How do you show a character’s personality in a movie? Perhaps through things like the choices they make or their unique dialogue or the way they interact with others, right? Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case for characters of color. As some people on Twitter recently pointed out, Hollywood has a habit of relying of certain stereotypes when portraying female characters who are Asian. Enter, the “Asian hair streak”: a trope often used to give female Asian characters “dimension” without giving them any discernible personality traits.
Maybe you aren’t familiar with the Asian hair streak. It’s one of those things that once you know about it, you see it everywhere. (Like, how your browser ads seem to know when you have a private conversation about area rugs. The Asian hair streak is equally capitalistic but maybe, probably more racist.) Put simply, the Asian hair streak is a Hollywood trope in which female Asian characters have a colorful streak in their hair to signify how “edgy” they are. If you were thinking it’d be more complicated than that, it’s not. And therein lies the problem.
“It’s time for western media to drop the idea that asian girls need neon streaks of color in their hair to stand out,” Twitter account @nerdyasians posted on Monday. The tweet accompanied a photo, which appears to have originated on Tumblr, showing over a dozen characters who fit the oddly specific trope. The tweet quickly blew up, since being retweeted over 24,000 times, as people realized...yeah, why do Asian women in movies and TV tend have a color streak in their hair?
Though the Asian hair streak has recently gotten attention, it is nothing new. A similar tweet from Annie Shi of @heartmush went viral in August 2017. “The fact that asian girls in media can't be rebellious/different without a streak of (purple) color in their hair pisses me off to no end,” Shi tweeted, also sharing a photo compiling female Asian characters with hair streaks. Really, the only difference between the two viral tweets is that the list has just gotten longer.
There’s a good chance you’d have an easier time listing female Asian characters with hair streaks than you would giving that actual name of Asian actresses. A recent study found that Asian Americans are often the most tokenized minority group on television, given their limited representation on the big and small screen. According to the study, titled “Tokens on the Small Screen,” 64 percent of the 242 current TV shows they analyzed do not have a single Asian American character. Zero. None. Think of one cookie and then eat that cookie and the number of cookies left is how many Asian characters those shows have.
Because representation is so scarce, it amplifies how Asian characters are portrayed when they are seen on screen. Is there anything inherently wrong with dyeing your hair or having a colorful streak? Of course. The issue comes from Hollywood’s apparent assumption that hair dye is a shortcut to showing everything you need to know about Asian character.
Rae Chen articulated this excellently in an Op-Ed for Teen Vogue earlier this year:
“Here’s the problem with giving Asian women a hair streak to let us know that they’re cool: It only works if you assume that the majority of Asian women are meek and submissive. By saying, “this hair streak makes independent thinkers identifiable, and shows us that they're different from ‘regular’ Asian women,” you’re implying that any Asian woman who still has her natural hair color is part of an almost hive-like submission — and that simply isn’t true.”
Recently, the New York Times published a piece in which writer Andrea Cheng explores the trend of Asian women dyeing their hair blonde. Cheng opens by writing about an experience many Asian Americans know first hand, that of the “perpetual foreigner.” This is essentially the notion that Asian Americans are consistently seen as “others” in America. Regardless of how long their family has lived in the country or where they themselves were born, Asian Americans are often viewed as “foreign” and somehow “less American” because of their Asianness.
The recent blond streak (pun wholeheartedly intended) among Asian women can be interpreted as intentionally rebellious, Cheng points out, as some Asian women are adopting Western beauty standards while in turn subverting them. “You’re stripping your hair down to the follicle, to the point where you have this wiry Brillo pad left on your head,” actress Greta Lee tells Cheng. “That kind of rebellion, that’s not something to take lightly.”
However, the choice of one individual, and whatever that choice may or may not symbolize to the individual, does not indicate definite cause/effect of an entire group. Some Asian American women are dyeing their hair as an act of rebellion. Some are doing it because they like how it looks and that it kind of the end of it. Asian women are not a monolith.
This recent viral tweet and the countless voices that have come before it are not asking Hollywood to stop portraying all Asian women with colorful streaks in their hair; they’re asking that they make that choice more consciously and on an individual character basis. You know, how actual people make choices.