I went into the movie theater for Everything, Everywhere, All at Once completely blind. By the end of the night, all my friends and I walked out of the theater with our faces a complete teary mess. If you’ve seen the movie yourself, you’ll probably know that behind the ridiculous hot dog fingers and exciting action scenes is a quintessentially Asian American story that tugs deep at the heartstrings. On the surface level, it may seem like I’m grasping at straws to make something as simple as wanting to have Asians in movies seem like some big problem. In reality, however, seeing people who actually look like us and that we can relate to (or being exposed to people we wouldn’t know about otherwise) can make all the difference — both in how we view ourselves, and how we treat others.
So why does representation even matter? ”Media creates the narrative foundation for how people of color are perceived and treated in the real world” (Ju & Sugihara, 2022). It makes sense that watching the same race in the same types of roles over and over again would enforce certain stereotypes. Whether conscious or subconscious, seeing is believing. And of course, this will inevitably bleed into real actions and consequences for the minorities portrayed in negative lights. (Not to mention the complete lack of Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders in general), examples typically include Asian men typecast as comedic punchlines, emasculate and nerdy (Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles) and women as sexual and exotic (Fook Yu and Fook Mi in Austin Powers) (Venkatraman, 2021).
Everything, Everywhere breaks this mold with its multidimensional characters and philosophy that transcend racial stereotypes and tell a sincere story about people we can relate to. “The Daniels draw from a long history of Asians in America and notable Asian American issues, from the Wang family’s laundromat (recalling the long, exclusionary history of Chinese immigrant labor) to the Western romance with kung fu mysticism to the “model minority” myth to the figure of the tiger mother” (Cheng, 2022). Rather than resorting to shallow tropes, the film’s creators flip them on their head by taking real issues and incorporating them into the core of the story. The Asian American experience is also interwoven into the main themes of generational trauma, nihilism, and more.
With the rise of the digital age and increasing conversations about race and ethnicity, there is a lot of hope for the future of representation. Potential solutions given by Ju and Sugihara include pushing for a greater range of stories, equitable pay in the industry, and more Asian Americans behind the screen where they can have the power to tell their own stories. So, the next time you watch a movie or TV show, I encourage you to do so with a critical eye: notice what kind of stereotypes you can find, or what races aren’t even there to begin with. And if you haven’t already, watch Everything, Everywhere All at Once.