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  • Maithili Sule

The Oscars, Michelle Yeoh, and Anna May Wong

Michelle Yeoh’s win at the 95th Oscars for Everything Everywhere All at Once marked the first time the Academy had awarded an Asian woman in the Best Actress category. A historic and well-deserved win, Yeoh’s award was one of several recent long-due recognitions in Hollywood.

Yeoh’s character, Evelyn Wang, a suffering and exhausted laundromat owner, learns self-acceptance and appreciation for the world in the midst of a sci-fi jump across the multiverse. Along the way, she encounters an odyssey of her and her daughter’s minds, eventually learning what it means to embrace the absurd. The film contains themes of existentialism, Taoism, and the belief that life is meaningless, while also exploring intergenerational trauma in the Asian-American– specifically Chinese-American–experience. A film starring a mostly Asian-American cast and becoming the most awarded movie ever is a huge testament to the shift in what is now considered good cinema.

“For all the little girls and boys who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibility,” Yeoh said in her acceptance speech.

Aside from Yeoh, her co-stars Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis won for supporting roles, the Daniels won for Best Directing, and the entire film won for Best Picture. The night ended with Everything Everywhere All at Once winning seven of the eleven nominations it received, becoming the most awarded Best Picture since Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.

Yeoh’s win is a marker of the shift in treatment of Asian women in Western cinema. With a career spanning over 40 years, she has established herself as one of the most prominent actresses of the time.

The limited recognition for women of color in Hollywood can be traced back to a century ago, during the period of Anna May Wong, who was a third-generation Chinese-American actress. While Wong spent most of her career being shoehorned into stereotypical roles, like Yeoh, she fought for better roles that offered her acting range–roles which were widely unavailable to Asian actresses at the time.

Anna May Wong was, throughout her career, ostracized by both white American audiences and Chinese audiences due to her inability to easily fit into either category. Her efforts to be portrayed as more than shallow stereotypes was often for naught, and she spent a vast majority of her career oversexualized in her films, eventually being killed off to serve the white characters’ higher purposes.

Many of Wong’s prospects were perpetuated by the anti-miscegenation rules placed in early cinema, barring two people of different races from being depicted romantically.

Perhaps one of the biggest examples of discrimination against Wong happened in 1935, when she was denied the female lead role in the film adaptation of The Good Earth, a story set in China. Because Paul Muni, a white man, had been cast as the male lead, Wong was instead offered the role of Lotus, which she declined, citing the character as “unsympathetic.” German actress Luise Rainer was cast instead. She ended up winning Best Actress at the 10th Oscars. With yellowface being one of the prime ways Asians were disrespected in Hollywood, the impact of Michelle Yeoh’s recognition this year is even more inspiring

Clearly Yeoh’s win is indicative of a shift in what Hollywood deems is worthy of decoration. However, there is still plenty of room for progress. The only other time a woman of color won an Oscar for Best Actress was in 2002, when Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball. Consider the twenty-one year gap between Berry and Yeoh’s wins. The fact that it took so long for another woman of color to win, in spite of many being nominated in the interim years, is indicative of a bias towards white women.

This year’s Oscars also marked one of the biggest snubs in the Best Supporting Actress category. Jamie Lee Curtis won over her co-star Stephanie Hsu, who arguably had a greater performance. Curtis’ win also came at the expense of Angela Bassett for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, whose reaction to losing has gained a lot of flack. Bassett, who did not clap when Curtis won, was ridiculed on Twitter, the main criticism being that she was behaving entitled. The Academy also snubbed Bassett for her 1993 film, What’s Love Got to Do with It, for which she received a Best Actress nomination.

Curtis has also come under fire on Twitter for beating out the other nominees. This, however, is a coverup for the real problem at hand: institutionally. Hollywood is still resistant to the idea of decorating women of color.

In spite of the various efforts to make Asian women be seen in Hollywood, the scars left behind by anti-miscegenation laws and a constant effort to let white actresses outshine their counterparts is a sign that much progress still needs to be made, and the best is yet to come.


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