Why are Asians so rare on Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV shows?

greysanatomy

My wife Erin and I love junk-food TV. From “Black List” and “Blindspot” to “Grimm” and “Castle,” we turn into small-screen zombies at night, depending on our DVR to serve up our shows. But there’s one junk-food TV brand that we’ve decided to strike from out diet, and delete from our DVR.

After years of devouring the medical soap series “Grey’s Anatomy,” a couple of seasons of the media-political soap “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” the most recent ABC hit series written and produced by Shonda Rhimes, we’ve gone cold turkey on her shows.

Here’s why: Rhimes is a terrific storyteller, and pioneering producer who casts African Americans in prominent or starring roles in her series. But except for Sandra Oh’s keystone character, the irascible but brilliant surgeon Cristina Yang, Asians are either non-existent or generally fringe-ified. It’s almost as if with Oh’s departure from Shondaland (Rhimes’ production company and the realm where all these shows dwell), the box for Asian stars was checked off: “Done.”

Yeah, yeah, “Murder” has the current plotline of the two adopted kids who may or may not have murdered their wealthy parents, and the son is black and the daughter is Asian, but you know she’s a temporary presence. (I don’t count Katie Findlay, who was murdered at the end of the first season of “Murder.” She’s mixed-race Scottish, English, Portuguese and Chinese, but that hardly mattered to her character, Rebecca.)

Here I should mention that in the original post that ran on Angry Asian Man I left out one character that I like and meant to include, Oliver Hampton, played by mixed-race Filipino Conrad Ricamora. Apologies and many thanks to everyone who pointed him out. I simply spaced it. He has a recurring role as the gay boyfriend of one of the law students who are caught up in the twisted murderous plotlines. Though he’s a geeky techie, I like that he represents a rare phenom in pop culture: a gay Asian American. Maybe he’ll be featured more this season.

A friend also reminded me that Tamlyn Tomita played a judge (named Carol Morrow – what the hell is it with TV shows that include AAPI actors but give them European-American names?) in two episodes of HTGAWM, one in the first season and one in the second. So hey, maybe I should tune in to Murder again after all.

“Scandal,” which is about a brilliant African American woman PR fixer who has a passionate affair with the President of the United States, is ridiculous with its multiple webs of intrigue and insight into political media (or is that media politics?) and every character’s penchant for talking in a breathless staccato stream of consciousness, but it’s like driving by a wreck on the highway – you can’t avert your eyes, and you have to tune in and watch. No amount of watching, though, turned up a major character who is Asian, except for the legal secretary to the US Attorney General, who is played by Brenda Julietta Song, who is Hmong, Chinese and Thai. She was cast in five episode between 2012 and 2014.

Oh wait, once in a while you can get a glimpse of an Asian Secret Service Agent roaming the halls of the White House. Come on, I know Washington, D.C. doesn’t just include white folks and black folks. Unless these shows operate in a weird time warp, that is. It’s as if Shondaland has a pre-1965 immigration quota on Asians.

We never noticed this binary construct until after Sandra Oh left “Grey’s.” That’s when it occurred to us: the series is set in Seattle… where the hell are all the Asians?

Although it’s pandering to stereotype, shouldn’t there be more Asian doctors than just Oh’s character? Shouldn’t there be a South Asian surgeon lurking somewhere in the halls of Grey-Sloan Memorial (formerly Seattle Grace) Hospital, like every other hospital show that ever aired? After all, Asian Indians make up one-third of medical school applicants (according to a 2012 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges). In one 2008 study, 17.2% of US doctors identified as Asian, while 3.8% were black and 5.3% were Hispanic. Three-fourths were white. So it’s not just a stereotype. To be realistic, you’d think any TV show could cast a few Asian physicians.

Speaking of realism, shouldn’t there be some Asian patients lying around, or being attended to in the ER? According to the 2010 Census, Asians are the second largest ethnic group in Seattle (whites are number-one), accounting for 14% of the population. We get sick. We get in accidents (no Asian driver jokes, please). We get shot or otherwise get hurt. I guess we just don’t go to Grey-Sloan Memorial.

To be fair, I’m sure the show has had incidental Asians come and go in the background like furniture from the prop room. I didn’t slow-mo through every episode for every season to scan the extras.

I also should note that there has been a persistent Asian presence on “Grey’s Anatomy:” Bokhee, a scrub nurse whose real name is uncredited but has been on the series since the first season. A scrub nurse in real life, she’s in almost every operating room scene, but she’s covered up with her surgical mask, and has only had a couple of spoken lines during the entire series. Like the “kuroko” stage attendants in traditional Japanese Noh theater who remain in the background and are treated as invisible even as they move across the stage to help keep the production going, Bokhee is an unseen but critical support player.
Shonda Rhimes and anyone else who thinks I’m being overly sensitive and politically-correct will probably point out that Cristina Yang and the odd Asians who have been in her shows are exactly what Hollywood should be doing with Asian characters. They’re not cast as fresh-off-the-boat Asians, with accents and traditional culture as their main attributes. They’re American characters and could be cast as any ethnicity.

It’s a fair point, to which I’d reply that’s true, so why not cast more of the white and other non-ethnic roles who are played by actors of color with Asian actors? Or certainly, cast new characters with AAPIs?

Once we realized this dynamic, we couldn’t watch “Grey’s” anymore. Besides, honestly, hasn’t the show jumped the shark? But we also couldn’t enjoy “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” anymore either. Not seeing people like us in any significant way ultimately distracted us from the series.

We watch TV shows with Asians in them to support our peeps, and to celebrate our coming-of-age in American pop culture. It wasn’t so long ago – less than a decade – when I was giving presentations on the lack of Asians in Hollywood. We’re still not as visible as we should be, given the fact we’re the fastest-growing ethnic group in the US. But we’re much more common on TV in leading roles now.

We’re even THE lead roles in some series, like “Dr. Ken” and “Fresh Off the Boat” for
comedies and “Quantico” for drama. In some, like “Fresh,” being Asian in a strange land (America) is sorta what the show’s about. In “Dr. Ken” and “Quantico” the storylines aren’t necessarily about being Asian, though cultural references are introduced as asides.

The new series that just debuted, “Into the Badlands,” about a dystopian (it’s a dumb cliche but always wanted to use that word) world where warriors that meld samurai and kung-fu-master skills battle each other on behalf of their warlord-like barons, is pretty interesting. It stars Chinese American martial arts actor Daniel Wu as a badass fighter who rides a beat-up old motorcycle and kicks everyone’s butt. It’s gritty and feels like a mix of “The Walking Dead” (Michonne would fit right in) and the recent remake of “Mad Max.” The martial-arts aspect is a bit of a red flag but since it’s about the future when for some reason everyone fights with Wushu and katana moves like cross-cultural ninja, it makes sense so far.

It’s just that it’s nice to see ourselves reflected on TV. Finally.

Some other shows we watch because they have Asian or Asian American actors in them include “Hawaii Five-0,” “Heroes Reborn,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Elementary,” “CSI: Cyber,” “Scorpions” (which also has Justin Lin as executive producer), “Sleepy Hollow” (which had John Cho in its first season and is executive-produced by Albert Kim), Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None,” “The Walking Dead” (well, formerly had an Asian… we think), and even the somewhat goofy action show “Librarians” (which features an Asian Australian for good measure).

We watched “Falling Skies” with Moon Bloodgood. We loved “The Newsroom” with Olivia Munn. We got sucked into “Dark Matter” with Melissa O’Neil and Alex Mallari Jr., and can’t wait for the next season. When John Cho and Maggie Q get new shows we’ll watch them too. We’ll watch “The Mindy Show” if we ever add Hulu to out already overloaded media mix (please get on Netflix, Mindy!).

Let me be clear: We don’t just watch these shows because there’s one or two Asians in the cast, or because it stars an Asian American. We like the shows too. And, we like “Grey’s” and “Scandal” and “Murder.” We watch plenty of shows without Asians, and it doesn’t bug us. The lack of Asian faces in Shondaland strikes us more starkly because she does such a great job – a GREAT job – on diversity overall, in the binary sense.

It’s not like we’ll miss touring Shondaland on Thursday nights. We have lots of shows to fill our junk-food TV diets, without being irritated at the way Rhimes seems to think – or not think – about Asians in her stories.

This originally ran as a guest post on Angry Asian Man while Phil Yu took a vacation. It’s been revised since it ran there.

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10 Responses to Why are Asians so rare on Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV shows?

  1. disagreetodisagree says:

    Where to begin….

    Well first off, I disagree with you tremendously!

    Why must Shonda Rhimes be the one to help the Asian community uplift themselves and get there way into the door of Hollywood when you are showing yourself right now that their is no such thing as POC Solidarity, and may I say border a bit on anti-blackness? Why is she the problem? Have you gone after White directors as well?Looking through the tags on your site, I have yet to see you praise a show that also featured other diverse backgrounds, you only stick to the Asian media sides of things, so how can you expect Rhonda to do the same and cater to you when you don’t support her, a Black woman trying to uplift her community, especially Black women as shown in her new series How to get away with Murder?

    Do I wish there was more Asian characters in Shonda Rhimes shows? Yes.
    Do I wish there were more shows with Asian leads? Of course

    Do I also want to see Asian men and Women specifically shown as more than one dimensional characters that can fall in love? Totally!
    (You may dislike her Character Connor on HTGAWM, and yes it looks like her falls into the stereotypical nerd persona but his character does show something that is real and reminds me of a realistic character, who does have a healthy sex life minus him contracting HIV!)

    I am married to a Japanese man,and would love to see our story be normal every Thursday at 8pm, and maybe one day it will..but I won’t condemn Shonda for it..nor will I condemn Japanese media for it as well.

    You may be wondering why I brought up the Japanese media and how does that tie into this? That’s because just like you, I am frustrated how in Asia, it is common for a *foreigner* to always be represented by White people. I have seen so many drama’s where if it was called for a foreigner to be present, they’re automatically White! I grew up watching anime, jdrama’s and a couple of Hong Kong/ Bollywood movies, and now that I’am older I question how come when a said jdrama character/Hk character,or anime character etc goes to America, Austrailia, France,England..its always White people that they meet when we know that these countries also have diverse race/ethnic groups and vice versa if a foreigner goes to a predominantly Asian country why are they always White? And it’s not like they’re going to the whitest parts of said country, they’re in New York City, California, Paris, London, Syndey, Hawaii, etc! There was even a recent anime called Uchuu Kyoudai that takes place in Houston, and they only show 3 person’s of color! I live in Houston and let me tell you, no one can go anywhere and just see 3 people of color! But yet that’s what this author apparently believes,as well as many others, and if they do happen to show Black people and other POC in their shows, its always stereotypical, but what’s their excuse? And it can’t be that Japan isn’t diverse because that is changing…and an understatement as shown in their own media, even though it’s usually have white half Japanese celebrities they parade, and I too have lived there and can see that in time, Japan will not be a homogeneous state forever. But since that excuse is usually the go to reply, then why is it so easy to have a script ready for Mr. John but one can not think out the box and make one for a foreign person of color?
    But then I have to remind myself that I can’t stay angry at Japan, because I know that White Hollywood started that mess(and did I forget to mention that the only Black astronaut they have on the show has an alter ego that is a gorilla?..Yeah..pure coincidence right?) So if Ms. Shonda Rhimes shows can get popular over seas and show Japan that Black people have more personalities than what is shown to them, I will support her.

    And if that’s truly how you feel, than history has taught you nothing..because it was the Civil Rights movement, created by Black people, that encouraged the Japanese Americans Citzienship League, especially their leader John Tateishi, that were treated horribly during WWII to rally up and demand America to apologize! But I’m sure he didn’t tell Martin Luther King he would boycott him because he didn’t have a lead Asian wing man next to him.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your comments — there’s a lot to think about!

  3. Aaliyah says:

    I guess you don’t watch HTGAWM Oliver and Catherine have storylines on the show. Both of them are Asian American, why don’t you hold white writers and directors for not having Asians on their shows?

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi, thanks for your comment! Actually, I’ve pretty much made a career of criticizing Hollywood’s white mainstream for not casting Asian Americans, and for Yellowface and Whiteface. And here’s what I wrote just above:

    Yeah, yeah, “Murder” has the current plotline of the two adopted kids who may or may not have murdered their wealthy parents, and the son is black and the daughter is Asian, but you know she’s a temporary presence. (I don’t count Katie Findlay, who was murdered at the end of the first season of “Murder.” She’s mixed-race Scottish, English, Portuguese and Chinese, but that hardly mattered to her character, Rebecca.)

    Here I should mention that in the original post that ran on Angry Asian Man I left out one character that I like and meant to include, Oliver Hampton, played by mixed-race Filipino Conrad Ricamora. Apologies and many thanks to everyone who pointed him out. I simply spaced it. He has a recurring role as the gay boyfriend of one of the law students who are caught up in the twisted murderous plotlines. Though he’s a geeky techie, I like that he represents a rare phenom in pop culture: a gay Asian American. Maybe he’ll be featured more this season.

    A friend also reminded me that Tamlyn Tomita played a judge (named Carol Morrow – what the hell is it with TV shows that include AAPI actors but give them European-American names?) in two episodes of HTGAWM, one in the first season and one in the second. So hey, maybe I should tune in to Murder again after all.

  5. BlahBlah says:

    So you expect a Black woman to write Asian characters????? Really? Shonda is BLACK and therefore she will support BLACK people first from her characters to her story lines. God, Black people do not have to include EVERYONE in everything esp when it’s hardly reciprocated.

    Where is your article for Mindy Kaling. She’s ASIAN yet I hardly see any support for the East Asian community on her show. Yet you want to complain about Shonda. Smh. Foh.

    You have Fresh off the Boat. Don’t come for Black people and Black shows.

  6. Aaliyah says:

    Asian Americans need to put in the work like Shonda did and create your own. Shonda is not at all required to lift up the Asian community through her work. Black women already work ten times as hard in Hollywood just to get a seat at the table. Its interesting how folks want in on everything that is black and popular but exclude us from everything else.

  7. Victoria says:

    You really tried it didn’t you?

    Let me just say as someone who is AN AVID K/J Drama Junkie, I never see when these people come to America or the UK or France in their shows deal with Black people and if they do, it’s negative like in Hana Yori Dango where the lead actress is being accosted by the scary big Black thugs or Shining Inheritance where one of the girls referred to her friend’s physical encounter with Black men in America with disdain telling him he shouldn’t have fought with us because we are “scary”. All while their styles of dressing, slang, and musical choices are straight up BLACK AMERICAN/DIASPORA inspired?

    How Sway?

    Why is it that when in those drama they have an opportunity to cast non white foreigners who speak Hindi, Panjabi, Korean, Japanese, etc., fluently they go with the status quo instead or in India’s case, the lightest of the bunch of their own since they treat their own dark skinned fams like shit too? All those African students in university at Seoul and in Mumbai, and you mean a character in the class room isn’t going to have interaction with one of them? Black politicians and dignitaries live in Asia and so their families do too. No rich Black friends in their glamours version of international schools on these shows. Teachers come into contact with Black teachers there to teach English, but in a show about a teacher will you ever see that reflected?

    Listen, the deal is this. We didn’t come over here with a green card and a hope. We came over here against out will and MADE this country with blood, sweat, and tears. We fought for our rights and in the process for other POCs too, even when they decided to go the model minority route and forsake us to get a little head rub from their Albino gods. And we STILL get treated like shit not only by racist institutions and its creators but their Lemmings dying not to have the hoses turned on them like we have. We have been over here for as long as (and if you listen to some tell it BEFORE) Columbus. Not because we were looking for a better life, or fleeing a warring land, or poverty. We have been here. For US, the world was very Black and White since unfortunately the Native Americans were annihilated in their native land. And yet, despite our creation of this new land called America we initially NEVER treated immigrants or other POCs with malice as a WHOLE. Instead, WE were treated like shit by newcomers.

    Still, we MANAGE to be INCLSUIVE to other POCs even when the favor is not returned. SHONDA, a Black woman made Sandra’s Christina Yang character the most relevant and well loved female character of the show outside of Bailey, despite the fact that it’s centered around Meredith. African Americans supported and loved Christina’s character from beginning to end. She got an NAACP award for her portrayal of Christina. She literally carried the show and was never given a bad story line, IMO. Sandra’s talents were recognized by Shonda and in turn Shonda entrusted her with the task of bringing in viewers with those talents.

    On Scandal, Asians of various ethnic groups have been apart of the show.

    And on H2GAWM there have been at least four Asians who have prominent parts in the story lines and it has only been two seasons.

    So you not watching this Black women’s barrier breaking shows because she doesn’t feature YOUR or your wife’s (I don’t know if you are Asian or if you are married to one and trying be all faux outraged) ethnicity enough is hilarious considering you don’t see to be that upset about Asian Americans/Asians who don’t return the favor.

    She is really only beholden to her own people who give her flack for not being Black-centric ENOUGH, and yet here she is casting White Hispanics, Black Black Hispanics, Anglo-Americans, Asian-Americans, Biracial people, Euros, etc., and ya’ll STILL not happy.

    I’m so glad she doesn’t rely on your for support.

    BYE.

  8. Cynthia says:

    I am confused by a lot of the comments above.

    More than agreeing with the author, I realize that not only east asian is missing from GA, but also not a single indian, latino/a(after Callie left), or middle eastern main characters could be found in the show!

    So if Shonda doesn’t have to care about the overall diversity of the show, but only need to bring in as many roles with the same ethnicity as herself, then is it okay for a white producer to run a show without any non-white characters? uh oh, wait, you definitely will see complaints!

    Minorities should support each other, shouldn’t they? If a producer runs shows with only whites and their own race, what’s the difference between s/he and a white producer rejecting all non-white characters???

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