It's Cool That There Are So Many Asian Oscar Nominees This Year, But Representation Has Its Limits

The historic number of Asian Oscar nominees this year is a good thing. But reducing these artists to diversity statistics undermines the complexity of their performances.

This morning, nominations for the 2023 Academy Awards came out. Within the entertainment industry, it has already been celebrated as a banner year for Asian representation in Hollywood. The slate includes four nominations for performances by Asian actors, the highest number in the awards ceremony’s history. Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu were all nominated for Everything Everywhere All at Once, while Hong Chau received recognition for her role in The Whale. Meanwhile, Everything Everywhere All at Once, a story about a Chinese American family struggling to understand each other across the multiverse, received 11 nominations in total, the most of any film this year. 

Industry publications like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter have published diversity reports detailing other firsts (or almost-firsts) among all the nominees. But using Oscar nomination statistics as evidence of progress for Asian American artists starts to feel more rote the more you do it.

For instance, Hsu and Chau were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress, which is the first time two Asian actors have been in contention for that category. That’s simple enough. Considering that five white men are competing for Best Actor this year, the presence of two Asian women in one performance category stands out. But then there’s the fact that Daniel Kwan, one half of the Everything Everywhere All at Once directing duo the Daniels, is the third Asian filmmaker to be nominated for a “hat trick,” garnering nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Kwan’s accomplishments as a director are significant, but this mouthful of a statistic betrays the awkward philosophy inherent to seeking historic achievements in awards nominations. 

Homing in on increasingly specific honors — in which any given artist of color might be named the first, second, or third person to attain it — reduces the artist’s success to a pat on the head in a lineup of other artists of their race. And it obscures the distinctions between the work of artists of the same race. The other two Asian filmmakers nominated for hat tricks have been Bong Joon-ho and Chloé Zhao, who were nominated for 2019’s Parasite and 2020’s Nomadland respectively. But these three films have very little in common beyond the race of their lauded auteurs. Parasite is a suspenseful Korean-language class satire, Nomadland is a naturalistic adaptation of a book about American seasonal workers after the Great Recession, and Everything Everywhere All at Once is a campy, colorful hybrid of family drama and sci-fi saga. Their tones, intentions, and subjects scarcely overlap. They’re only relevant to each other because of this awards ceremony; emphasizing their shared lineage bolsters the Oscars’ credibility but collapses the directors’ distinct oeuvres. 

Homing in on increasingly specific honors — in which any given artist of color might be named the first to attain it — reduces the artist’s success to a pat on the head in a lineup of other artists of their race.

Then there’s this fascinating bit of history: Yeoh is the second woman of Asian descent to be nominated for Best Actress, after Merle Oberon in 1935. But she is the first self-identified Asian nominee, because Oberon hid her mother’s South Asian and Maori heritage for the duration of her career. This tidbit has cropped up in much of today’s Oscars coverage, mostly as an addendum explaining why Yeoh is the “second Asian woman to be nominated.” But the quest to hold up actors and filmmakers within the context of their race glosses over the way that American notions of race have shapeshifted in the last century. Though Oberon was born in India to a multiracial mother from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, she spent her life passing as white, actively constructing and performing a public racial identity that concealed her ethnic heritage. To say that she was Asian is true according to our contemporary standards, but it doesn’t make sense to lump Oberon and Yeoh together as celebrated Asian actors. It erases the complications of race as social construct in favor of an essentialist view. This is certainly convenient for an Oscars narrative that regards any kind of “diverse representation” in the institution’s past or present as a success. But it’s also emblematic of the oversimplification that happens when you tally nominees up by race.

I’m excited for the Asian artists nominated today. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a film of singular vision and wall-to-wall phenomenal performances. It’s a daring feat from a directing duo who have been steadily pushing the boundaries of film. It is both idiosyncratically hilarious and thrillingly intimate. It is moving to see such a weird, sublime piece of art bask in global adoration. And I have rooted for Yeoh, Quan, and Hsu this whole year as they’ve talked about the struggles of persisting in an industry that has often overlooked them because of their race. 

But praising this film through the narrow lens of representation politics at the Oscars — yay, victory for Asian people at a white-dominated awards ceremony in a white-dominated industry! — both flattens the film’s achievements and bloats the Oscars’ perceived impact on the lives of Asian Americans. Though it’s useful to highlight the entrenched whiteness of the Academy Awards, and to draw audiences’ attention to films that continue to challenge the Oscars’ canon, representation discourse merely reinforces the awards show’s presumed dominance. Elsewhere, as Bong Joon-ho pointed out in 2020, film lovers think of the awards as “very local.” In America, we keep feeding them attention that makes them seem like the center of the movie universe. 

Elsewhere, as Bong Joon-ho pointed out in 2020, film lovers think of the Oscars as “very local.” In America, we keep feeding them attention that makes them seem like the center of the movie universe. 

Of course, coverage of Oscar nominations focuses on the academy’s history. Awards ceremonies, and the institutions that organize them, are huge gravitational forces of celebrity, sucking attention toward themselves. They fuel breathless chatter from entertainment reporters reaching for new things to say about a Hollywood institution with hegemonic influence. But it creates massive cognitive dissonance when the Oscars’ legacy outweighs the rest of history, like when drawing a lineage between Oberon and Yeoh occludes rather than opens up the slippery history of race in America. And celebrating the advancement of Asian Americans in art feels especially detached from the rest of the world today.

This week, Asian Americans across the country have been grieving after two mass shootings. One disrupted Lunar New Year festivities in Monterey Park, a predominantly Asian suburb of Los Angeles; the other killed migrant workers, some Hispanic and some Chinese, in Half Moon Bay. The disparity of these news stories — Hollywood’s triumphs and the rest of California’s tragedies — underscores the limits of representation vividly. 

In recent years, Asian American writers have been reckoning with a racial categorization that encompasses people from dozens of countries and the biggest wealth disparity of any ethnic group in the US. Many of them have come to a similar conclusion: that popular issues of Asian American identity have crystallized around the concerns of the most privileged members of the group — college-educated, upwardly mobile East Asian professionals. “Asian American” is too often used as shorthand for this privileged subset, and while the term makes it easy to leverage the moral high ground of issuing from a marginalized group, it often implicitly excludes working-class or low-caste Asian Americans. That exact elision is at work in the Oscar narratives churning today. Citing victory for all Asian Americans because of the success of a handful of artists in one of the country’s wealthiest cities is a feel-good story that keeps the Hollywood machinery running smoothly. But this week, it’s hard to revel too long in representation. Other Asian American communities are aching. The chasm between their grief and the Oscars’ touted victories is too vast to pretend we don’t see it. ●

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