When I learned that Sandra Oh was the first woman of Asian descent to receive an Emmy nomination for a lead role - in the BBC drama, Killing Eve - I experienced a lot of conflicting emotions.
I was excited for her. I wanted to share everything about Sandra Oh on social media. I wanted to celebrate her success not just as an actress, but as a Canadian actress of Korean descent who is also an outspoken advocate for greater representation in film and television.
Oh seems to pull this off effortlessly with an affable charm and certain grace that is now a trademark of her wide-ranging but always honed-in characters.
The news that Oh had been nominated was bittersweet for me. While thrilled for her success and all the implications of it, it also reminded me of my struggles as a former (and failed) actress.
Oh’s nomination and the growing success of Black and other racialized actors in recent years signals a crucial and welcome change. This shift is hopeful for those in the industry who, like my former self, struggle and reconcile with internalized racism and sexism embedded into Hollywood’s social orders of inclusion.
It has been 10 years since I graduated from theatre school when I was one of two Asians in the entire theatre program. The theatre community of the large and conservative western Canadian city (Calgary) where I was born and where I worked consisted primarily of white middle-aged patrons accustomed to seeing mostly “white” theatre.
After all my training, I was cast in only one professional production — as a “quiet and non-interfering (silent)” Beijing foreign exchange student. When I received notes from the white director on how to adjust my Chinese accent, it became clear to me that I was not expected to draw from my own experiences and understanding of Chinese people (which come from social interactions in my home, extended family and community), but to give back to white audiences the Asian stereotype they were expecting.
My program also held annual auditions for the city’s Shakespeare in the Park production, but I quickly realized that for directors and many audiences too, it was unimaginable that an Asian woman could play Juliet (or any role) in a Shakespearean play.
After several failed attempts to secure roles in shows for both large and small theatre companies, I had to ask myself a serious question that I later found out a lot of actors and actresses of colour ask themselves: Am I just a lousy actor, or does my race and ethnicity have something to do with my lack of work?
Many artists of colour continue to suffer from this compulsive questioning of whether their ethnicity has anything to do with their work status. This insecurity is an unfortunate symptom of internalized inferiority and racism produced by the history of Asian representation on Hollywood screens.
In a recent interview with the Toronto Star, Oh discussed these matters quite frankly, going so far as to say that they profoundly affected her mental health. When she has these candid dialogues in the public eye, Oh radically disrupts the conventional ways in which Asian women are seen and portrayed in North American film and television.
For example, American war films have done tenacious cultural work to represent Asian women as hyper-sexualized and docile subjects who are always available or vulnerable to white male violence (often sexual).
The infamous “Me love you long time” scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1978) has become symbolic of how the American military complex conceives of the realities of Asian women in Vietnam and elsewhere.
Films like Apocalypse Now (1978) and Platoon (1986) also created a sizable visual vocabulary onscreen wherein impoverished Asian men and women are annihilated by American-made helicopters and American G.I.s.
A morale boost
The visibility of Oh’s success is a breath of fresh air because she gets to be an actor who plays a character rather than an Asian woman who plays an Asian role. The screenwriters for Killing Eve, who developed Oh’s role as the MI5 analyst-turned-agent, Eve Polastri, leave no room for inaccurate stereotypes of Asian women.
No discussion of her “Asianness” is entertained and no explicit elements of “Asianness” are centred throughout the character’s development. Instead, the show focuses on Polastri, who is fascinated by female serial killers and tasked with tracking down the female assassin, Villanelle (played by Jodie Comer). And no one expects her to do anything but that.
Should Oh win the Emmy, it would provide an invaluable morale boost for actors and artists of colour amid another wave of #OscarsSoWhite in 2018. Since activist April Reign started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, more and more artists and actors of colour have mobilized to vocalize their displeasure with Hollywood and sectors of the film and television industry that still view under-represented groups as unworthy of receiving the spotlight.
Yet, as we can see from the controversies over #OscarsSoWhite and the resulting commercial and critical success of iconic films such as Get Out, Moonlight and Black Panther, there is a blueprint to be followed regarding the politics of representation in Hollywood. Black actors have made huge strides, and Asian actors are following in these footsteps.
Oh’s nomination and potential victory are exciting. But the larger picture to be appreciated is all the things her success make possible, beyond her own career.
As an up-and-coming Chinese Canadian scholar writing on Asians in Canadian social justice movements, I noticed that the opportunity to write this piece and share my insight with readers around the world is almost a direct result of Oh’s success.
The Emmy nomination is a palpable affirmation of Oh’s achievements as master of her craft. It is also a symbol and a door opening for others like myself.
So, bravo, Sandra Oh! And thank you.