On Jan. 8, 2021, The Hollywood Reporter ran the headline, “Oscars: Has ‘Parasite’ ushered in a golden age of odd films?” Within minutes, Twitter users slammed the magazine for its word choice. Many found the usage of “odd” racist, citing America’s discriminatory and xenophobic history. The official Parasite account even called out the magazine’s post. Since then, The Hollywood Reporter issued an apology and rephrased the question as “Has ‘Parasite’ Ushered in a Broader Acceptance of Genre?” The edit itself is telling of the drastic change in tone.
Despite changes, the original piece taps into a troubling legacy of otherizing in the United States. As the article’s author demeaned, Bong Joon Ho’s win “delegitimized” the prestige of the Oscars, and in the process, also devalued the film’s victory.
In the last five centuries, the world has largely been shaped by Western ideals. Indeed, many regions experienced the effects of European imperialism firsthand. Consequently, local ways of living changed both physically and ideologically; styles of dress, religions, and cultural norms shifted to fit Western standards. Historians like David Landes even went so far as to claim that Western societies were more civilized. States like China had collapsed because of their failure to act “more European.”
These oft-repeated myths still endure and manifest themselves in mainstream media. Put shortly, The Hollywood Reporter’s vernacular was far from abnormal. It echoed an ugly, pervasive sentiment: foreign was different, and different meant bad.
Representation as a blessing and a curse
Hollywood continues to be a mass producer of racial stereotypes. Although films like Into the Spiderverse and The Farewell have challenged monoliths of monotony, they remain few and far between.
For decades, Hollywood perpetuated racist tropes and even whitewashed their casts. Actors would often exaggerate what little they knew about communities of color, consequently creating mocking performances. For example, Mickey Rooney acted as the Breakfast at Tiffany’s Mr. Yunioshi, a bucktoothed Japanese man who spoke broken English. These outdated practices have continued well on into the 21st century. Movies like Cloud Atlas, Doctor Strange, and Ghost in the Shell came under fire for casting white actors to play Asians.
When films include people of color, they often inhabit marginalized roles. Asians play nerdy side-characters. Black actors are the best friend or die within minutes of their screen time. Latinx characters seduce, sell drugs, or perform housekeeping. It’s essentially a Westernized bind of representation. Minorities see themselves on the screen, but only from the stereotypical perspective of white audiences.
Even if some generalizations are true, many producers of color grapple with questions of appeal and authenticity. Take Kim’s Convenience, a CBC sitcom featuring a Canadian Korean family. Originally a play, Kim’s Convenience reflects the real-life experiences of its writer, Ins Choi. The show does follow certain tropes of the store-owning father, Korean-accented English, and others. Even if these experiences were true, producers had to keep in mind their audience. Was it too white for Canadian Koreans? Was it oversimplifying Korean culture for white viewers?
A single-story isn’t a complete one
In the summer of 2018, the highly anticipated Crazy Rich Asians released in theaters across the United States. Audiences lauded the movie for its all-Asian cast. It grossed $239 million worldwide. Despite its success, the film followed a rather bland storyline mixed with tropes of the disapproving mother-in-law, the handsome fiancé, and above all, the obscene presence of opulence.
While the film avoided typical Hollywood premises of the oppressed, war-torn minorities—an outdated formula due for the graveyard—it still reflected the industry’s taste for extremes.
Hollywood tends to depict people of color as impoverished refugees or mega-rich socialites. Netflix even jumped on the bandwagon, announcing the release of the Bling Empire, a reality TV show following the lives of affluent Asian Americans in Los Angeles.
Even if these films are “complimentary” in their efforts to show how successful minorities can be in Western societies, it is still dangerous. Take the stereotype of “the rich Jew.” For millennia, Jews were persecuted. They came to inhabit demeaning roles in the places they lived. They became money-handlers and, in turn, people described them as conniving or clever. Jewish people were both the object of hatred and jealousy, as their perceived differences and stereotyped wealth made them an easy target for scapegoating.
Where are the films that depict the everyday lives of minorities, but without an identity tied to the overplayed and racialized descriptors of personality and status?
More than a diversity role
While attitudes found in The Hollywood Reporter are far from rare, people aren’t letting such archaic views stop them.
Beloved franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek have cast actresses like Ming-Na Wen and Michelle Yeoh. They play fearless, introspective characters defined, not by racial stereotypes, but by their grit and drive as soldiers and captains. In 2018, Sandra Oh also became the first Asian American to win a Primetime Emmy Award for her role in the TV drama, Killing Eve.
Other critically acclaimed media like Train to Busan and the British TV show Humans featured prominent Asian stars like Gong Yoo and Gemma Chan. Like Wen and Yeoh, they played characters that were not constrained by cultural expectations. They were simply characters put into unique circumstances, free of formulaic tropes that might have otherwise shunted them into a racialized sidekick role. If given the chance, Asians can play roles outside of historical and cultural categories—and they can do it well.
To Western critics, Parasite might feel “odd,” simply because of its perceived difference. Whatever the reason, whiteness—and Western expectations of “foreignness”—should not be a prerequisite for approval.