Asian American women are often held up in minor roles in mainstream entertainment as the ultimate examples of American meritocracy. Look, she’s the news reporter! Hey, she can hand the scalpel to the surgeon! Wow, she’s a medic who can check for the murder victim’s pulse!
As an Asian American female actor, I watch these TV and movie portrayals of smart “urban ethnic professionals” with great scrutiny, because I audition for those roles, hoping to get them. It’s taken a glacially long time for myself and my fellow women of color to be seen in this light and not have to deliver lines without an accent, and we want to believe so strongly that we are headed in a new direction with diversity and inclusion.
Then we turn around and find out that an Asian American Ariel in a production of The Little Mermaid is getting harassed online for not being white.
Japanese-born Diana Huey stars in a new touring version of the Disney classic, adorable as can be, complete with sequin scales and ginger wig, singing the iconic song “Part of Your World,” where Ariel passionately describes her desire to belong in a place that seems to always see her as an outsider. Sound familiar? I’m sure it does to Ms. Huey, who is now battling the online haters who don’t accept her being cast in the role because she is not Caucasian.
As reported by the Buffalo News, before a recent performance in Memphis, Huey was dismayed to read comments on social media criticizing her casting, specifically because of her ethnicity. "It's hard not to take it personally," Huey said. The negative pushback has continued throughout the show’s ongoing national tour.
Let’s back up. The Little Mermaid is a cartoon fantasy that involves a half-fish half-girl who can breathe and sing underwater, and has a Caribbean sidekick who is a crab with teeth. All that is believable to racists, but not a Japanese American in the title role. Nice.
Perhaps the detachment of the internet gives these people the audacity to voice their disapproval to Ms. Huey on her Facebook page, but the real issue is the fact that these archaic sentiments still exist about who is allowed to be seen, heard, and included in mainstream American entertainment.
To her credit, Huey is handling this situation with grace and professionalism. “For me personally with this show, I’ve often also felt the added pressure of feeling like I have to work even harder to get the audience to like me or be with me because I’m not what they might have expected to see as an Asian American actor,” she wrote in a Facebook post. Still, that is a heavy burden to bear. Consider that, in addition to playing a role, Huey has to win over some audience members, apparently, because of her ethnicity.
Then again, the reality of being an Asian American performer is harsh. In its report on the 2015-2016 theatrical season, Actors Equity, the union representing professional stage performers, notes that only 2.2 percent of their active membership is Asian. And these are the actors lucky enough to be in the union and working.
So despite the glory of Hamilton and the other great strides made on Broadway in recent years, Asian American actors still push against the bamboo ceiling that wants to keep us corralled in endless regional revivals of The King and I and Miss Saigon. Both are beautiful shows. As the lyrics from the Little Mermaid go, isn’t it neat? Wouldn’t you think our collection’s complete? We have “everything.”
But we want more. We want the world to see that we can actually sing other songs for once. We want to be seen as more than an objectified gift to an oppressive King, or a wartime prostitute who dies to save her half-white child. And getting to play a medical examiner without an accent, or donning a red wig to play a singing mermaid is just the beginning. Can’t we be part of your world?