There’s no doubt that Aziz Ansari is one of the most important comedians of his generation, and that Master of None is one of the smartest and funniest shows of recent times. However, if you watched Master of None as an immigrant or someone who isn’t white, it may have been a revelation for you, as it was for this writer.
Here is a show, created by people of color and with a cast diverse in sexual orientation and ethnicity, that gently, warmly and hilariously addresses the everyday navigation required of any immigrant and/or non-white person in the modern world – and the show is good. It could lay on an episode about the burden of parental expectation on immigrant children and still be both meaningful and hilarious.
Master of None’s recounting of the modern minority experience is important because it is rare. The representation of Asians in mainstream, Western-produced film and television has traditionally been limited to offensive stereotypes at worst, and one-dimensional roles in support of a usually white protagonist at best. That's if the Asian characters aren’t whitewashed out of stories altogether, of course. On screen, Asians are very rarely portrayed as experiencing the same regular highs, lows and in-between days as white people.
Ansari was lucky enough to make a name for himself as Parks and Recreation’s Tom Haverford, a character whose race was completely incidental and largely irrelevant – and certainly not played for cheap laughs. Throw the search terms “actors racial stereotypes” into Google and you’ll find a litany of anecdotes from non-white actors recounting the obstacles they face as actors of color; only being offered roles that are not only one-dimensional compared to their white counterparts, but that are straight-up racial stereotypes.
Master of None covered this and the other trials of navigating auditions while brown in one of the best episodes of the first season, "Indians on TV". Here, Ansari’s character Dev, auditioning for the role of “unnamed cab driver” is profoundly discomfited by the casting director requiring him to put on a stereotypical Indian accent; his friend Ravi, however, is happy to comply, pointing out that work is work.
Indian-American actor Kal Penn recently tweeted some painful examples of racist audition and script notes that he has actually had to work with in his career, including a Pakistani computer engineer in a “perpetual state of perspiration,” and a character named “Ravi Tulu Singh Shankar Ramanji,” because what a hilarious name, right?! (Sigh.)
Female East Asian actors have often only been offered roles as squealing schoolgirls, prostitutes or masseuses; male East Asian actors are most often offered roles such as the tech geek or the “socially incompetent emasculated Asian stereotype with an accent.” Along with the geek and social incompetent roles, as a bonus, many South Asian male actors are typecast as terrorists; an issue that impacts not only their careers but their ability to travel in real life.
So why don’t Asian actors simply avoid these roles, if they are so offensive? Unfortunately, as Ravi points out, for many actors, these are the only roles for which they are considered.
Somewhere in Hollywood’s long and storied history it was decided that audiences didn’t want to see Asian faces in mainstream stories as complex, multi-dimensional characters. Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani, best known as Dinesh from Silicon Valley, is about to star as the lead in Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy The Big Sick. Nanjiani acknowledges that playing a character like this was “something [he] never thought would happen,” having been through the same racial stereotype audition gauntlet as Kal Penn and countless, lesser-known aspiring brown actors.
The casting of Chinese-Canadian Hayden Szeto as a totally normal (albeit super rich) teenage love interest opposite Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen was a also a step towards Asians playing non-stereotypical, “normal” roles – specifically, an Asian guy who gets the girl – as well as a role the actor wasn’t expecting to access this early in his career.
With East and South Asians making up a large chunk of the world’s population, and thriving film industries in India, Korea, China, Hong Kong and Japan, it’s not that Asian stories don’t make for good movies, or that Asian characters aren’t interesting or engaging. The problem is when stories involving Asians get to the Western mainstream, the old Hollywood instinct kicks in, and the industry’s gatekeepers morph Asian characters into white ones, or will simply cast a white actor as an Asian.
Whitewashing has come to mean far more than slapping a fresh coat of paint on the walls of your home. In a 21st century context, it has come to mean the practice of excluding and/or removing people of color, in this case from film and television.
While all people of color have experienced being whitewashed from mainstream film and television, the whitewashing of Asian (including South Asian) roles looms particularly large at the moment. The last year alone has brought three major white-washing controversies: two from the Marvel stable with the casting of Finn Jones as Iron Fist and Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, and most recently Scarlett Johansson taking on a character originally named Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell.
The outlook for Asian representation is not completely bleak. The roles played by Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick and Hayden Szeto in The Edge of Seventeen were written specifically for a Pakistani-American and Asian-American respectively (admittedly in Nanjiani’s case, based on his own real life experience).
Brit Marling and Zat Batmanglij, creators of Netflix smash The OA, wrote the role of Buck Vu specifically as an Asian-American trans character – one of the rarest of roles on television these days – and refused to budge when the show’s casting director indicated that it might be challenging to source an Asian-American trans actor. This achieved a rare result with a trans role being played by a trans actor, as well as one who met the creators’ brief for ethnicity.
With more writers recognizing the depth, nuance and points of difference that Asian characters can bring to what might have been, for example, a stock-standard, slightly awkward teenage love interest, combined with the increased autonomy provided to creators by platforms such as Netflix, Asian characters (and actors) may well soon be reaching the levels of normalcy enjoyed by their white counterparts.
Asian representation in television owes a lot to Eddie Huang, not only for his memoir which inspired the highly successful Asian family sitcom Fresh off the Boat, but for Huang’s World, Huang’s documentary series on Vice in which he travels the world, bridging gaps through sharing a table, a meal and a real conversation.
Like Master of None, while Huang’s World acknowledges the daily navigation of stereotypes required of non-white people in their day to day life – such as when Sicilian market vendors, upon spotting Huang, immediately start pulling kung fu moves – it is managed with good humor, and an acknowledgment that it doesn’t entail the entirety of Huang’s experience.
While the experience of non-white people differs from that of white people, Huang’s World reminds an audience of all colors that at the end of the day we can still connect over the same things: enjoying the sights and sounds of a new place and sharing a meal with new local acquaintances.
The lack of non-stereotypical roles for Asian actors and the relative lack of stories featuring Asians is not at all a 21st century phenomenon: people of color have been erased and prevented from telling their own stories from the earliest days of colonialism. Mr Yunioshi, Long Duk Dong and Finn Jones’ Danny Rand are sentences in the same long story; one where people of color have been consistently and flagrantly erased, stereotyped and misrepresented in television and film.
The shifting dynamics of mainstream television and film production, as well as the increasing intolerance and protest of Asian creatives to being mocked and sidelined, means that that progress is slowly being made, and that Asians are starting to be recognized by mainstream producers as just as relatable as white characters.
The quest for increased Asian representation is, at its simplest, a desire to be portrayed as Dev in Master of None or as Erwin Kim in The Edge of Seventeen: just a normal person, with normal anxieties about dating, eating, career paths and all the other foibles of navigating modern life. It seems like Hollywood may finally be accepting that this is not too much to ask.