With its multiple teenage characters, the Netflix movie Let It Snow is a mix of a holiday feel-good film and a John Hughes comedy. But unlike those genres, the movie, about a small town besieged by a Christmas Eve snowstorm, has Asian American characters front and centre who aren’t there just to be comedic relief.
Jacob Batalon (Marvel’s Spider-Man movies) and Anna Akana (Ant-Man) play an aspiring DJ and closeted lesbian cheerleader respectively. For Akana, nothing felt token about the role.
“I never felt like I’d been cast because ‘This girl checks the gay box and the Asian box’,” says Akana, who is of Japanese, Filipino and Hawaiian descent. “We were finally seeing the world as we’ve known about it, and Hollywood is slowly catching up.”
With the holiday season in full swing, studios and TV networks have been unwrapping tales in which the Christmases are mainly white. The diversity issue was skewered on Saturday Night Live in a skit about the Hallmark Channel, which generated a firestorm recently for dropping ads featuring a same-sex couple.
Universal Pictures’ Last Christmas, with Crazy Rich Asians stars Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh, is an exception to the pattern of films that relegate Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from lead roles. Latinos also rarely make the cut. However, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of black actors in movies from Hallmark and Lifetime TV channels and niche outlets like the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
The disproportionate representation is somewhat mystifying when you consider Asian Americans have the highest growth rates in population and purchasing power of any US ethnic or racial group, according to a Nielsen study released in May. The report found Asian Americans spent US$1 trillion in 2018. It also found that 81 per cent of all Asian American households subscribe to at least one subscription video-on-demand platform—19 per cent higher than the total population.
Tatyana Ali, of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air fame, has done five Christmas TV movies and even produced one. Based on her fan interactions, she says it’s clear that viewers care about diversity.
“They literally always bring up how nice it is,” said Ali, who stars in Christmas Hotel, which airs on December 21 on the Lifetime channel. “These are people who have been fans of Christmas movies for years and they always bring up how nice it is to see people of color, how much more exciting it is for them to tune in.”
Candice Frederick, an entertainment reporter and critic based in New York, said studios, especially in TV, are still “more willing to throw away millions of dollars on a white actor than an actor of color.” Though Hallmark films seem to cater to an audience that’s “very white middle America who eat that up”, networks like BET can go after other demographics.
“I just kind of find it low-hanging fruit. Not to say that’s a bad thing,” Frederick said. “You can’t not win with a Christmas movie during Christmas time.”
Tina Perry, president of OWN, said filling roles with more diverse actors in general is a great way to sprinkle unique cultural nuances in a very formulaic genre. The network’s three original holiday movies have all-black casts.
“There’ll be a distinction I think for viewers when they watch and compare the Hallmark and Lifetime [movies] with our movies,” Perry said. Even the music is “more jazzy, R&B, a little soulful, which I think is going to be really fun for our viewers and just give it a different feel”.
Akana, 30, thinks the issue is with a Hollywood system that’s still shedding racist stereotypes while claiming there are few Asian actors. For a long time, she said most of the auditions she got were for stereotypical parts like a massage therapist or the girl who was “upset she got a B”. She credits her YouTube channel, which has 2.5 million subscribers, for helping her leverage better auditions.
Jenny Han, author of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and a producer on the Netflix film adaptation starring Laura Condor, said it’s frustrating as an adult to look back at some of these movies and see hardly anyone of color.
Why make a fuss over a genre that’s often a punching bag for its light and fluffy nature? Well, that’s the point, says the Korean American writer. Stories about minorities don’t always have to be “about pain and struggle”.
“They haven’t really had as many opportunities to have it just be about the mundanity, about falling in love at the holiday,” says Han, who is set to write and executive produce an episode of a Netflix anthology series about love.
Two of Lifetime’s 30 Christmas movies have an Asian American lead and one a Latino lead. Meghan Hooper, senior vice-president of Original Movies, said the network has made strides but can always do better.
“If I have to read one more article about how a movie with a diverse cast has succeeded … it shouldn’t be surprising any more,” said Hooper, who is biracial. “One reason you see so many players in this space now is that I believe there are so many ways to succeed … the more content that’s out there, the more roles there are.”
Hallmark, meanwhile, has virtually no Asian or Latino leads in its 40 holiday movies across its various channels. In announcing that it would reinstate commercials featuring same-sex couples, the company said in a statement that it has “an unwavering commitment to diversity and inclusion”. The channel has 82 million subscribers.
Michelle Vicary, the executive vice-president of programming and network publicity for Crown Media and Family Networks, acknowledged that Hallmark —like the rest of the entertainment industry—has work to do in increasing diversity.
“We continue to look at the issue all the time,” Vicary said last month. “We’re trying to bring in new writers all the time and new directors.”