Site logo

As Seen on Your Screen: Asian Representation, Agency, and Identity

Film television identity asian

Asian Bodies on Screen

When I was a freshman in college I found myself lamenting the lack of stories about Asians and their experiences in American film and television. On the rare occasion I would see Asian bodies on my TV or movie screen they would be relegated to stereotypes, side characters, or the target of racialized jokes. I could recall seeing many Asian nerds, delivery people, martial artists, or, even stranger, white actors playing Asian characters. But I couldn’t recall a single Asian character that I felt connected with in a real way. I had spent my entire childhood and adolescence so desperately wanting to see a character that not only looked like me, but that I could also see myself in.

A friend of mine suggested I turn to international films. She sent me off with a list of recommendations, the first of which was In the Mood for Love, by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. While watching this film I got to experience a set of complex, multidimensional characters living lonely and complicated lives. They also happened to be Asian. This first experience seeing Asian characters who I actually identified with be central to a story, have fully developed personas, and exert agency felt validating, legitimizing, and healing. It felt like being seen.

A client of mine shared a similar experience when seeing the movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. He explained how empowering it felt to see Asian and Desi men as central figures in this film. The movie also broke stereotypes and refused to put its lead actors into the boxes that Asian and Desi men are often forced into in American media— nerd, sidekick, martial artist. They were allowed to take up space on the screen, be funny, and be human.

Representation and Agency

We’re now living in a time where complex stories about the lives and experience of Asians and Asian Americans are finally getting space in mainstream American film and television. The film Crazy Rich Asians demonstrated that viewers were invested in seeing a story about an all Asian and Asian American cast play out on screen. Parasite and The Farewell, films centered around family dynamics, class, and identity, had widespread critical acclaim and international success. Watching Bong Joon-Ho accept the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture, I felt, again, like I was being seen. While there is still more work to be done in the realm of representation, this year felt like a shift in regards to Asian stories taking up space.

Now when I think about Asian woman representation in the media I think of Sandra Oh’s titular Eve from one of my favorite TV shows, Killing Eve. She’s intelligent, engaging, and powerful. She is also headstrong, dissatisfied, and flawed. Eve has agency, a personality, and makes mistakes. She is the allowed the time, space, and choice necessary to be depicted and experienced by viewers as a whole human being. She is someone who looks and feels a little bit more like me.

Samantha Waldman is a Bridges Co-Founder and psychotherapist practicing in NYC. Learn more about her and her work on her Bridges Therapist Directory Listing, and read more from her on the blog.