Here’s why Chloé Zhao’s win matters for Asian women in Hollywood

Written by Nancy Wang Yuen

Nancy Wang Yuen is a sociologist at Biola University and the author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.” All opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.

It took 93 years for the Academy to name an Asian woman as Best Director. And until this year, only five women, all White, had ever been nominated and only one had won — Kathryn Bigelow, in 2010, for “The Hurt Locker.”

But all of this changed Sunday evening, with Chloé Zhao taking home the Academy Award for the critically-acclaimed “Nomadland,” which depicts a woman in her 60s (played by Frances McDormand) traveling through the American West as a van-dwelling nomad. (In an Oscars first, another woman director, Emerald Fennell, was also nominated in the category in the same year).

The Chinese director’s win acknowledges the impact Asian women can exert on the entertainment industry — one that has historically objectified them.

More agency

In Hollywood, Asian women have long existed as fantasy, fetish and exotica — objects of desire filtered through a Western male gaze.

Particularly egregious examples of this include scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie “Full Metal Jacket,” in which a Vietnamese prostitute approaches two White American GIs, saying, “Me so horny … me love you long time.” Another disturbing portrayal takes place at a massage parlor in 2001’s “Rush Hour 2,” where a harem of Asian women sex workers appear from behind a set of sliding doors but are given no personalities and no backstories. Instead, they entice Chris Tucker’s character, with one woman seductively cupping her breasts while others smile submissively.

A still from "Full Metal Jacket" (1987).

A still from “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). Credit: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Asian American women are often limited to playing caricatures, especially in the beginning of their careers. Speaking to The Guardian in 2017, Camille Chen, a Taiwanese American television actor, said she felt she had no choice but to go for masseuse and prostitute roles when she was starting out. Another Asian American woman I interviewed for my book, “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism,” described feeling “like a whore” after playing stereotyped roles with heavy Asian accents.

But as the stature of Asian women slowly grows behind the scenes, so does the richness of Asian female characters on screen.

After she was brought on as a screenwriter for 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” Adele Lim helped to strengthen the Asian women characters. Specifically, she gave Constance Wu’s character, Rachel Chu, more agency and made Michelle Yeoh’s character, Eleanor Young, more sympathetic than in the book the movie was based on, she told online magazine Bustle.

Following on from this success, director Lulu Wang’s 2019 film, “The Farewell,” depicted a Chinese American woman (played by Awkwafina, who also starred in “Crazy Rich Asians”) navigating her family’s decision to keep a cancer diagnosis hidden from her beloved grandmother in China. Partly based on Wang’s own life, this was a family drama in which all the Asian and Asian American women were complex, humanized characters. There was no objectification, simplification or fetishization in sight.

Awkwafina (center) in "The Farewell" (2019).

Awkwafina (center) in “The Farewell” (2019). Credit: A24 Films

In 2020, director Cathy Yan’s “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” became one of the most racially diverse and female-orientated movies in the DC universe. Based on a screenplay by Christina Hodson, who is of Taiwanese and English descent, the film features many women characters including Cassandra Cain, a witty young Asian American superhero.

Defying stereotypes

As part of this group of rising Asian women directors, Zhao has already been making history. Zhao is the most awarded filmmaker ever in a single awards season, having taken home BAFTAs, Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion, among dozens of other prizes from critics associations. She was also the first Asian woman or woman of color to win Best Director at the Golden Globes and the first woman of color to win the Directors Guild of America’s Award for Outstanding Directing in a Feature Film.
Born in Beijing, she left China aged 15 and was educated in Britain and then the United States, where she studied filmmaking at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Zhao has since made a name for herself through her unique vision and voice, which blends documentary and narrative filmmaking.
She has become known for imbuing her movies with the humanity of the actors — many of whom are untrained — starring in them. Through “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015), “The Rider” (2017) and “Nomadland” (2020), Zhao presents a uniquely poetic vision of the American West. As a director, Zhao is able to capture what she called, in an interview with Deadline, “emotional truth that these people feel,” adding: “I start with more of a reverence for understanding a person in that world, rather than imposing myself on what a character should be.”

This isn’t to say that Zhao didn’t see these tales of Americana through her own cultural lens — but with complexity and nuance, she demonstrates that these narratives aren’t owned by US-born directors, let alone White ones.

What ties her perspective to her films’ subjects is that she centers on marginalized groups, whether that is Native Americans or nomads. “I’ve always been an outsider myself, and I’m naturally drawn to them,” Zhao told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year.
Defying stereotypes and categorization once again, her next project will be altogether different: Zhao will become the first Asian woman to direct a Marvel superhero film. Set for November 2021, “The Eternals” features a multiracial and multinational cast, including several actors of Asian descent: Gemma Chan, Don Lee and Kumail Nanjiani. Zhao is reportedly bringing the same humanizing approach of her independent dramas to the big-budget set of “The Eternals,” even using the same camera rig she used for “Nomadland.”
Frances McDormand in the film "Nomadland."

Frances McDormand in the film “Nomadland.” Credit: Searchlight Pictures

That Zhao is being celebrated as an auteur during a time of rising anti-Asian hate is also noteworthy. In the US, almost 3,800 hate incidents were reported between March 2020 and the end of February 2021, according to the organization, Stop AAPI Hate. While her accolades, of course, cannot erase anti-Asian racism, by winning the Oscar for Best Director she will garner more influence and visibility for the Asian community in the US movie industry that has long marginalized it.

Zhao’s victory also cements her place in the canon of great directors, reminding Hollywood that White men aren’t the only storytellers worth celebrating.


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