Over the last several years, Hollywood has made significant strides in incorporating more women and more ethnicities into films and television shows. Yet despite success like Scandal and Selma, there's still so much more to be done, and Gemma Chan knows that better than most. The actress, who stars in the miniseries Humans on AMC, recently voiced her frustration about the lack of female minority representation in Hollywood. "There’s definitely still a lot of room for improvement," Chan said, speaking to The Telegraph. She added that while she has been fortunate in her career, there were still many times her auditions were cancelled as the creative team decided they were "only going to see white people."
Continued Chan, "The statistics are really depressing. I remember reading some that made me think, ‘Oh, you are more likely to see an alien in a Hollywood film than an Asian woman.'"
That statement seems crazy, but if you look back at the highest grossing films of the last few years (or the statistics — a 2014 study reported that Asian-American female characters only accounted for 3% of roles in 2013), Chan might actually be right. Believe it or not, there actually may be more films with aliens than Asian women in major roles. Is Hollywood more interested in making movies featuring extraterrestrial characters and other-worldly beings than films that have actresses of ethnic diversity taking on meaty leading roles?
Let's look at the highest-grossing films of 2015 so far. Two of them feature aliens: the animated film Home is all about them, and Avengers: Age of Ultron features Thor and the residents of Asgard. And how many Asian women have we seen in big roles onscreen? Archie Panjabi, a South Asian woman, has a small supporting role in San Andreas, but definitely could not be considered a leading character in the film. That title goes pretty much solely to Dwayne Johnson.
For more proof, you just have to go back further by one year. The highest grossing films of 2014 included Guardians of the Galaxy and Transformers: Age of Extinction. Once again, both films feature aliens; the transformers are aliens who come to Earth, and everyone in Guardians of the Galaxy is alien, even Peter Quill (or at least half of him). And once again, there are a few Asian actresses in the films, but none receive leading role status. Li Bingbing appears in Transformers: Age of Extinction and Fan BingBing makes a quicker than quick appearance in X-Men: Days of Future Past as the mutant Blink. Sarita Choudhary, an Indian actress, gets approximately one line in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1.
And what if you go back another year? 2013's highest grossing films featured Man of Steel and Thor: The Dark World, both of which have leading characters (and a cavalcade of supporting characters) that are aliens. How many Asian women were featured onscreen in big or even supporting roles? None.
Basically, the point is this: Gemma Chan's statement might sound silly, but she's clearly not wrong. While aliens are not infiltrating every single film made, Hollywood still has more of an interest in making films that feature other-worldly creatures than actors of Asian descent. It's surprising, frustrating, and upsetting that despite our country truly being a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, we don't get to see that kind of ethnic representation in the biggest films each year.
The only blockbuster film in the last couple of years that really showed Asian characters in main roles was Big Hero 6, and that's an animated film. So instead of asking if Hollywood doesn't take ethnic diversity into consideration for films, we should instead be asking why it doesn't. And then we should work to fix it, with people like Chan leading the way.