Lucy Liu is opening up about her role in Hollywood and reflecting on how ridding the stereotypes of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States will take a lot more than limited on-screen representation.
The 52-year-old Chinese American actress, who is known for leading roles in a handful of films and television shows, wrote an op-ed for Washington Post where she spoke to the sparse representation of AAPI actors and actresses on-screen that she was exposed to while growing up. She even noted that her "kid hero" was Anne Miyamoto from the Calgon fabric softener commercial who "only popped up on TV for 30 seconds at random times." But even as Liu received opportunities that seemingly broke the mold for Asian American actresses, she said that it's simply not enough.
Most notably, Liu spoke to her role in Charlie's Angels – a TV show that she admitted to being a fan of since she was young, although she never would have imagined being a part of it. When she was cast as Alex Munday in the 2000 film, Liu knew that it was a big deal. Still, the progress that the moment seemed to represent hasn't been maintained.
"I feel fortunate to have 'moved the needle' a little with some mainstream success, but it is circumscribed, and there is still much further to go. Progress in advancing perceptions on race in this country is not linear; it’s not easy to shake off nearly 200 years of reductive images and condescension," she wrote. "Hollywood frequently imagines a more progressive world than our reality; it’s one of the reasons 'Charlie’s Angels' was so important to me. As part of something so iconic, my character Alex Munday normalized Asian identity for a mainstream audience and made a piece of Americana a little more inclusive."
Other roles that she's taken on, including her character in Kill Bill, O-Ren Ishii, however, provide examples of just how pervasive Asian stereotypes are, despite being attempts to move beyond them. Here, Liu referenced an op-ed in Teen Vogue where her character was described as a perpetuation of the dragon lady archetype. Liu pointed out that the analysis itself seemed unfair since it excluded the film's other female leads from the stereotype.
"Why not call Uma Thurman, Vivica A. Fox or Daryl Hannah a dragon lady? I can only conclude that it’s because they are not Asian. I could have been wearing a tuxedo and a blond wig, but I still would have been labeled a dragon lady because of my ethnicity," Liu explained. "If I can’t play certain roles because mainstream Americans still see me as Other, and I don’t want to be cast only in 'typically Asian' roles because they reinforce stereotypes, I start to feel the walls of the metaphorical box we AAPI women stand in."
Liu has previously spoken out about the increase in violence against the AAPI community, telling Women's Health about the power of words, especially as they cater to dangerous stereotypes. "People are going to see you however they’re going to see you," she ultimately told the publication. In her Washington Post op-ed, she echoed a similar sentiment, writing, "Asians in America have made incredible contributions, yet we’re still thought of as Other."
She continued, "We are still categorized and viewed as dragon ladies or new iterations of delicate, domestic geishas — modern toile. These stereotypes can be not only constricting but also deadly."
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