In a “Friends” (1994-2004)–like setting, a group of freshly-commenced graduates gathers in a Manhattan apartment, laughing about a recently botched date with one of the characters, Deb. The plotline repeats a familiar tune. Another character, Chris, complains to his friends about how he is going to tell his parents he’s dating a girl they won’t approve of. His friends, though quick with playful banter, can only try to assist with misguided but sweet advice.
This scene isn’t like anything you’ve seen on television or sitcoms on U.S. cable or broadcast; all but one of the leads are Asian-American. In an entertainment business that excludes any Asian speaking characters from more than half of its shows, this scene is unlikely to ever appear on the small screen.
This is a snippet from William Yu’s (LA ’13) TV pilot script, written for a capstone project during his senior year at Tufts. The show features a group of Asian-Americans living in New York City who are trying to “figure out adulthood while also trying to be comfortable with their own cultural identities,” according to Yu. His project also included a research paper about the lack of Asian-Americans in the U.S. entertainment media.
Yu launched the #StarringJohnCho Twitter campaign in May, following his research. The campaign includes a Photoshop project that replaces white lead actors on movie posters with “Harold & Kumar” actor John Cho in order to draw attention to the lack of Asian-American representation in the media.
While some Hollywood decision-makers excuse themselves by claiming a lack of Asian-American actors, Yu aims to have his project demonstrate that there is an eligible actor right in front of them.
“Asian-Americans can fit these lead roles and fill positions of strength and presence and charisma and both be a romantic person as well as being a leader,” Yu said. “Having examples [in the media] that [Asian-Americans] can directly relate to is very instrumental in not only setting the bar but knowing that you can achieve it and that people before you have achieved certain levels of success.”
Months after the launch of his project, VARIETY announced that Cho will play the lead in USA Network’s “Connoisseur,” an upcoming drama about a con artist who hustles the rich by selling fake wine.
Other social media campaigns have shared the same sentiment and have responded directly to recent casting decisions in Hollywood productions. Comedian Margaret Cho, through her hashtag #whitewashedOUT, drew attention to the problem – that Hollywood has been whitewashing certain roles that were originally written for East Asians.
Examples of white actors being cast as characters of another race include Emma Stone as a mixed Asian/Pacific Islander woman in “Aloha” (2015); Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, the Japanese protagonist from the manga series “Ghost in the Shell” (1989-1990); and Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa in the upcoming “Power Rangers” (2017) movie.
A report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism revealed that out of 109 blockbusters since 2014, only 1.4 percent of the lead roles have gone to Asians. Because of this, Asian viewers rarely see their faces reflected in substantial ways on any screen.
“Growing up as a Korean-American, it was tough because there wasn’t a lot of representation of people who looked like me onscreen,” Yu said. “It was hard to define who exactly was going to be the role model that I could be empowered by.”
Yu said he recognizes that a true shift in Hollywood politics will not come from only casting John Cho or other Asian-American individuals, but noted that there needs to be more representation in terms of who is in charge of writing, directing and producing.
“The greater message is about Asian-Americans as a group, because casting one guy is not going to solve all the problems,” Yu said. “You need representation both in front and behind the camera. As much as #StarringJohnCho is about casting an Asian-American in a certain role, I think there needs to be great storytelling and richer storytelling from either Asian-Americans or people who are writing for Asian-Americans that explore the detail and nuances of Asian-American life.”
Today, more accessible platforms like YouTube and Netflix allow for webisodes from Wong Fu Productions and shows like “Master of None” (2015), created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, to gain widespread attention. Wong Fu’s feature film “Everything Before Us” raised $350,000 on an Indiegogo campaign, after many in Hollywood told filmmakers Wesley Chan, Ted Fu and Philip Wang that films with Asian-American leads were not profitable.
Yu points to these shows as proof that there is a demand for more diverse content. These productions portray depictions of Asian-American life but also don’t always center on race-specific topics.
Smaller scale production can also help avoid problems like the ones Eddie Huang encountered with ABC in the process of creating “Fresh off the Boat” (2015-present), a show originally based on Huang’s experience as a Taiwanese immigrant growing up in white suburban Orlando. Under the scrutiny of network executives, Huang claimed that much of his story was compromised for exoticized and stereotyped portrayals of the family. Huang eventually denounced the show and created another show called “Huang’s World” (2016) on VICELAND.
“There are so many real moments in that show that are way too close to things in my life. You take it for what it is. It’s a network show. It has to be broad in terms of appealing to a wide range of people,” Yu said, acknowledging the broadness of the show. “Honestly, there’s not much else on TV like [Fresh off the Boat], which is wonderful to see.”
Yu, who now works as a marketing strategist at SapientNitro in New York City, believes that social media movements like #StarringJohnCho have the ability to open up these conversations about social justice and equity issues. Yu leverages what he calls the “cultural insight” from social media; anyone with a Twitter handle is able to share their opinions about #StarringJohnCho, and users can share articles or readings that help contextualize a post. Celebrities like Mindy Kaling, George Takei, and even John Cho himself, are able to all weigh in.
While the discussion is only just beginning to gain momentum, there is already growing coverage of Asian-American actors in publications across the United States. A May 26 headline in the LA Times reads, “Asian American theater group pushes for the day when it doesn’t need #StarringJohnCho.” This just goes to show: #StarringJohnCho may have claimed social media, but its deeper implications play off beyond the screen.
An earlier version of this story was originally published online in June.