Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Hollywood Must Do More to Combat Asian Stereotypes

Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) in HBOMax's 'Warrior'; Sandra Oh in 'Killing Eve'; and Thaddea Graham in 'The Irregulars'; with inset of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Courtesy of HBO; BBC; Netflix; Leon Bennett/WireImage

Andrew Koji in 'Warrior,' Sandra Oh in 'Killing Eve' and Thaddea Graham in 'The Irregulars' are strong depictions of Asians onscreen.

The THR columnist notes that while progress in the portrayal of Asians is real, it has been maddeningly slow: "Hollywood likes to sit back and congratulate itself. But prejudice doesn't relax."

Back in the late '60s when I was a student at UCLA studying martial arts under Bruce Lee, he spoke often and passionately about the harmful way Asian Americans were portrayed on television shows and in movies. How having characters like Hop Sing (Bonanza) and Hey Boy (Have Gun Will Travel) shuffling about happily serving their white bosses gave the impression that Asian males were grateful, sexless servants. Asian women were generally beautiful, demure, sexy servants in need of protection from the gun-toting white males. Bruce did his best to destroy those stereotypes by becoming the virile action hero in Hong Kong movies that Hollywood wouldn’t let him be.

Flash forward 55 years and, with a few notable exceptions, the demeaning stereotypes remain and have born bitter fruit: The recent mass murder of Asian Americans in Atlanta is only one of the thousands of racially motivated incidents against the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community in the past year. Fueled by moronic politicians’ references to COVID-19 as the “China virus” or “kung flu,” hate crimes against Asian Americans increased in 2020 by 150 percent and, as daily attacks around the country show, it’s only getting worse. Sadly, the most disturbing part isn’t the increase in violence, it’s how little it takes to trigger that violence — as if attackers are just waiting for an excuse to express their ignorance.

Fighting the rising aggression against Asian Americans isn’t just about marching with signs and declaring outrage in the media. That definitely helps because it can prompt increased prosecutions, legislation and other governmental actions, such as President Biden’s March 30 directives to combat racism against the AAPI community. But the national pattern of violence is a symptom of a deeper malady, which is the degrading perception of Asian Americans by the non-AAPI community. This perception, which infantilizes women and emasculates men, creates an environment, both conscious and subconscious, that tacitly permits the persecution of those considered somehow less worthy of respect than whites.

I remember reading a book in the '70s called Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers. The title comes from the typical expression uttered by Asian characters in old TV and radio shows, movies and comic books. Ironically, when the traditional publishing houses turned the book down, the press at historically Black Howard University took up the challenge.

Explained Frank Chin, one of the editors of Aiiieeeee!, “The Blacks were the first to take us seriously and sustained the spirit of many Asian American writers.” Even then, both groups understood that unless every marginalized group was treated equally, no one would be.

While more Asian American voices have been added to the canon of American literature and more Asian Americans are seen in movies and TV shows, the bar was pretty low to start with. And “more” does not mean enough to make a significant difference in impacting the prejudicial perceptions perpetuated by all the negative portrayals. Dav Pilkey, author of the immensely popular children’s graphic novel series Captain Underpants recently apologized for “harmful racial stereotypes and passively racist imagery” regarding his portrayal of Asians in The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen From the Future (2010). The publisher, Scholastic, announced they would stop distributing the book, with the “full support” of Pilkey: “Together, we recognize that this book perpetuates passive racism.” According to a survey, Dr. Seuss’s books contain 2 percent characters of color and 98 percent white characters. And those characters of color, including Blacks and Asians, often are portrayed as dehumanizing stereotypes, which is why Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to stop publishing certain books.

While Pilkey’s apology seems truly sincere, his book has been in circulation for 11 years, while Dr. Seuss’ books have been around since 1937. That’s a lot of generations growing up learning at a young age that demeaning Asian Americans is OK in our popular culture — and therefore OK in society and politics. And there are hundreds of other books, TV shows and movies that also send the same damaging message. The most egregious ones should be pulled from circulation, and those that have some historical value should come with a warning in the beginning that the content features harmful racial stereotypes, as has been done for films like Gone With the Wind that perpetuated dangerous Black stereotypes.

The real issue here isn’t just adding more Asian American characters, it’s about the kind of characters portrayed. Two important areas that are deliberately overlooked by Hollywood are Asian Americans as romantic leads and as heroic leads. Few series dare to have an Asian American man as the object of romantic desire, especially by a white woman (are you listening, Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise?). Fewer have Asian American women as leads prized for their intelligence and outspoken strength rather than their svelte figure and flirty smile.

There are exceptions: the wonderful Cinemax series Warrior, based on a Bruce Lee treatment, focuses mostly on tough and sexy Chinese men and women fighting for survival in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1870s. Killing Eve features a riveting Sandra Oh as an espionage analyst with brains, courage and none of the stereotypical traits. New Netflix series The Irregulars, about Sherlock Holmes’ street urchin helpers follows the Bridgerton tradition of ignoring racial realities in history and filling London with a multiracial cast that wouldn’t have existed then, including a Black Watson and an Asian girl (Thaddea Graham) who is the brains of the Irregulars. There are other recent exceptions worth noting: the touching and beautiful Minari, the witty and heartfelt The Farewell, the charming and romantic Crazy Rich Asians, and others.

But in general, portrayals of Asian Americans are often comic-relief sidekicks (House, Prodigal Son), monosyllabic martial arts masters (Wu Assassins), homework-loving nerds, or wizened oldsters with fortune cookie advice. We need a commitment to produce more varied portrayals of Asian Americans, but also that more of their stories to be told by Asian Americans working behind the cameras, including writers and directors. The problem is when the industry produces a Minari or The Farewell or Killing Eve, it likes to sit back and relax while congratulating itself.

But prejudice — and the hostility and violence that results — doesn’t sit back and relax. Those individuals who are intent on vile threats and committing hate crimes can’t be dissuaded by logic or appeals to morality because they have neither. What we can do is remove the implied approval and entitlement they feel from a society that they believe has their backs. After all, if we valued Asian Americans, why would we allow them to be continually humiliated by how we portray them, or worse, how we ignore them as a significant presence. Especially when we have the power to change things.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an NBA Hall of Famer and the league's all-time leading scorer, is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Follow him @KAJ33 or visit kareemabduljabbar.com