Culture Shift: Putting the Asian Achievements at the 2023 Oscars in Perspective
Culture Shift is THR‘s new newsletter dedicated to exploring and examining the current frontiers of inclusion in the media and entertainment industry. Each bimonthly edition will give subscribers the first look at stories centering the experiences of people from historically excluded backgrounds, as well as a compendium of other inclusion-themed coverage you might have missed. Expect a mix of reported features, Q&As and op-eds from both THR staffers and guest writers, and subscribe here.
To this day, I still have never seen Breathing Lessons, but I’ll always know that it won the Academy Award for best documentary short, and that it was directed by a woman named Jessica Yu.
I know this because Yu ascending the stage in her black-and-gold evening gown at the 1997 ceremony is my first memory of seeing an Asian person win an Oscar. I was a first-generation Chinese American in high school, light years away from any sort of career or even ambition of having anything to do with the entertainment industry, yet the moment planted a seed of imagination in me, expanding the possibilities I could envision for my future and that of those who looked like me.
(If you have a hard time grasping the significance of the revelation of “seeing yourself for the first time,” chances are it happened to you so early that you don’t remember it, and being reflected in your media environment — at the movies and on TV, but also in storefront advertising and the pages of magazines — is such a mundane experience that you don’t even notice it. Earlier this week, a video trended of a toddler getting fitted for glasses for the first time. Just as those of us who have grown up without visual impairment take the gift of sight for granted, so too might those who have always experienced the privilege of representation.)
One of the reasons why Ke Huy Quan’s comeback narrative has been particularly poignant for a generation of Asian Americans is that for many of us, Short Round and Data were more than simply nostalgic characters from our childhoods. They were lifelines, symbols of validation of our right to belong among a group of neighborhood pals, our worthiness of sharing screen time alongside a Hollywood hero. Such glimpses of representation were fleeting enough growing up that my husband and I — Asian Americans of a certain age — still cannot shake the habit of reflexively playing “Spot the Asian” whenever we watch TV, keenly attuned to the glimpse of a familiar-looking face in a crowd scene, in a commercial, on the jumbotron.
Over time, Asians growing up in Western culture have become inured to being invisible, brought out only to serve a supporting function within a narrow range of contexts: nerdy classmate, IT specialist, sexy masseuse. Just seven years ago, nobody behind the scenes of the 2016 Oscars telecast batted an eye when the only planned onstage Asian representation — keep in mind, this was the ceremony intended to address two straight years of #OscarsSoWhite criticism — was trotting out three little Asian kids in tuxedoes and calling them the awards show’s accountants.
Two years ago, on the heels of Parasite’s history-making year and in advance of several artists of Asian descent from different films — Nomadland, Minari, Sound of Metal — in contention for Hollywood’s highest honor, I wrote about how far Asian representation at the Oscars had come in just half a decade. And even then, I could not have imagined that just two years later, a stage full of Asians would once again be the defining, parting image for another awards season.
It’s progress worthy of celebration. Thirty years ago, The Joy Luck Club premiered in theaters, earning respectable reviews and an indelible position in the Asian American pop culture canon. Its executive producer Janet Yang hoped that the film would usher in a wave of Asian American studio films, but that didn’t happen until a quarter-century later, when Crazy Rich Asians opened those doors. In the meantime, Yang became active in the Academy, helping organize fellow Asian members in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite sight gag and becoming a governor-at-large. And now she is president of the whole thing.
Still, relative progress should not be conflated with absolute progress. The leaps in recognition — four Asian actors nominated in 2023, Asian winners in eight categories (both single-year records) — are meteoric only because of the total paucity that is still the norm. The irony is that as long as such achievements are still legitimately considered milestones, diversity is still the exception, not the rule.
Speaking of diversity: The startling over-performance of Everything Everywhere All at Once — a once-in-a-generation cinematic phenomenon, one for whom being Asian-centric was only one of its unique attributes — should not whitewash (pun intended) the glaring underrating of this year’s many critically acclaimed artistic contributions from Black creatives (of which only Wakanda Forever’s Ruth Carter was ultimately honored) or from the chronic absence of Latino artists from the development-to-awards pipeline. “It’s crazy that Latinidad is already the majority minority and we will soon be a fourth of the country, and consistently we are not in the rooms we are supposed to be in,” writer Gloria Calderón Kellett notes in this week’s Culture Shift exclusive. Calderón Kellett also points out that the danger in overhyping marginal gains in diversity is that it distorts the perception of the true state of inclusion: “The conversation is so loud that white men are worried, but there are reports that come out every year that support that the town is still very white.”
Not to end on a down note, but the work of shifting culture means being able to take genuine joy in the wins while always taking stock of what still needs to be done. Now, who’s ready for next season?