Entertainment

Why Doesn't the Academy Nominate Asians for Best Actor?

Even when predominantly Asian movies earn Oscar nominations, the actors in them don't receive nods for their acting.
January 17, 2020, 12:00pm
Keon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo) in Bong Joon Ho's Academy Award-nominated Parasite
Photo courtesy Neon Entertainment

On Monday, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite became the first South Korean movie to be nominated for Oscars in the categories of Best Picture and Best International Feature Film. Rounding out Parasite's six total nominations were nods for Directing, Film Editing, and Production Design. Despite the film's memorable performances—from Song Kang Ho's palpable tension as he sweats and hides beneath a coffee table to Park So Dam's quick, sharp wit—acknowledgments in acting categories were pointedly missing.

It wasn't just the Academy Awards; the Parasite cast was shut out of acting nods at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, too. But as Erik Anderson of prediction site Awards Watch pointed out in a now-viral tweet, that's part of a more jarring pattern by the Academy: Even when movies with predominantly Asian casts are nominated for over five Academy Awards, the actors in them aren't acknowledged for their acting.

That's been the case from 1987's Last Emperor (9 nominations) to 2000's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (10) to 2005's Memoirs of a Geisha (six) to 2008's Slumdog Millionaire (10) and 2012's Life of Pi (11), Anderson wrote, and it's happened now with Parasite. So, what gives?

With consideration in so many awards categories, it's clearly not the case that these films are good save for their acting. "They get nods for Best Picture, but they're not getting acting nods," Sylvia Chong, associate professor and director of the University of Virginia's American Studies Program, told VICE in a phone call. "So how did they get to be so wonderful if they're so poorly acted?"

Media studies scholars told VICE that the reasons behind this lack of recognition are multi-layered. With pop culture reflecting society at large, Asian actors face more than just industry issues. Beyond the general lack of distribution of Asian films, the difficulty Asian actors face in breaking into Hollywood's mainstream, and the Academy's mostly-white demographics, Asians in Hollywood must also go up against the racial stereotypes and biases of American society, which inform the way viewers perceive their performances. When it comes to judging the work of Asian actors, the white American mainstream has historically been clouded by bias.

As the Los Angeles Times found in a 2012 report, Oscar voters were 94 percent white and 77 percent male, with Black voters eking out only two percent and Latinx voters making up even less. The Academy's current breakdown isn't clear, but ABC reported last year that based on the most recent numbers provided, it was making steps toward change, with women making up 49 percent of the members added in 2018 and people of color accounting for 38 percent. Despite these efforts, the fact remains that in 2018, people of color still made up only 16 percent of the Academy's overall voting body.

"I think there's a sort of cultural and racial myopia about what emotion might look like in other cultural and racial contexts," Chong said. Calling out performance's from two of this year's Best Actress nominees, Renee Zellwegger in Judy and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story, she explained that Americans are used to a specific style of dramatic performance to convey that emotions are deep or legitimate. Combine that with the faulty stereotype that Asians are "inscrutable" and "that they lack emotion," Chong suggested, and Awkwafina's snubbed performance in The Farewell, for example, "might come across as a lack of feeling, being tired" to viewers less versed in the work of Asian actors. Meanwhile, she said, the "emotion on Scarlett Johansson, which we're more accustomed to, becomes the beleaguered wife."

With the continued lack of Asian actors in Hollywood's leading roles, Asian characters aren't afforded the same complexity as those of other races, and viewers might be more hesitant to recognize the technical chops of Asian actors even when they don't realize it.

"When you hire someone to be an Asian in a supporting role, you don't see the work that goes into performing that: You see that as them being themselves," Chong said. "In the earlier part of the century, people preferred blackface or yellowface actors over people from the actual race because what they were doing was seen as requiring actual craft."

It's an extension of the broader perception of Asian people, Chong explained. "It's not just the portrayal of Asian people, but the denigration of Asian people in the social and political sphere. If you're used to seeing Asians as your servants, as coolies, as domestics, you're never going to need to [ascribe] to them real emotion," she said.

A similar perspective was shared by Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. "If the stereotype is that Asians are not expressive and the entire enterprise of acting and the reward of the Oscars is about being expressive, those stereotypes work against Asian actors," Yuen told VICE. "There's variation in expression, just as there is variation of expression in Western cultures, but there's racism against Asians: the idea that all Asians look alike, the inability to distinguish between Asians and [different] Asian cultures. Those old racist ideas that Asians have to face in the general culture definitely impact how they fare in popular culture."

While differences in language are often suggested as the barrier to the mainstreaming of foreign film in the United States, Yuen pointed to the fact European actors have been nominated and won in the Academy Awards' acting categories for non-English performances.

"If you think about the European actors who have won, those languages are more similar to English than Asian languages. The nice word is familiarity, but the reality is that it's biased," she said. Further disproving the language debate is the fact that movies like Slumdog Millionaire and Memoirs of a Geisha are either mostly or entirely in English, yet those films' acting nods remain absent.

To Yuen, the Academy's failure to recognize the work of Asian actors is further proof of its need to diversify. "I think the Academy needs to be more aware of its biases and work on inviting people who are not just Americans into the Academy, inviting international filmmakers and artists into the Academy so there can be a more global viewpoint when it comes to awareness of film and also taste," she said.

Yuen speculated, however, that Parasite's specific problem—and the issues affecting the movies Anderson called out—may be even more specific than the Academy as a whole. As she pointed out, each award category is nominated by members of the corresponding branch, with actors nominating actors, directors nominating directors, and so on. The exception is Best Picture, for which all voting members have a say.

"If it's peer-nominated, maybe there's less peer awareness, and it's the actors' fault that they're not nominating their Asian peers," Yuen speculated. "There's a lack of awareness of Asian talent in general, and a lack of opportunities for Asian actors to cross over, and because of the peer nomination, there's a lack of interaction between Asian actors and Hollywood actors—and all of that, I would say, comes down to biases."

It's easy for outsiders to call awards like the Oscars irrelevant or to suggest that we ignore them entirely, but as it stands, they still validate and create new opportunities for creatives, especially those who haven't yet become household names.

"I wish that the Academy Awards were more irrelevant, but the rewards system does open doors for distribution as well as green lighting projects for Asian Americans. It's not irrelevant in that way," Yuen said.

It's not just a conclusion limited to pop culture: If society has to operate through problematic institutions, we can at the very least ask for those systems to get better. While it's too late now for the casts of Parasite or the unfortunately ignored Farewell to receive acting considerations, who knows what films and successes next year might bring?

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