By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
From headlining ground-breaking television shows to dominating award ceremonies and industry promotions, 2015 was truly a banner year for Asian Americans in the media. Let’s reminiscence about this year’s top 15 highs — and lows.
15. “Sanjay’s Super Team” features first human protagonist of color in Pixar film
Pixar Animation Studio, the company behind beloved animated films such as “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “Up,” released its first human protagonist of color in a film. “Sanjay’s Super Team,” a seven-minute short, opened for Pixar’s recent “The Good Dinosaur.”
“Sanjay’s Super Team” focused on childhood memories from Pixar animator and storyboard artist Sanjay Patel.
The feel-good short, which was directed by Patel, highlights his experiences of growing up as a child of immigrants and how he eventually connected with his cultural roots by using his imagination to view Hindu deities as superheroes. Given Pixar’s large audience, the short opening for a major studio animated film reflect the growing presence of Asian Americans characters in mainstream media.
14. Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra headlines her first American TV show
The world was abuzz when Indian actress Priyanka Chopra was announced as the lead actor for ABC drama-thriller “Quantico.” A famous Bollywood star and singer, Chopra also won the Miss World beauty pageant in 2000. Despite being largely unfamiliar to American audiences, her arrival to Hollywood was long awaited by her global fanbase.
“Quantico” follows a class of FBI recruits and focuses on Chopra’s character, who tries to clear her name after she’s framed for committing a terrorist attack.
Fun fact: Late night news program “Nightline” mistakenly featured a photo of Indian actress Yukta Mookhey in an on-air promo for an interview with Chopra. Mookhey had been crowned Miss World in 1999 — Chopra won the year after. Viewers commented on social media about the obvious mix-up between the two beauty queens.
Since, you know, all Indians look alike.
Chopra, to her credit, laughed off the incident.
13. #NotTheSame awareness campaign celebrates uniqueness
The online racial awareness campaign #NotTheSame made waves on social media by challenging the idea that all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (APIs) look the same, speak the same, share the same culture, and have access to the same opportunities.
Launched by nonprofit The Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the month-long campaign aimed to empower and encourage Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to share personal experiences and raise awareness of the varied and unheard stories of cultural, racial, and ethnic struggle.
The campaign also featured APIs and their personal stories in 30-second public service announcements (PSA) on Comcast and NBC affiliates. This was a rare opportunity to see such PSAs.
12. Ansari and Yang’s “Master of None” debuts on Netflix
Asian Americans dominated television shows in 2015, and “Master of None” on Netflix was no exception. The 10-episode comedy focuses on modern relationships and stars comedian and actor Aziz Ansari, who also co-created and co-produced the series with his former “Parks and Recreation” colleague, TV writer Alan Yang. In particular, an episode from the first season of “Master of None” highlighting Asian American immigrant parents has received a lot of acclaim.
11. M. Night Shyamalan releases “The Visit” after long hiatus
Award-winning screenwriter and horror movie master M. Night Shyamalan released his newest thriller, “The Visit,” early fall. Shyamalan is best known for his wildly popular movie, “The Sixth Sense.” “The Visit,” which many have claimed to be both a horror and comedy, received mixed reviews but drew a lot of attention, as the movie was Shyamalan’s latest release after a long hiatus.
10. David Henry Hwang is victim of attack
Award-winning playwright and writer David Henry Hwang was slashed in the neck near his Brooklyn home this past fall.
The attacker reportedly cut Hwang’s neck from behind, leaving the 57-year-old writer to fend for himself as he walked to a nearby hospital for treatment. Hwang, who is famous for winning the Tony Award in 1998 for his play “M. Butterfly,” made a full recovery. To date, the stabbing suspect still remains at large.
9. “The Mindy Project” moves to Hulu Plus
Although fans were disappointed when FOX comedy “The Mindy Project” was cancelled, sorrow quickly changed to elation after the show’s star, writer, and producer Mindy Kaling revealed that the project would move to online streaming platform Hulu. An iconic show featuring an Asian American lead, Hulu’s pick-up of “The Mindy Project” is a testament to the growing presence of non-white leads in streaming media.
8. Ruthie Ann Miles, Ken Watanabe are celebrated by Tony’s
Asian Americans had a big presence at the Tony’s, the theater world’s biggest annual awards ceremony. Ruthie Ann Miles, an actress of Korean descent, took home the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance in the “The King and I.” The run was a revival on Broadway, and Miles received strong reviews for her portrayal as Lady Thiang, one of the wives of the titular king. This role marked Miles’s Broadway debut. Ken Watanabe, best-known for his Oscar-nominated role in the film “The Last Samurai,” was also up for a Tony for his role as the King of Siam.
7. Emma Stone cast as Asian American character in “Aloha”
The much-anticipated release of the romantic comedy “Aloha” featured a star-studded cast — everyone from Emma Stone to Bradley Cooper — and follows a revered military contractor (played by Cooper) as he returns to Hawaii where he falls for air force fighter pilot Allison Ng, assigned to watch over him during his stay. Ng, played by Stone, is supposed to be a character of Chinese and Hawaiian heritage. Ng’s background often serves as a plot device in the film in addition to being reflective of Hawaii’s great diversity.
Last I checked, Stone is about as white and red-headed as an actress in Hollywood can be.
People were not amused by this casting choice.
Although director Cameron Crowe wrote a blog post apologizing for and defending the casting choice — stating that Ng is based on a real-life Asian American of mixed descent with red hair — the film’s negative reputation preceded its opening and perhaps hurt its revenue potential. It performed poorly despite its heavy celebrity billing. Stone, for her part, has said the entire incident has opened up her eyes to whitewashing in Hollywood.
At least somebody learned something.
6. Comedy “Dr. Ken” launches on ABC
Comedian and actor Ken Jeong headlined his first sitcom this year. “Dr. Ken” is a workplace and family comedy inspired by Jeong’s real life experiences as a doctor.
“Dr. Ken” aims to normalize Asian American family life for mainstream viewers. “Dr. Ken” is a long-awaited star vehicle for Jeong, who might be best known as a side character from “The Hangover” movie franchise or for his recurring role on the cult sitcom “Community.”
“Dr. Ken” returns to the air in early 2016.
5. The Museum of Fine Arts goes geisha
The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston hosted a curious event earlier this year that invited visitors to “channel [their] inner Camille Monet,” the model in artist Claude Monet’s famous painting “La Japonaise.” In this painting, the French artist’s wife dons a blonde wig and wears a red kimono.
So, for a few weeks, the MFA invited museum guests to wear a replica of said red kimono so that they, too, could become Monet’s muse. Racist undertones and all.
Although an MFA representative stated that the exhibit sought to create a “better understanding” of the painting by allowing visitors to understand the choices the artist made when creating on canvas, there’s no way around the fact that this was cultural appropriation. Straight up.
4. API-helmed band The Slants courts controversy with name
Earlier this year, Asian American dance rock band The Slants caused controversy over their application to register the band’s name. The group claimed that “slants” was intended to be a subversive re-appropriation of the derogatory term, allowing the band to “take ownership” of anti-Asian stereotypes. Critics said, um, no, this is incredibly offensive to Asian Americans.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in the Federal District rejected the application, upholding a U.S. Parent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) decision that the name could not be trademarked given its roots as a racial slur that the general public finds offensive.
Since my last coverage of this issue, The Slants frontman Simon Tam, an Asian American who initially filed the application, scored a major victory at a federal appeals court in his challenge of USPTO’s refusal of the trademark registration, claiming it constituted a violation of first
“The government cannot refuse to register disparaging marks because it disapproves of the expressive messages conveyed by the marks,” Circuit Judge Kimberly Moore wrote for the majority opinion.
For more than six years, Tam has fought in court to get trademark protection for the use of the band’s name. He will now have to wait and see if the USPTO appeals to the Supreme Court.
3. Stella Abrera is named principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre
Professional ballerina Stella Abrera made headlines when the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) announced her promotion to the rank of principal dancer. Abrera is the first Filipino American dancer to hold the rank of principal, the highest position at the ABT. She was named a soloist with ABT in 2001 and has risen through the ranks since. Her promotion was effective as of Aug. 1, 2015.
2. “Fresh Off the Boat” shows different kind of all-American family
In 2015, no other show created as much buzz among APIs as “Fresh Off the Boat.” From its all-Asian American starring cast (the first show to do so in 20 years!) to its divisive title, the show received much praise, criticism, and scrutiny from Asian American viewers and social commentators. Loosely inspired by the memoir of celebrity chef and television personality Eddie Huang, the show follows a young Huang, played by newcomer Hudson Yang. Actors Randall Park and Constance Wu star as his parents. The show, which is currently on hiatus, returns to the small screen early February 2016.
1. Miss Universe gets crowned/uncrowned
Just before the end of the year, the biggest API pop culture snafu of 2015 happened.
By now, everyone has heard about the Miss Universe gaffe heard and seen around the world when master of ceremonies Steve Harvey crowned Miss Colombia Ariadna Gutierrez Miss Universe 2015 … only to apologize minutes later for announcing the wrong name because he misread his score card.
Harvey then declared Miss Philippines Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach as the true Miss Universe 2015.
The incident included unceremoniously removing the crown from Miss Colombia’s head and placing it onto the stunned one of Miss Philippines. This was all done on live television to boot.
The blunder dominated news headlines and social media for the following week with countless memes lambasting Harvey.
And everybody knows that once you’ve been involved in a meme, well, the incident becomes solidified forever in pop culture’s consciousness.
To his credit, Harvey apologized to each of the beauty queens personally in addition to tweeting public apologies (but not without misspelling the names of both countries in his tweets). Harvey has been good-humored about being the roast of the town while Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines still continue to deal with the fallout of Harvey’s mistake.
What a pageant for the books! (end)
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.