In all of the recent news stories about men in Hollywood abusing their power — from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Brett Ratner to Michael Oreskes — one line in particular stood out to comedian Jenny Yang. It was: “That experience caused her to lower her aspirations.” It was about the then-young women in journalism affected by NPR news editor Oreskes’ inappropriate behavior, but it could have been about anyone.
“I thought, ‘This is it.’ Everything we talk about in the realm of diversity and representation. When we throw around big words like rape culture, harassment and assault, it all boils down to that at every level of the pipeline — creatively, of deals being made, of people being seen and understood, of self-censorship and your own critical voice. That is what happens in that environment. We take ourselves out of the game,” Yang said on a panel celebrating Asian-American women in comedy hosted by Comcast NBCUniversal and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).
While Yang noted that she hopes there are “a lot of consequences” for the abusers who are being outed, she said that what is happening right now has the opportunity to “upend” the system and make a transition. “The current power structure doesn’t work for us anymore,” she said.
Yang wasn’t just referring to the specific harassment so many women have faced over the years at the hands of powerful men but also the systematic silencing of voices of many minorities that has come from years of underrepresentation in the media.
“I think what’s unfortunate is that we don’t have enough of a mainstream pop culture vernacular about Asian-American culture to just pluck it from the ether, where we could just say, ‘What is the Asian-American response to that?’ That’s not a thing yet,” Yang said. “What we’re doing, organizing our own 700-seat theaters, doing our own viral videos, having our own internships, starting our own CAAMs, that’s our way of saying ‘How do we break through into the mainstream vernacular so we have points of reference that everyone will get?’ So it’s not always us scratching to be at the table.”
Colleen McGuinness, who is now co-executive producer for Netflix’s “Friends From College” and writer on Alan Yang’s upcoming Amazon comedy, came up through a diversity program at NBC. In her earliest days she said other writers would single her out as “the minority staff writer,” and even a few years later when she worked on the short-lived series “Miss Match,” she remembers “all four leads on that show were just white and no one was ever saying ‘Let’s bring on more diverse people.” But today, she says, there is progress being made, even if slowly.
“Every room I’ve worked in in the past five years has been diverse, and no one is commenting or singling you out. But I think too many of the top, top, top positions are white men. There’s nothing wrong with having a white man there, but there needs to be other people represented — women, women of color, people of color,” McGuinness said. “Some people don’t get that we live in a very colorful world and we should make stuff for everybody. So I think it’s up to us to keep making our art and making sure it reflects what we see and the points of view that we want. If we start doing it on the ground floor and it catches on, then they can’t fight that because everyone wants to make money.”
Having more diverse voices in writers rooms and at the executive level will open up storytelling beyond tokenism and stereotypes, but it will also allow actors to have the opportunity to play a more fully realized character. Writer and actress Tess Paras said that she goes on auditions that are calls for “any ethnicity” or Asian-American and often feels like she has to explain herself before she even gets to just do the scene.
“In some scenarios I have to go, ‘Hi, I have an Asian face and a Spanish last name, and let me give you a quick lesson on colonization,” said Paras, who is Filipina. “There’s always these little conversations I have to have as a Filipino-American actress, as an Asian-American actress. We’re not quite there yet, but we will get there when these stories become more prolific and we have a presence out there and you get to know a little bit more about what an Asian face and a Spanish last name equals.”
Paras added that it often takes the community elevating itself by having the next generation stand on the shoulders of those who came before, as well as everyone still working and active constantly supporting each other.
“You see on Twitter when somebody’s like, ‘Oh we can’t find a person to fill that role,’ Asian Twitter is all over that. ‘I know this person, and I know this person, and I know this person.’ So don’t say you can’t find them because we’re all here, and we’re all shouting each others’ names from the rooftops,” Paras said.
Documentarian-turned-television comedy director Geeta Patel said that there is something exciting about being a part of the media in that way, at this time in history. “We went through a year where minorities were being pushed down and we were deporting people,” she pointed out. “But we’re going to show our stories and tell our stories and make you watch them because they’re really good.”
When Patel was traveling the world for her documentaries, she spent most of her time trying to showcase a project about non-violence in war zones like Somalia or Rwanda or Belarus. “They would skip a meal to watch the new American rom-com or action movie. And so you realize the power we have as storytellers in the commercial space,” Patel said. “You realize the messages that we can portray around the world or even in our own country. We can make a difference through our media and create change and really turn it around.”