Sandra Oh on Why We Need TV Shows to Reflect Diverse Audiences

Actors, writers, and executives are working to improve the on-screen representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

From left: Rashad Raisani, Karen Horne, Sandra Oh, Grace Lee, and Craig Robinson at ‘Expanding the Conversation: Asian Americans in Media’ at Universal Studios Hollywood in Universal City, California, on Nov. 2. (Photo: Jerritt Clark/Getty Images)

Nov 3, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

As a child, actor Sandra Oh scoured episodes of MASH—a 1970s comedy series set in an army hospital in South Korea—hoping to find characters who looked like her.

Seeing Asian actors represented on television “gave me a sense of place and confidence,” Oh said during a panel discussion in Los Angeles.

“The pain that we feel when we’re not included, we don’t see ourselves—it’s a very specific pain. It’s so present for me, and I’ve done a lot. I’ve been very, very blessed,” said Oh, who is best known for her decade-long tenure on Grey’s Anatomy.

On Wednesday, the Center for Asian American Media partnered with NBC Universal for a panel discussion about Asian Americans’ representation in media. Along with Oh, the panel included filmmaker Grace Lee (American Revolutionary); producer Rashad Raisani (Shades of Blue); MSNBC anchor Robert Lui; NBC executive vice president and chief diversity officer Craig Robinson; and Karen Horne, senior vice president of programming talent development and inclusion at NBC Universal. The discussion focused on ways to diversify representation across film, television, and broadcast news.

More than half of the roughly 400 films, television series, and streaming series tabulated by the University of Southern California did not feature a single speaking Asian character, according to the 2016 edition of the university’s report. Only 1 percent of lead roles in films go to Asian actors, and white actors continue to portray Asian characters, such as Emma Stone’s portrayal of a part-Chinese fighter pilot in Aloha.

Recently, Asian characters found in comic books have been reimagined as white for their big-screen debuts, including the Tibetan monk turned Celtic mystic (portrayed by Tilda Swinton) in Marvel Studio’s Doctor Strange, or Japanese manga series’ Ghost in the Shell leading lady Major Motoko Kusanagi, dubbed Major in the upcoming Hollywood film and played by Scarlett Johansson.

Often the case for casting a white actor or hiring a white writer is that there isn’t a nonwhite person with the star power or a comparable résumé to fill the spot. By heading up NBC’s development program, Horne is working to make that argument obsolete.

“First and foremost, we need to find people who are talented,” Horne said. “I’m going to do everything I can to help support [Asian Americans], to make them undeniably talented [so] that no one can dismiss them in a writers room, in front of a camera, or behind a camera.”

That approach worked for fellow panelist Raisani, who participated in the NBC development program “Writers on the Verge.” Raisani, who spent five years as a writer on USA’s Burn Notice and now works on police drama Shades of Blue, said the USA program gave him the fundamental skills to make him an asset on any writing team. During his first few years in the writers room, he tried to fit in with his peers, but he found that sharing his perspective as an Asian American Muslim from a small southern town was more valuable.

“One thing that we can give is an outsider’s experience in America, which is a very American story. America was founded by outsiders,” said Raisani, adding that diverse stories still have universal appeal, pointing to the success of series like Fresh off the Boat (ABC), Master of None (Netflix), and The Mindy Project (Hulu).

Network executives are beginning to see this too. Raisani said he’s been actively discouraged from pitching stories with white male protagonists. “[They] want a unique outsider’s experience—something people haven’t seen a thousand times,” he said. “America’s bored by the Waspy thing. They’ve seen that for years.”