Sandra Oh has always been a pioneer, but on Thursday she made history when she became the first Asian woman to be nominated for an Emmy as a lead actress in a drama.
She hasn’t won (yet), but fans like me are celebrating this victory with the gusto of a win, and who can blame us? Oh’s recognition through this Emmy nomination is huge for a community of viewers who never get to see people like themselves on screen, and for Asian actresses long relegated to sensible car commercials, brothels, and roles as pushy moms or tech whizzes.
Oh previously received five Emmy nominations for supporting actress for her portrayal of Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, her most famous role. That was the kind of Asian American role that viewers deserved: Yang was an ultra-qualified MD/PhD , but she was also a satisfyingly complex character. Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes and Oh chose to show the emotional cost of ambition, rather than vilify Yang for her pursuit of it. Yang was a character rarely seen on primetime television: an Asian woman who was shrewd without being a shrew.
Most notably, Yang was one of the first characters on primetime television to decide to have an abortion and go through with it. This is especially remarkable given television’s legacy of portraying the opposite—having a woman consider abortion only to either be convinced not to by her partner, or suffering permanent psychological damage and regret after going through the procedure.
In Killing Eve, Oh plays Eve Polastri, an MI5 desk jockey turned detective. The show is phenomenal and gives Oh the opportunity to shine once more, grounding Polastri with a performance that is both sharp and deeply human. But there was a four-year gap between Anatomy and Eve, which seems strange when you think about how quickly other core cast members got snatched up by other popular shows and films. Oh, for her part, has “worked really, really hard to move [herself] out” of thinking about the kinds of opportunities that have and have not arisen for her. She told Vulture that she acknowledges the entertainment industry’s racism, but tries not to let it hinder her artistic development. Her anecdote about auditioning for the role of Eve in Killing Eve speaks to racism’s deeper emotional toll:
One thing I will share with you—when I got the script for 'Killing Eve,' I remember I was walking around in Brooklyn and I was on my phone with my agent, Nancy. I was quickly scrolling down the script, and I can’t really tell you what I was looking for. So I’m like, “So Nancy, I don’t understand, what’s the part?” And Nancy goes “Sweetheart, it’s Eve, it’s Eve.” In that moment, I did not assume the offer was for Eve. I think about that moment a lot. Of just going, how deep have I internalized this? [So] many years of being seen [a certain way], it deeply, deeply, deeply affects us. It’s like, how does racism define your work?
It isn’t simply the Emmy committee’s fault that it has taken this long—this year is the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards—for an Asian woman to be nominated for the top drama award. In a landscape devoid of major acting opportunities for Asians and Asian Americans, the lack of nominations and wins really isn’t surprising. To win an award, you need to have a good role, and those roles are in short supply for Asians. Only two Asian actors have won Emmys—Archie Panjabi in 2010 as supporting actress for The Good Wife and Riz Ahmed in 2017 as lead actor in HBO’s The Night Of.
Many have taken to Twitter to point out the absurdity of a “first” of this magnitude in 2018.
Oh has deserved this type of recognition for years, and after years of neglect it is a bittersweet joy to recognize that space is finally being made for Asian women on screen. Thanks to shows like Killing Eve, the Emmy nomination committee finally has more to chew on.
I've seen firsthand how discrimination can work. My mother is close in age to Oh and spent years as a professional actress working her way through commercial spots and fighting her way through extremely limited television and film opportunities for women of Asian descent. She was most frequently cast in “stripper type roles,” thanks to her dancing background, or as an IT worker. She was one of the background dancers in Memoirs of a Geisha, a film that came under fire for casting actors and actresses from all regions of Asia to depict Japanese people. Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang in particular was criticized in China for starring in a movie about Japan.
It was very peculiar to watch that backlash unfold. The critique was absolutely correct—it is upsetting to cast Chinese women in Japanese roles, especially given Japan's history of war crimes against China. But in practice, the call to encourage casting directors to act ethically would mean Asian and Asian American women would have fewer opportunities in a very white American entertainment industry. If Geisha had been cast exclusively with Japanese actors, other Asian actors would have had to wait for their next opportunity, and those don't come around very often.
A predominantly Asian-cast blockbuster like Memoirs of a Geisha only happens once every ten years—Memoirs of a Geisha came out in 2005 and Crazy Rich Asians comes out this year. Think very hard about whether there has been anything in the middle. The notion that Asian women would get work outside of the stereotype was a wild fantasy, especially at a time when the industry routinely whitewashes Asian roles. We are only now entering the era of television shows and films where Asian women are part of the central cast—like Awkafina in Ocean’s 8 or Jameela Jamil of The Good Place—as opposed to being relegated to supporting roles or parts that are explicitly about being Asian.
My mother left the industry because we moved away from Los Angeles, but she hasn’t made any move to pick it back up again. After years of acting classes, a stint with the Groundlings, and time in a local comedy troupe—where her most popular character was the Japanese Yoko Ono (my mom is Taiwanese), who she was asked to play at nearly every public show—she became sick of being the “token Asian in the room.” She has described to me, countless times, the exhaustion of knowing her agents sent her to a casting call to keep the project from appearing racist, and knowing that any roles that weren’t specifically written for An Asian Woman would go to one of the white women in the nearly completely white room. And they almost always did.
Oh has had to deal with this disparity throughout her career. She is acutely aware of the viewers who have been rooting for her and her fellow actors and actresses who have put up with this racism for years. "I know that I’m part of my community. I really hold that, maybe not so much as a forefront of what moves me through my work, but I know it,” Oh told Vulture after her nomination. “I am exceptionally honored that I am able to hold this moment, not only for myself, but what it may mean for our community.”
This is the ultimate joy of Oh’s Emmy nomination—the fact that space that was made for her, and the potential for the space it may grant our community. Oh told the New York Times:
I’m happy to get that ball rolling, because what I hope happens is that next year and the next year and the next year, we will have presence. And the presence will grow not only to Asian-Americans, you know, from yellow to brown, but to all our other sisters and brothers. Our First Nations sisters and brothers. Our sisters and brothers of different sizes and different shapes. If I can be a part of that change, like [expletive], yeah, let’s celebrate it.
I’m excited that Oh’s nomination has been so widely celebrated. Most of my female Asian friends—regardless of their specific ethnic heritage—have sent me texts or taken to Facebook to make a rare post about their excitement. On the eve of the announcement, my mom even messaged me, “I would die to play a real role, a detective one like Sandra Oh.” More than anything, I hope she gets that chance. With this momentum, and with a heavy dose of luck, more Asian women might have the opportunity.
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Correction: This piece previously stated that the author's mom played "Yoko Ono" with the The Groundlings. She did this with a separate comedy troupe following training with The Groundlings.