Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar win sparks debate on Asian identity and representation

When actress Michelle Yeoh’s name was announced as the Oscar winner on Sunday, she added a new check mark to the ceremony’s history. Golden trophy in hand, Yeoh became the first Asian actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actress.

What her win also did was reignite a conversation about representation and identity in Hollywood, one that centers on systemic bias and the importance of self-identification in an industry historically inhospitable to performers of color. As outlets across the entertainment and news industries reported on Yeoh’s history-making accolade, many did not use language that captured a fairly complicated story:

“#BREAKING: Michelle Yeoh wins Best Actress Oscar making history as the first person identified as Asian to win the award.” he tweeted NPR(Opens in a new tab).

“The Malaysian-born star, 60, became the first Asian actress to be recognized to win the Best Actress Oscar for her multi-layered performance as Evelyn Wang in the genre-defining film. Everything Everywhere Simultaneously», Entertainment Tonight mentionted(Opens in a new tab).


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The language accurately portrayed a long-standing reality in Hollywood, in which many performers of color felt compelled to deny their cultural heritage and pass as white — a theme that was touched on more broadly in the ironically Oscar-winning film Passage from 2022.

In 1936, Merle Oberon became the the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress(Opens in a new tab), unbeknownst to the rest of the world and by choice of Oberon herself, who had hidden her South Asian origins to avoid discrimination. She might not have been the only one to do so: Some historians have noted that two-time Best Actress winner Vivien Leigh shielded her mother’s background in a similar effort to assimilate into Hollywood. Eighty-seven years later, Yeoh’s win brings to light this complicated and convoluted history for actors of Asian descent, which is itself an oversimplified designation for these performers’ diverse sociocultural backgrounds.

As commentators tried to sum up a century of racial history and sociocultural discrimination, many online condemned the inclusive language as pandering to “vigilance.” Criticism first surfaced in January, following the Academy’s announcement of its 2023 nominees and several articles that noted Yeoh’s historical candidacy in the context of Oberon’s identity(Opens in a new tab). “It took 59 years Michelle Yeoh(Opens in a new tab) landing her first leading role in a Hollywood film(Opens in a new tab). And it took 95 years for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize a woman who identifies as Asian in the best actress category.” The Hollywood Reporter wrote in a Article 24 January(Opens in a new tab). Some readers were angry(Opens in a new tab).

With news of Yeoh’s win breaking on Oscar Sunday, allegations of “racialism” and “overwhelming media” picked back up(Opens in a new tab) among conservatives(Opens in a new tab) and critics(Opens in a new tab). NPR apparently edited a report of the nominal warning(Opens in a new tab) from the initial report on the win(Opens in a new tab), but the publication’s tweet retained the wording. A Twitter Community Notes fact check added to the post, stating: “The tweet is actually correct, but the context to explain the wording is missing. Merle Oberon was the first Asian nominee for the Best Actress Oscar in 1935. The Oberon hid her heritage to avoid discrimination. Michelle Yeoh, however, is open about her Asian heritage.” The review also included a link to a Voice YouTube Short(Opens in a new tab) about the history of the award.

Other Twitter users responded to criticism with additional context(Opens in a new tab)and the trending Twitter topic “Identifies as Asian” was quickly drowned out by an outpouring of support for Yeoh’s history-making victory.

For her part, Yeoh has often acknowledged the power the Academy wielded in bestowing the prestigious award on an openly identified Asian woman and has pointed out the industry’s lack of diversity during awards season, even sharing screenshots on Instagram one Fashion article(Opens in a new tab) pointing out the lack of diversity in the history of the Best Actress Oscars. The now deleted post(Opens in a new tab) it also garnered plenty of criticism from many who felt it was a violation of industry etiquette and campaign rules set by the Academy.

The press circle for Yeoh’s film, the now Winner of Best Picture Everything Everywhere Simultaneously, relied heavily on the representation of an Asian family, told by a predominantly Asian cast and crew. As the film and its cast racked up wins, discussion and criticism of Hollywood’s treatment of these stories grew. In the long history of the Academy Awards, Only 23 actors who identify as Asian have been nominated for a role(Opens in a new tab) and only six have won, making this year’s record number of Asian performers nominated for individual awards (four) a reminder of the industry’s bias.

In this year’s Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, the film’s stars noted this tarnished story while accepting the award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture. “This moment no longer belongs to me alone. It also belongs to everyone who has asked for change,” said Ke Huy Quan, who also took his home Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

“I got my first SAG card 70 years ago. In those days … producers said Asians weren’t good enough and it’s not cash, but look at us now,” veteran actor James Hong told the crowd. The 94-year-old Hollywood legend was careful to note that Asian actors had not been welcomed on screen for so long, citing the joint decision to they dress white actors in “yellow”(Opens in a new tab) for stereotypically designed Asian roles.

“Hopefully every marginalized community has that opportunity to announce itself and say, ‘Look, the narrative is usually this, but there’s a lot more to us,'” co-director Daniel Kwan he said to Guardian(Opens in a new tab).

Standing alone on stage to accept her Oscar two weeks later, as the first Best Actress winner to openly embrace her Asian heritage and for a film rooted in the Asian American experience, Yeoh echoed Hong’s thoughts. “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibility,” she said through tears. “This is history in the making.”

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