It's not her fault she's played mostly Caucasian roles.
Despite being born to a Hmong father and Thai mother, Brenda Song is a consummately American actress–so much so, that the Californian recently told Teen Vogue that she was once deemed too American to play an Asian-American role.
Known–nay, beloved–as a Disney Channel legend for her roles on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (2005-2008) and Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2006), not to mention (as elder millennials fondly recall) Nickelodeon's 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd (1999-2002), Song was the only actress of Asian-American descent that many of us saw on TV throughout the aughts. "I don't think people realize how ahead of the curve Disney Channel was," Song said of her Disney tenure. "They were colorblind casting way before anybody else. They were giving me TV movies since I was 15 that people would never even think about. They were just telling stories and wanting kids to be able to see themselves on TV at a young age."
Brenda Song Through the Years | Amphibia | Disney Channel youtu.be
Yet, the 31-year-old said that she was not given the opportunity to audition for Jon M. Chu's $238 million-hit Crazy Rich Asians, despite being a fan of Kevin Kwan's book series and asking her managers if she could vie for a part. She was told "no." "Their reasoning behind that, what they said, was that my image was basically not Asian enough, in not so many words. It broke my heart," she shared. "I said, 'This character is in her late to mid-20s, an Asian American, and I can't even audition for it? I've auditioned for Caucasian roles my entire career, but this specific role, you're not going to let me do it? You're going to fault me for having worked my whole life?' I was like, 'Where do I fit?'"
In response, Chu has taken to social media to clarify that, if that was the message Song received, he certainly didn't send it. He posted, "Would these words ever come out of my mouth? Nope makes no sense. I feel horrible she thinks this is the reason. The fact is I love Brenda Song and am a fan. I didn't need her to audition because I already knew who she was!"
Regardless, operating under the belief that she was rejected for being an inadequate representation of her own race, Song came to terms with the criticism. "I got myself together and said, 'Brenda, there is only one you, and you can't change who you are. You can't change your past.' I am so grateful for every job that I've done," she said. "All I can do is continue to put good auditions out there, do the best that I can — that's all I can ask for."
Song now stars in Hulu's Dollface. She plays Madison, an effervescent young publicist whose energy sets the show's quirky tone. Kat Dennings and Shay Mitchell co-star in the female-created show, which is a characteristic Song praised: "I've always been a part of male-driven projects and it was amazing [to be] literally going to work every day and hanging out with my girlfriends."
From London Tipton (a non-Asian name) to Madison, Song's success has been predicated on an unusual mix of Asian erasure and respectability politics in American media. In a time when Asian actors still only account for 1% of Hollywood's lead roles, playing into the stereotypes promoted through TV tropes is, in cold terms, the only way for many actors of color to succeed. For instance, in 2017 Paste explored "Industry Bias, Whitewashing, and the Invisible Asian in Hollywood," quoting an unnamed casting director who actually said, "Asians are a challenge to cast because most casting directors feel as though they're not very expressive." In another casting director's words, the reason Asians haven't been featured in American media is because they (yes, all of us, apparently) are "very shut down in their emotions … If it's a look thing for business where they come in they're at a computer or if they're like a scientist or something like that, they'll do that; but if it's something were they really have to act and get some kind of performance out of, it's a challenge."
In response, #ExpressiveAsians trended on Twitter to call out the deep racial bias and false stereotypes at the core of Hollywood's shut-out of Asians and Asian-Americans. Yaoyao Liu of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival critiqued the tokenization of Asian characters, emphasizing "the importance of not simply including Asian performers in media, but of casting them in roles more meaningful than portrayals that are, at worst, perpetuations of racist assumptions or, at best, ineffectual lip service to substantive calls for diversity."
Most pointedly, Liu notes: "Even though the #ExpressiveAsians on American televisions today defy certain stereotypes, they remain within the parameters of being educated, middle class, and culturally assimilated; in other words, they capitulate to the standards set by respectability politics...Respectability politics refers to the policing of certain behaviors or values within marginalized groups in accordance with mainstream (read: white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative) codes of conduct. In the context of Asian Americans in media...prominent characters...toe the line of acknowledging their identity-based difference in a manner that is fully comprehensible and palatable to white audiences. For example: they have Asian names but they don't speak English with an accent... Nothing happens on screen that would alienate their white viewers."
Indeed, the first role to cement Song as a beloved figure in millennials' childhoods and, in many respects, an Asian American icon, was Wendy Wu. "The beginning of the end of Disney's promise of an all-inclusive cast," the film captured the cultural and cognitive dissonance that painfully characterizes the Asian-American experience. In describing "How Wendy Wu Homecoming Warrior Taught Cultural Acceptance," Nyah Hardmon wrote, "Wu was this preppy Chinese-American who struggled with the grips of her culture. Like most second-generation immigrants and other culturally and ethnically diverse people of this country, Wu didn't feel connected with her home country. She turned her nose at Asian cuisine and distance[d] herself from her Chinese heritage. Eventually, Wu comes to terms with who she is and the history of her family, but it definitely wasn't an easy conclusion."
It's no wonder we still root for Brenda Song. Her continued success from child actor to comedic female force is a living manifestation of the impossible dream of all people of color: to live in a world that doesn't erase culture and racial identity and histories of oppression under the demeaning guise of being "post-racial" or "color-blind," and where no one asks us to prove we're worthy of being seen.
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The Trump-Twitter Industrial Complex continues to fester and mutate.
This week, President Donald J. Trump tweeted a false statement about mail-in ballots.
He wrote that secretaries of state were sending mail-in ballots to every person, when actually states are only sending out ballot applications. For the first time, Twitter jumped in to fact-check Trump's statement, adding a link to a webpage full of information about mail-in ballots.
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Was the Jimmy Fallon Blackface Skit Intentionally Released as a Distraction from the Murder of George Floyd?
Racist police violence is a modern epidemic. So why are we talking about an SNL skit from 2000?
At this point, celebrity apologies are incredibly common. In 2020, it seems like some formerly beloved actor or TV personality is being put through the wringer of public opinion a few times a week.
Most recently, Twitter canceled Jimmy Fallon after an unquestionably racist skit from the 2000 season of SNL resurfaced online. The skit features Fallon impersonating Chris Rock, complete with black face and an offensive imitation of Rock's speech patterns.
Jimmy Fallon Blackface youtu.be
This quickly led to the hashtag #jimmyfallonisoverparty trending on Twitter. While fans seemed split on whether Fallon should be forgiven for the 20-year-old misstep, most everyone agreed that Fallon should apologize regardless. This morning, he did just that in the form of a tweet.
As far as celebrity apologies go, Fallon's is a pretty good one. He doesn't try to sidestep the blame, he doesn't bring up the fact that there were undoubtedly many, many other individuals involved in the creation of the skit, and he doesn't even mention the fact that in 2000, many people still thought it was possible for black face to be done in the spirit of fun, because the deeply racist nature of the act was largely ignored in mainstream (white) media. Of course, we know better now, and it's easy to see that a white person doing an exaggerated imitation of a black person—darkened skin included—can only be a racist, belittling act with a long, dark history of racial oppression. With that in mind, Fallon's only option was to apologize without caveat or reservation. Indeed, it's refreshing to see a celebrity apology that doesn't try to justify or minimize their own misstep. While we can all agree Fallon made a terrible, racist choice 20 years ago, we have to believe that, like all of us, he's grown since then. If cancel culture is to have any efficacy in making the world a better place, it has to leave room for forgiveness and growth. Hopefully, the whole affair will leave Fallon (and those who witnessed it) more racially sensitive.
All of that being said, one has to ask why the clip was brought up now, given that it's been circulated around the Internet before, and the specific YouTube clip that was shared was posted on the site over a year ago. It's also worth noting that the version of the clip that was going around Twitter has a text overlay that reads: "NBC FIRED MEGAN KELLY FOR MENTIONING BLACKFACE. JIMMY FALLON PERFORMED ON NBC IN BLACKFACE."
Megan Kelly, an outspoken conservative, was indeed fired from her job at NBC because she defended the use of blackface in Halloween costumes, saying on her talk show, "Truly, you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who put on whiteface for Halloween," she said. "When I was a kid, that was OK as long as you were dressing up as a character." While Fallon's instance of racial insensitivity was in 2000, Kelly defended blackface in 2019, long after society at large had begun to acknowledge the hurt that blackface and other forms of racial impersonation could cause. This fundamental difference aside, Kelly also has a long history of racial insensitivity that Fallon does not, even once saying, "What is the evidence that what happened to Eric Garner and what happened to Michael Brown has anything to do with race?" in a conversation about the epidemic of racist police officers in America.
Given the text overlay, it's pretty clear that whoever began the #jimmyfallonisoverparty was not necessarily seeking justice for the black community, but was instead trying to imply hypocrisy in the cancellation of Megan Kelly, given that Fallon (who has been outspoken about the flaws of the Trump administration and political pundits like Kelly) is still on the air. One even has to wonder if, given that it's obvious that the #jimmyfallonisoverparty trend was begun by a conservative individual or group, if the trend was meant to be a distraction from the widespread racist police violence that has been emphasized in recent weeks by incidents like the death of George Floyd, a black man who was murdered in Minneapolis by a white police officer on Monday. It seems oddly coincidental that the clip of Fallon should flood the Internet with controversy the day after Floyd's murder, unfortunately serving to help steer conversation away from Floyd's unjust death.
Indeed, under the unquestionably racist Donald Trump administration, more and more black people are being harassed, attacked, and murdered at the hands of racist white civilians and police officers. But Trump and his supporters don't want you to focus on that–so much so that it doesn't feel impossible that the Fallon skit was intentionally weaponized as a distraction.
In the last few weeks alone we learned that Ahmaud Arbery was murdered senselessly by a white man while simply out for a jog, and we all witnessed the harassment of Christian Cooper, a black man who was threatened by a white woman in Central Park who didn't want to put her dog on a leash. It's clear that racism in America cannot be reduced to insensitive skits from 20 years ago but is instead a current and deadly problem. What Jimmy Fallon did in 2000 was racist, yes; but don't let that distract you from the deadly consequences of racism in 2020, don't let celebrity apologies make you take your eyes of our lawmakers, who aren't doing enough to protect people of color in this country. Don't let the latest "#_____isoverparty" trend distract you from the deadly consequences of racism in our laws, culture, and criminal justice system.
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