Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar win stokes conversations on Asian identity and representation

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

What her win also did was reignite a discussion about representation and identity in Hollywood, one which centers around systemic bias and the importance of self-identification in an industry historically unwelcoming to performers of color. As outlets across the entertainment and news industry reported Yeoh’s history-making accolade, many defaulted to language that captured a quite complicated history:

“#BREAKING: Michelle Yeoh wins the Oscar for best actress making history as the first person who identifies as Asian to win the award,” tweeted NPR(Opens in a new tab)

“The Malaysian-born star, 60, became the first actress who identifies as Asian to win the Oscar in the Best Actress category for her multilayered performance as Evelyn Wang in the genre-bending film, Everything Everywhere All At Once,” Entertainment Tonight reported(Opens in a new tab).

The language presented with accuracy a longstanding reality in Hollywood, in which many performers of color have felt forced to deny their cultural heritages and pass as white — a theme touched on more broadly in the ironically Oscar-snubbed film Passing from 2022. 

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

As commentators tried to summarize a century’s-worth of racial history and sociocultural distinctions, many online were lambasting the inclusive language as pandering to “wokeness.” Criticisms were first levied in January, following the Academy’s announcement of its 2023 nominees and several articles that noted Yeoh’s historic nomination within the context of Oberon’s identity(Opens in a new tab). “It took 59 years for Michelle Yeoh(Opens in a new tab) to land her first lead role in a Hollywood film(Opens in a new tab). And it’s taken 95 years for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize a woman who identifies as Asian in its best actress category,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote in a Jan. 24 article(Opens in a new tab). Some readers were incensed(Opens in a new tab)

With the news of Yeoh’s win rolling in on Oscar Sunday, the claims of “transracialism” and “overly-woke news media” picked back up(Opens in a new tab) among conservatives(Opens in a new tab) and critics(Opens in a new tab). NPR seemingly edited out a mention of the nominal caveat(Opens in a new tab) from initial reporting on the win(Opens in a new tab), but the publication’s tweet retained the wording. A Twitter Community Notes fact-check was added to the post, reading, “The tweet is factually correct, but missing context to explain wording. Merle Oberon was the first Asian woman nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1935. Oberon hid her heritage to avoid discrimination. Michelle Yeoh, however, is open about her Asian heritage.” The check also included a link to a Vox YouTube Short(Opens in a new tab) about the award’s history.

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

For her own part, Yeoh had frequently acknowledged the power held by the Academy in awarding the prestigious award to an openly-identified Asian woman, and called out the industry’s lack of diversity throughout the awards season, even sharing to Instagram screenshots of a Vogue article(Opens in a new tab) pointing out the lack of diversity in Oscars Best Actress history. The now-deleted post(Opens in a new tab) also garnered ample criticism from many who felt it was a violation of industry etiquette and campaigning rules set by the Academy. 

The press cycle for Yeoh’s film, the now Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once, leaned heavily on its representation of an Asian family, told by a predominantly Asian cast and crew. As the film and its cast snagged win after win, the conversation and critique of Hollywood’s treatment of these stories only grew. In the Academy Awards’ long history, 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 sobering reminder of the industry’s bias. 

At this year’s Screen Actors’ Guild awards, the film’s leads noted this tarnished history while accepting the award for Best Film Cast. “This moment no longer belongs to just me. It also belongs to everyone who has asked for change,” said Ke Huy Quan, who also took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

“I got my first SAG card 70 years ago. Back in those days… producers said that Asians were not good enough and they are not box office, but look at us now,” veteran actor James Hong told the crowd. The 94-year-old Hollywood legend made sure to note that Asian actors hadn’t been accepted on screen for that long, referencing the common decision to dress white actors in “yellowface”(Opens in a new tab) for stereotypically-designed Asian roles.

“Hopefully, every single marginalized community gets this opportunity to announce themselves and be like, ‘Look, the narrative is usually this, but there’s so much more to us,'” co-director Daniel Kwan told the Guardian(Opens in a new tab)

On stage alone to accept her Oscar two weeks later, as the first Best Actress winner to have embraced her Asian heritage openly, and for a film seeped in the expressly 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 possibilities,” she said tearfully. “This is history in the making.”

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