films.  

As a result of the lack of accurate representation of East Asians in Western entertainment, the film and TV industry is overlooking a huge block of economic potential for box office revenue, and this can be solved by increasing accurate representation of East Asians in Western film and series productions. 

The demand for East Asians in entertainment media across the globe is high. Using the recent hit, “Squid Game” as an example, although it is a Korean drama set in Korea with all the actors speaking Korean, it quickly became Netflix’s biggest original series ever. With just over $21 million invested into the film, “Squid Game was able to generate over $900 million for Netflix.

Aside from the intriguing plot, a major reason for “Squid Game”’s success is the rising popularity of East Asian entertainment in Western societies. Netflix has begun to produce and stream more shows with East Asian casts, and a lot of these shows, including “Squid Game,” have been very successful and profitable in the United States.

Many other entertainment media with East Asian representation have been proved to be incredibly successful in not only the United States, but globally. From Korean dramas to Japanese anime to Korean pop groups, many people and companies in the world have learned to love East Asian entertainment. 

For example, the famous Korean boy band, BTS, was able to earn over $170 million just from touring in 2019, and they have reportedly brought about $3.6 billion to the South Korean economy. 

Back in early 2020, the popularity of Korean dramas could also be shown through the series “Crash Landing on You,” which garnered over 1.75 billion online views. However, the Western film industry has yet to pick up on this economic opportunity, as it is still rare to see an East Asian face in most Western film productions. 

Over the last few years, East Asian representation in the Western film industry has definitely grown, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. The disproportionate representation of East Asians in Western films is still a major issue today, and from examples like “Squid Game,” it is evident that these problems can be solved by increasing awareness of this lack of representation and proving the economic potential of these films to the entertainment industry. 

With more knowledge about the investment potential of East Asians in Western movies and media, film companies will likely be more willing to represent East Asian characters in Western films. The process will be difficult since the last few decades have established the foundation of an industry that lacks East Asian representation already, but change and improvement is definitely possible with more awareness and action. 

Through gradually increasing the representation of East Asians in Western films, racial stereotypes can be reduced, East Asians will receive more accurate representation in film and TV, and the Western entertainment industry will be able to recognize the opportunity and reap the full potential of the market for East Asian media.