The Ends Justify the ScreensWhy Onscreen AAPI Representation Simply Isn’t Enough

Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov (left) and Daisy Head as Genya Safin on the set of Shadow and Bone (Photo credit: Attila Szvacsek/Netflix 2021)

This year was the first that I celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. After everything our communities had been through—a year of hate, violence, and disdain—I craved comfort. I needed to revel in safe spaces that uplifted our stories and celebrated our triumphs. I wanted to thrive in places where I felt represented. But this year AAPI Heritage Month came in the middle of a global pandemic, so I had to find community in COVID-safe ways. I found safety and joy in the takeout I ordered (we should all eat more masala dosa), the poetry I read, and the Netflix shows I binge-watched. 

For many members of the AAPI community, myself included, Kim’s Convenience was one of those sources of comfort, and when the Korean-Canadian sitcom came to an end this summer, fans everywhere bid a sad farewell to the beloved family saga. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even chimed in about the show, tweeting, “@KimsConvenience has celebrated diversity and championed inclusion.” From the top down, Canadians and non-Canadians alike knew that Kim’s Convenience was special because it was both brilliant and diverse. According to the New York Times, that was what made the show “quietly revolutionary.”

Meanwhile, in the states, Netflix gave Americans a new cast of daring AAPI adventurers to root for in the first season of its book-to-television adaptation of Shadow and Bone. While the young-adult fantasy isn’t based in reality, it’s still remarkable for the way it centers AAPI actors in lead roles, creating a high fantasy that finally allows for lead characters of color to exist in ways that other fantasy series, like Game of Thrones, decidedly have not. Showrunner Eric Heisserer shared his process for hiring diverse actors and writers, calling the “conscious effort to diversify” a “priority for the series.” Pride Magazine lauded Shadow and Bone as “the diverse, queer fantasy series we need right now.”

But these, as it turned out, were only surface-level representation “wins,” and they masked something much less worthy of celebration. Within a few weeks of each other, scandals regarding racist production practices on both shows made headlines. In May, one month after the release of Shadow and Bone, eagle-eyed fans found the Instagram account belonging to lead actress Amita Suman’s stunt double. Suman is a brown-skinned actress of South Asian descent, whose casting has been widely praised, but her stunt double in Season 1 was a white Hungarian woman. Obviously stunt doubles need to look like the actors and actresses they are doubling for, and to solve this discrepancy, Suman’s stunt double was “painted down”—a Hollywood euphemism for putting a person in brownface. Paint downs are supposedly “a thing of the past,” but in 2020, when the season was filmed, the production team decided that brownface on set was just fine. 

On the set of Kim’s Convenience, disgruntled whispers from one of its lead actors turned into full-throated condemnations of the show’s behind-the-scenes race dynamics. In an online statement, Simu Liu—who recently became a household name, starring in Marvel’s first Asian-led movie Shang-Chi—stated that the Asian-Canadian actors from Kim’s were systematically underpaid (his exact phrasing was that their salaries were “horsepoop”), pitted against one other, cut out of key decisions about their characters, and scared into not “rocking the boat.” A white TV critic for Canada’s Globe and Mail then accused Liu of being, among other things, “delusional.” From here, things got worse for Kim’s PR team: A second lead actor, Jean Yoon, jumped to Liu’s defense on Twitter with a long thread detailing even more troubling charges. Yoon described racist storylines, a whitewashed writers’ room, and a hostile production team that resisted cultural feedback and accused Yoon of simply “not understanding comedy.” It’s worth reading in its entirety here.

These behind-the-scenes decisions and dynamics highlight two obvious problems: One, brownface and all-white writers’ rooms are bad. And two, having these racist practices woven into shows marketed as beacons of diversity and inclusion is deeply hypocritical—a knife in the back from a “progressive” Brutus. As Hollywood attempts to rebrand itself as a more inclusive industry, it can be easy to take their cheery assertions about representation at face value. Representation matters, they tell us with dogmatic certainty. But dogma taken without question is easily warped—so it becomes imperative that we interrogate this dogma. Representation matters why, exactly? If all we want is to see faces that look like ours on the screen, then Shadow and Bone achieved that goal. After all, its lead actress is a person of color, and her stunt double’s skin tone can’t erase that. When I watch Shadow and Bone, I still see an incredible South Asian protagonist with an empowering story arc.

And yet, the reality of what’s happening infuriates me. To be sold a story of diversity and representation, only to learn that the story was built on a broken foundation, feels like being with that friend who compliments you to your face and gossips about you behind your back. It feels like working for the boss who praises you in reviews but only promotes your white coworkers. I don’t want this kind of onscreen representation. It feels too familiar, too visceral, and anything but empowering.

If the story is celebrating AAPI communities, but the production process is reinforcing anti-AAPI practices, the media simply isn’t worth it.

Yes, it’s true that we still desperately need onscreen representation for AAPI communities. Some might say that criticizing the few shows that do have onscreen AAPI representation because of their offscreen issues is counterproductive to the larger goal. But there are two important factors this line of thought overlooks. First, offscreen representation drives the quality of onscreen representation. More AAPI writers in the writers’ room for Kim’s Convenience, for example, might have resulted in a longer run for the sitcom—or, at the very least, might have meant that Liu’s and Yoon’s criticisms didn’t result in a dramatic fallout. Second, onscreen representation doesn’t matter if it’s achieved through racist means. Representation matters to viewers of color because it’s supposed to be a step on the path to an equal, inclusive society. In that society, seeing ourselves in narratives would be a product of our tangible power in the world. So, for us, when it comes to AAPI representation, the ends do not justify the means because the ends are meant to help us achieve better means. We want representation to serve justice; we don’t want representation that hinges on injustice. If the story is celebrating AAPI communities, but the production process is reinforcing anti-AAPI practices, the media simply isn’t worth it.

Onscreen representation is lucrative for studios, and their end goal is always to garner profits. Offscreen inclusion, however, does not yet seem to matter to Netflix’s bottom line. Shadow and Bone was renewed for a second season on June 7—one month after the brownface story broke. Netflix was rewarded for its onscreen representation, yet no one was penalized for its racist stunt-double practices. Corporate social responsibility only goes so far, and representation only matters to studios as long as it is profitable for them. Therefore, onscreen representation will continue to be a priority for studios, while offscreen inclusion, without attention, will be relegated to a footnote.

If we are invested in onscreen representation for the sake of offscreen equality, and we know that studios are invested in representation for profit alone, the way forward is to change that equation for television producers. As viewers, we have the power to make offscreen inclusion just as lucrative as onscreen representation. If studios want our dollars in the name of onscreen representation, we must demand that they demonstrate inclusion offscreen as well. We have to hold studios to a higher standard of justice and publicly shame them when they fail to meet it. They may not respond to our calls for equality, and they may not even respond to our dollars, but they will respond to the waves of negative press we send their way when they let our communities down. When we are watchful, forceful, and unrelenting, we can achieve the representation our communities actually need—not just the representation that studios want to sell us.

When we finally have that kind of representation, the kind that leads us toward a more equal world, we will celebrate our vibrant AAPI communities onscreen in May on Netflix, offscreen in June within diverse writers’ rooms, and onscreen again in September with blockbuster movies. But until studios make entertainment that services the real goals of representation, the products they sell us will continue to feel like nothing more than cheap stage tricks.

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by Thulasi Seshan
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Thulasi Seshan is a Democratic organizer, researcher, and longtime Gilmore Girls fan. Her background is in international relations, voting rights, and public lands issues. She can be found in the basement of a Chicago bookstore on any given day.