Michelle Yeoh is the first Asian actress to win the best actress Academy Award for her role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” The role itself was adapted with her in mind, by writers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, and Yeoh relished the chance to show what she is fully capable of as an actress.
Asians are not well represented in Hollywood, with only 6% of speaking roles being given to Asian and Pacific Island actors. Many roles could have been played by someone of Asian descent, but even characters written as having an Asian identity have been whitewashed in the past, casting a white person instead. “Crazy Rich Asians” notoriously was the first mainstream movie with an all-Asian cast, although the lead role was originally going to be whitewashed. The author, Kevin Kwan, would not allow that.
Hollywood is driven to make money, and if movies that have generated blockbuster income have all been led by non-Asian actors or actresses, then it is less likely that an Asian actor or actress will be chosen for a lead role. This is termed the availability bias – that we are influenced by what comes easily to mind.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” star Michelle Yeoh accepts the Academy Award for best actress.
What comes to mind when you think of blockbuster movies? Very few have been led by Asian actors and actresses. Availability bias will influence the potential roles offered to Asians until someone who knows what Asians are capable of, someone with some degree of power, changes that, just as the Daniels of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” did for Michelle Yeoh and Kevin Kwan did for “Crazy Rich Asians.” These are behind-the-scenes critical connections.
Subsequent to that, recognition of Asians by Hollywood award ceremonies matters because what is seen on the small and big screens of our lives influences how daily life is perceived. To see an actress of Asian descent among the best actress nominees allows a larger audience to see what is achievable in our world today.
Seeing ourselves in our heroes
To be sure, external validation should not be the only thing sought after. Awards are few and far between, only given to the minority of individuals. Believing in oneself and pushing for one’s own authentic goals is more important. It can be enough to be “good enough.”
But still, growing up, my superficial heroes were Barbie and the blonde twins of “Sweet Valley High.” Books, TV or movies had no role models that looked like me. I became a professor at an Ivy League institution without having seen someone who looks like me in such a position, not even on a screen.
I have no dreams of being a thespian, but it means an immeasurable amount to me that someone who looks like me, on a superficial level, is recognized as one of the best actresses in the world.
Michelle Yeoh’s win makes me, as an Asian American woman and mother, feel seen. It makes me feel empowered, excited and encouraged to follow my own dreams and create the future, even if it is not one that easily comes to mind. She won the award, but even had she lost, her nomination increased the number of individuals able to recognize what Asians can do.