This article contains spoilers for last week’s episode of Hannibal, as well as casting information for the next seasons of Glee and Grey’s Anatomy*.
Someone important died this weekend on NBC’s serial-killer drama Hannibal. That should come as no surprise, beloved actors are dropping like flies on TV these days, and the stakes are always high when Dr. Lecter is involved. In the shadow of larger recent shocks like those on The Good Wife or The Walking Dead, the death of a supporting character like investigator Beverly Katz may not seem like it should hit us quite so hard. But that character happened to be portrayed by Hettienne Park, an Asian female. So what? Does being a Korean-American woman on network television mean you should be bulletproof (or in this case, carving-knife-proof)? Certainly not. But given the lack of strong, female Asian characters on television, Park’s absence carries a weight outside the fictional world of Hannibal. Aware of the uproar surrounding her character’s death, Park commented on the more extreme outcry from the show’s fandom.
"When you feel marginalized by the world at large, there's great comfort and empowerment in seeing someone you can identify with on the screen who isn't subject to cliches or stereotypes. When that gets taken away, you can feel like you've been f***ed over once again. And unless you've ever been hurt merely due to the color of your skin, what's between your legs, or who sleeps next to you at night, you probably don't understand that kind of pain."
Park’s not the only high-profile Asian female slated to depart a network show this spring. A lot of fuss has been made about Lucy Liu’s “well-rounded” character Joan Watson on Elementary. Perhaps rightfully so. But if we’re talking about Asian women who haven’t been subjected to cliches or stereotypes, then the original, impressive network star has to be Sandra Oh, who has been holding it down for 10 seasons on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. Through the show’s many sordid and soapy twists and turns, Oh’s Dr. Cristina Yang has remained one of the strongest and most nuanced characters. You could argue that a career-driven, hyper-intelligent, competitive doctor does play into a certain Asian stereotype, but you would only make that argument if you’d never watched Oh at work. She’ll be leaving the show at the end of this season. Who can blame her, really? Ten years is a long time to spend with one character. Though we do know it will involve the return of an old character, it’s unclear exactly what kind of send-off Yang will get in the next few episodes. One thing’s for certain, Grey’s Anatomy will be a lot less interesting, and the network TV landscape a whole lot blander without her.
Over on Fox, the powers that be have decided a reboot of sorts is in order for the flagging Glee. For the rest of the season (and in upcoming seasons), the action will transfer full-time to New York. Original characters like Rachel, Mercedes, and Kurt will take center stage, and three out of four of the show’s fictional graduating seniors will be headed to N.Y.C. to join them. The one exception? Original cast member Jenna Ushkowitz, who plays Tina Cohen-Chang, won’t be making the trip. That means the show that wears its diversity like a badge of honor will go from once having three Asian series regulars to having one. (Darren Criss, who plays Blaine, is part Filipino.) But that’s only the three Asian females to be leaving a major network show this season. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is this: things may be better for Asian actors on TV, but that’s a pretty low bar no matter how you slice it. We have come a long way since 1971, when producers cast American actor David Carradine instead of Bruce Lee in the TV series Kung Fu. But as of the most recent Screen Actor’s Guild diversity study, (and that was way back in 2008), “only 3.8 percent of all television and theatrical roles were portrayed by Asian Pacific Islander actors” compared to the “6.4 percent portrayed by Latino actors, 13.3 percent portrayed by African Americans, and 72.5 percent portrayed by Caucasian actors.” With numbers improving in the past six years, that’s not so hot for the fastest-growing race or ethnic group in the United States. Even shows that are hailed for their effortless diversity, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Orange Is the New Black, are either entirely lacking Asian characters or falling prey to disappointing stereotypes. So every absence, every loss of a Park, an Oh, or an Ushkowitz means more.
But leaving a show isn’t the only way Asian women (and men) are disappearing. Sometimes they’re merely sidelined like Archie Panjabi on The Good Wife. Her popular and award-winning character Kalinda Sharma has had little to do so far this season as the all-white teams of Lockhart/Gardner (::sob::) and Agos/Florrick battled it out. Similarly, over on New Girl, they never seem to know what to do with Hannah Simone’s character Cece Parekh since she lost her status as Schmidt’s love interest. In an effort to shoehorn her into the plot, they’ve now, inexplicably, made Cece a bartender.
Asian actors are also disappearing into transparent stereotypes that surprisingly still exist in 2014. Actors like Brenda Song and Vanessa Lachey are wasted among the racial indignities of Fox’s Dads, and Matthew Moy's character Han is the butt of weekly cringe-worthy jokes on CBS’s 2 Broke Girls. There are also less insidious but no less problematic roles for Asian actors on television today, like the new crop of Asian kids adopted by white families on sitcoms. This is, no doubt, a case of art imitating life, but how much of a model for kids with Asian ancestry are The Trophy Wife’s Bert (Albert Tsai) or Modern Family’s Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons)? There’s nothing wrong with telling the story of an adopted Asian child being raised by a white family, but there is something problematic when it’s the most high-profile story of Asian-American children being told.
What does this mean for the future of Asian actors on television? Is the so-called “bamboo ceiling” impenetrable? Hopefully not. While it’s worth mourning the loss of Asian characters on television, it’s also impossible to ignore the victories of undeniably great, stereotype-busting Asian characters going strong on television. In addition to Liu's Watson, Steven Yeun’s Glenn is a fan favorite on The Walking Dead and Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford is an irreplaceable part of the Parks and Recreation crew. We’re also living in the era of triple threat Mindy Kaling. Earlier this month, when questioned about the racial makeup of her sitcom The Mindy Project, Kaling saltily replied,
"I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, O.K.? I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore—and I won’t name them because they’re my friends—why no leads on their shows are women or of color, and I’m the one that gets lobbied about these things. And I’ll answer them, I will. But I know what’s going on here. It is a little insulting because, I’m like, God, what can I—oh, I’m sitting in it. I have 75 percent of the lines on the show."
There’s also Ming-Na Wen’s ass-kicking Melinda May to consider over on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent May helps fill the hole left in our hearts by the cancellation of Maggie Q’s reboot Nikita. However, Q has two exciting projects on the horizon, including the lead in a CBS pilot, and the mini-series Red Flag, which tells the true story of a Chinese pirate queen.
Ideally, roles like this will continue to grow, but it’s entirely possible that we can’t shift all the blame onto endemic racism in Hollywood. A recent study of immigrant cultures in Los Angeles explored why Asian parents discourage their children from pursuing the arts. The study offers up the idea that Asian children are encouraged to choose careers where success is objectively, rather than subjectively, obtained as a safeguard against, well, discrimination. The conclusion of the article is that in order to dissolve discrimination in artistic fields, more and more Asian children should be encouraged to explore and excel in those riskier fields. How else will we find the next Sandra Oh or Mindy Kaling? In the meantime, we can rejoice that characters like Hettienne Park’s Dr. Beverly Katz existed in the first place. Here’s Park’s take:
"I got to play this amazing woman who didn't have to sleep with anyone (not that I would have minded) or act dumb and girlie or fawn all over some guy or be a conniving b to get people to notice or respect me, and she didn't speak broken English or karate chop anyone (not that I would have minded). Nobody called her 'dragon lady' or 'exotic.' She could shoot a gun and drive that FBI SUV like a champ. And all with the extra added bonus of being Jewish."
Just because she’s gone, doesn’t mean she didn’t kick down a few locked doors on her way out.