The need for new roles (and role models!) in Hollywood

Last week, Lucy Liu spoke with Net-a-Porter’s Graphic Issue about her experiences as an Asian woman working in Hollywood. In particular, she addresses how her race has affected the rather stereotypical roles she has received:

“I wish people wouldn’t just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me. You add race to it, and it became, ‘Well, she’s too Asian’, or, ‘She’s too American’. I kind of got pushed out of both categories. It’s a very strange place to be. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.”

Liu has played her fair share of Dragon Lady and martial-arts action roles. As this article on XO Jane puts it:

What she’s not often cast as is a woman who happens to be Chinese-American, a role where her race could be acknowledged and wrapped into the plot, without turning her into a total stereotype.

In short, the way she looks filters the work she is offered, which is not unlike the experience of most “otherly” women in film, television, and fashion. Liu is certainly not the first woman of color to talk about Hollywood’s preference for white actors.


Recently, Kerry Washington discussed her leading role in the hit television show Scandal–she’s the first black woman to be cast as the main character in a network drama since 1974. The show has an estimated 8 million weekly viewers.

Washington, who also starred in the Oscar-nominated Django Unchained, just scored her first magazine cover, the June issue of Elle. Her image is a refreshing one: In magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue, women of color still appear infrequently.


But why, exactly? Is this a matter of active racism or more, a matter of few writers creating diverse, non-stereotypical roles for women of “unconventional” colors, shapes, and sizes?

In the big picture, this is not just an issue for non-white women. Smart roles for white women also seem to be dwindling, especially for women over 40.

Women’s lack of representation on the screen is directly related to their lack of presence in the writing rooms. Until Shonda Rhimes, the powerhouse behind Shondaland Productions, entered the picture with Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Private Practice, television shows revolved around white ensembles–think FriendsSex and the City, How I Met Your Mother, even Mad Men. 


Rhimes’ characters “happen” to be non-white; they are not defined by their race or gender, nor are these particularities important to the plot, which is important to her:

“When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah,’ ” she says. “That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”

Rhimes’ develops characters that women of any race could play. And she doesn’t particularly like to talk about it: “It’s 2013. Somebody else needs to get their act together. And, oh, by the way, it works. Ratings-wise, it works.”

Let’s hope that Rhimes’ example–not to mention success–will influence more writers and producers to think about race and roles in the same way.


Waiting to be heard, in her own words

On Tuesday, ABC aired Diane’s Sawyer interview with Amanda Knox, the American exchange student who was accused of murdering her British roommate Meredith Kercher in Italy. Although she was initially convicted of the crime–and served 4 years in prison for it–a second appeals trial revealed a striking lack of evidence in the case. In 2011, she was acquitted and released to return home.


Amanda Knox

Almost six years later, Knox’s nightmare is still not over. Prosecutors appealed the latest verdict, meaning Knox will be on trial for murder again, likely sometime next year (in Italy, double jeopardy doesn’t apply). In the interview, Knox talks about the new book she wrote detailing her perspective on the entire ordeal, a memoir titled Waiting to Be Heard. In particular, she addresses the Italian media’s unfair (I say ridiculous) fabrications about her life during the trial, and how these lies affected the first conviction.

Simply put, the media tried Knox before the courts ever did. The then twenty-year-old was portrayed as a manipulative seductress who, along with her Italian boyfriend at the time,  killed Kercher in a violent “sex game gone wrong.” Some stories even described the murder as some sort of Satanic ritual. Her behavior after the murder also picked apart. Every move she made was construed to portray her as cold, uncaring deviant. The papers dubbed her as “Foxy Knoxy”–a childhood name that she earned for her stealth on her soccer team–and wrote stories about her fictionalized sex life. They obsessed about how she didn’t seem “remorseful.”

So why all this fascination with Knox? Why this fixation with her personal life, her reactions, her looks? Because the prosecution had a story and a scapegoat that they knew they could sell. Who cared if she was innocent? To them, she was another easy victim. The prosecutors would look like heroes for putting this hated slut away. And indeed, the public fell for it–it seems we still can’t resist the sick hysteria of a witch trial.

Meredith Kercher aged 19 pictured at her Surrey home-796144

Meredith Kercher

Knox’s original sentence was 26 years in prison, despite having no DNA evidence to connect her to the crime scene. Another man’s DNA, however–a drifter and convicted criminal named Rudy Guede–was all over the victim’s body, including inside her. He also left bloody hand and footprints on the walls and floor of the apartment–clear signs that he was the actual murderer.

Guede’s lawyers worked a plea deal that got him a mere 16 years in prison–a sentence less than Knox’s. He’ll be eligible for work release next year.

Even though he’s the convicted killer, I had to search to find his name.

Surprisingly, after everything, Knox still says that she encourages young people to study abroad. Her advice?

“Be careful,” especially if you’re a young woman. Kercher lost her life, but in a way, Knox almost did, too.

Violence against women: Why are we still watching?

One night a few weeks ago, I saw something on TV that truly disturbed me. It was a scene from the new television series The Following, a show about a cult of serial killers and their leader (I know that’s a vague synopsis, so if you’re really interested look here.) Now, I don’t regularly watch the show, but I’ve stumbled upon it a few times in between channel surfing and leaving the TV on at night as I work around the house. Most of the scenes I’ve seen so far have been sort of silly or just plain far fetched, and the acting is mediocre at best. I’ll put it this way: I’ve never stayed on the channel for more than a few minutes.


But the scene I witnessed that night is something I won’t soon forget. It made me feel shocked, disgusted, and then, somewhat unexpectedly, genuinely mad. Angry. At the world, and at this unethical, insensitive, and just plain careless show.

Here’s the brief version of what I can’t un-see: It’s night time, and two male serial killers are standing behind a parked car. The trunk is open. Inside, a gagged and bound woman is laying on her side, crying and pleading for her life. The men are casually watching her as they go back and forth about who should be the one to kill her. It comes out that one of them ( a serial killer wannabe, I guess) has not actually killed someone by himself before, so the veteran killer pushes him to make this this woman his first kill. The newbe, however, cannot bring himself to do it, so the other guy grabs the knife from him. He laughs and makes fun of him, and we get the impression that he thinks the new guy is “too weak” or “not man enough” to follow through with the murder.

At this point, I thought for sure that the show would cut to a new scene, that we wouldn’t, of course, see what it usually left to the imagination on a prime time cable television show. Call me naive, but I’m used to murders being walked in on after the fact, the specifics surveyed only later in crime scenes and on lab tables. But if this scene is any indicator of future ones, The Following is taking TV murder–and specifically, the witnessed killing of women–to a whole new level. So instead of hearing what exactly happened to this victim in all-business conversations between medical examiners and forensic specialists, I saw it for myself.

I watched as the killer approached the woman, who was really hysterical by this point, and excitedly (yet rather unceremoniously, which may have been another reason why it was so disturbing) stab her over and over and over again. Although he stood in front of her as he stabbed her, viewers could not only see blood spray and soak her shirt, but also hear nauseating cutting sounds. I immediately felt sick and to be honest, a little traumatized.

After getting over the initial shock of watching a woman die (the entire scene was maybe a minute and a half, and yes, I was frustrated with myself for watching the whole thing), I started to feel a different emotion: anger. It’s days later and I’m still angry. And no, I’m not willing to let it go.

First off, I’m angry that there is still a mainstream appetite for violence against women. Every victim that I’ve seen so far on this show has been female. The serial killers themselves are both male and female, but they abduct, torture, and kill women. I admit that my exposure to the show is limited, but what clips I’ve seen have had a heavy presence of female victimization.


Is this unusual in movies and shows about murder? Perhaps not, but on a mainstream channel at a not-too-late hour of the night, I’d expect much milder violence. Certainly not full murder scenes. Certainly not horror-movie quality torture and suffering. And certainly not any of these things to a character who I genuinely feel for. In that brief moment, I felt her fear, and even though she was just a TV character, I feared for her. The problem, I think, is that the scene was much too real. I related to her, and imagined myself in her situation. Why? Because murders like that really happen. The scene was too close to what really happens to thousands of women each year.


In light of recent cases like the chilling trial of the Cannibal Cop and this chef who was found guilty of boiling his wife’s dead body, I’m so, so tired of seeing and hearing about men who get off on not just abusing women, but on torturing them. On shooting, strangling, and stabbing them, and then of disposing what remains of these daughters, sisters, and mothers like trash. It pisses me off that it’s acceptable to nonchalantly watch these real-life horrors re-enacted on TV. What’s more, it scares me. It deeply concerns me that our culture is so desensitized to the murder of women that we can sit down on our sofas and enjoy seeing it played out over and again. And then, that we can defend it.

I won’t make the mistake of watching men hurt women on The Following again. I do have to wonder about the writers of this show, though. Who are they, and what’s their agenda? Because if you were to ask me, it seems like they’re interested in showcasing–and encouraging–a culture of misogynistic violence.