How Authentic On-Screen Representation Gives A Diaspora Power | Vietcetera
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Nov 15, 2021
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How Authentic On-Screen Representation Gives A Diaspora Power

With more nuanced narratives available, Hollywood needs to do better with its portrayals of Asian and Vietnamese American womxn.
How Authentic On-Screen Representation Gives A Diaspora Power

The presence of Vietnamese actors in American films and television series has grown over the years. Unfortunately, their representation hasn't been done quite right.

Some spoilers ahead.

When Parker, a Vietnamese-American “boat person” who grew up in New Orleans speaks, in the film Blue Bayou, she doesn’t have a Southern accent at all. Instead, she has a light European lilt, which isn’t at all fitting when most Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans have a “Viet-Cajun” accent.

When another character, Antonio LeBlanc, is asked by his Caucasian wife if he’s “ever had Asian food like this” while at a party at Parker’s family’s home (referring to a rice paper summer rolls) in New Orleans East and he says “no”, I cringed again. That’s because these rolls are ever present in New Orleans — on bar appetizer menus, not just at Vietnamese restaurants.

To not have consultants who are Vietnamese-American and from The South reduces Parker to “refugee porn” and the magical Vietnamese-American woman trope. We know nothing about her except that she’s a refugee — not a thing about what she does for work or her hobbies. We just know that she keeps seeking the attention of a married Korean-American man and befriends him and that her family are boat people who escaped from Vietnam by sea after the Fall of Saigon. This makes “Parker” merely the trope of a “magical Vietnamese-American woman” — only there to serve the Korean-American man and then spoiler alert: she dies. Her character reinforces the stereotype that Vietnamese-American women are only here to serve others and be self-sacrificial.

While these inclusions are steps in the right direction, it’s clear that the best way to do Vietnamese-diaspora representation right is by actual members of the specific area of our diaspora — someone with actual lived experience and upbringing.

Linh Dan Pham in Blue Bayou. | Source: Focus Features

Though admirable to have more than one kind of AAPI in a film — and though Linh Dan Pham is wonderful in everything she does — the Parker character is ultimately a flat Southeast-Asian American woman serving an East Asian-American man.

Damon Lindelhof, a white man, writes Lady Trieu in Watchmen yielding think-pieces with titles like “Lady Trieu Deserved A Lot Better”. All representation of Vietnamese-American women can benefit from better accuracy and actual authenticity- especially regionally in the United States.

There are Vietnamese people all over Louisiana who could help. Fly-in, fly-by productions do not help to represent the local Vietnamese community there properly. Most recently we have Maggie Q, starring in The Protege — as a Vietnamese woman assassin in a film written and directed by two white men, but shot in Vietnam.

Maggie Q in The Protege. | Source: Lionsgate

As a Vietnamese-American writer and screenwriter, it’s refreshing to see a mainstream project on any screen that doesn’t show Vietnamese-diaspora womxn as the stereotypes of being submissive and servile. But those still dominate the screen: I recently saw a casting notice for a Vietnamese-American character on a major project written as “loyal to the death to her man” and rolled my eyes.

Referring to entertainment like Blue Bayou and Queen Sugar, director Adele Pham puts it squarely: “You actually have to know the characters you’re portraying, and have it a point of pride to give complex, authentic storylines," Pham says. “So many of these writers and directors have never met the characters they’re pushing out onscreen as a commodity. ‘Representation’ has also become commodified, and Gen-Z audiences see right through it.”

Filmmakers can help themselves — and the industry — by investing in more resources in equitable casting. After all, it’s better to have this brutal honesty upfront than have it pointed out after the cameras turn off and material is already on screens and damage is done.

Hollywood has shown me personally that they think it’s ok to swap out creators such as British-Vietnamese to American-Vietnamese without understanding any of the differences — between different kinds of human beings. But with the rise of untold narratives coming out of diaspora, viewers are ever-more savvy and can tell when there’s something off.

However, in the entertainment world and its entire history, we can have varying kinds of white men or women from the Midwest, Northeast, the South — just about anywhere with very specific cultural nuances.

Kelly Marie Tran in Monsterland. | Source: Hulu

When Kelly Marie Tran’s character on the Hulu show Monsterland sat in a closet while her white female friend had sex, then “stole” and assumed this white girl’s life and then married the white girl’s boyfriend, I just shook my head...a lot. Who would write a character so passive and self-hating? Why am I seeing this on television or anywhere at all?

Even in Da 5 Bloods, the Vietnamese love interest to one of the lead men (Otis) is simply waiting for him for decades after he loved her and left her (knocked up). She’s just there — to help him, again when he decides to magically reappear in her life. She holds zero grudges or reservations and is just there to be helpful and, you know, not “difficult”. Their mixed race daughter also welcomes him back, with no resistance and totally wide open arms. It’s as if they were just there to serve the American men, without any emotions for being abandoned and never cared about after the war.

This is baffling as a woman and especially as a Vietnamese diaspora woman. In this film — a white French woman is the absolute prize and the Vietnamese women are again the “bar girls” or “here just waiting to serve you” characters.

Then there’s Lana Condor, who is a Vietnamese American adoptee, playing a Japanese diaspora character in X-Men and then a Korean-American girl in To All the Boys I've Loved Before. Olivia Munn has similarly never played a Vietnamese-American character, even though one can see her posts of photos of her in ao dai on her Instagram. Trans comedian Patti Harrison states in a Vogue interview that people don’t even address her being “part Vietnamese” in articles.

Lana Condor in To All The Boy I've Loved Before. | Source: Netflix

Ali Wong is half Vietnamese-American and half Chinese-American and plays a character with the Vietnamese last name Tran in Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe. Are there any other on-screen direct equivalents like this? In one of Wong’s stand-up specials, she refers to her Chinese side to be “fancy Asians” and her Vietnamese side to being “jungle Asians”. Her observation says a lot about how we as a diaspora are regarded.

With the Ocean Vuong book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous turning into a film being made with a Chinese diaspora director for A24, some people wonder if nuances will be missed. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is also being adapted as a series and being produced by a handful of white people. We’ll have to wait and see how these two upcoming projects centering Vietnamese-American men will do justice to all kinds of Vietnamese-American characters. Hopefully they’ll have enough Vietnamese-American womxn’s input for the female Vietnamese-diaspora characters.

To recap, just like different kinds of Asians and AAPI are not interchangeable for each other, neither are different kinds of Vietnamese diaspora or Vietnamese-Americans regionally. It shows and it’s glaringly obvious when authenticity is not met.

Before you tell me I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, just think: would you interchange the story of a white guy from New York with a white guy from Texas? Would you think that either would possess the same lived experience because of their skin color and ethnic background? The answer is no, so why is it ok to think that members of the Vietnamese diaspora people can be swapped out for one another? If it’s not a fantasy story and there are more than enough resources to actually go with authenticity.

We ask you to do better, entertainment industry — no matter who you are. There are Vietnamese-American womxn’s roles, written by Vietnamese-American womxn out there that actually reflect their lived experience. Let’s get our stories right with the proper representation.