Shondaland fans prepare for another heart-wrenching finale – this time, because it may be the last time we see actress Sandra Oh as Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy. Oh’s strong-willed, fiesty, not easy to love Cristina Yang has been apart of every episode of the long running hit series since it’s premiere in 2005.
Oh’s final episode as a series regular airs Thursday, May 15, 2014, marking the end of her 10-season run with the show and her departure was announced last August, just before the beginning of season 10, giving fans a whole season to stock up on tissues for what is sure to be an emotional goodbye. However, there’s a larger issue at play here. Dr. Yang’s absence from Grey’s Anatomy also means one less Asian actor on U.S. primetime TV—let alone an Asian actor playing a role as significant and multi-dimensional as Dr. Cristina Yang. Shonda Rhimes stated about the Oh’s exit that the show “has essentially been a love story between Meredith and Cristina more than anything else.”
Oh, a Canadian actor who has performed on screens in both the U.S. and Canada, noted the difference between the two countries: “First of all in Canada, someone like me can be a star, a leading lady. In the U.S., much more difficult. They always want to keep you in the supporting roles. Oh was one of the reasons Grey’s got so much attention in 2005 for having “the most quietly diverse cast” on television, as The New York Times reported. Grey’s has always had a multi-racial cast without being a show about multi-racial relationships.
So where are all of the Asians in Hollywood? And what does Oh’s departure mean for the visibility of Asians in Hollywood? And what does that question say about the burden of representation?
There are Asians in Hollywood, certainly. They may be difficult to find, often tucked away behind the lead or popping up randomly at times to fill a void or meet a quota. It’s a short list, but certainly they are there. Subtract from that list the number of individuals in Hollywood “East Asian legend” stories, stereotypical fresh-off-the-boat comedic roles (such as Matthew Moy’s Han Lee in 2 Broke Girls), or in the central casting’s quirky geek role (such as Ali Wong’s Dr. Lina Lark in Black Box, the midseason replacement whose timeslot follows Grey’s).
Now who do we have left? We’ll help you out: veterans Lucy Liu on Elementary, Ming-na Wen on Agents of Shield, and Archie Panjabi on The Good Wife. On the comedy end, there’s Jenna Ushkowitz from Glee and actress/showrunner Mindy Kaling. According to the most recent diversity study from the Screen Actors’ Guild, in 2008, for every 100 white actors on television or in theater, there were five Asian actors, nine Hispanic actors and 18 Black actors.
Asian actors seem doomed to always be evaluated in terms of their race, a point Hannibal’s Hettienne Park noted in a blog written in response to fans’ outrage over her character, Beverly Katz, leaving Hannibal earlier this television season—the first character of the main cast to leave.
In the blog, Park states, “With good writing, every event happens in order to advance the plot and raise the stakes for the characters in the story, so I’m not sure how any character getting killed off is a bad or avoidable thing, especially on a show about a guy who eats people.” She goes on to explain that her character left solely for the sake of story—her race and gender were not even factors that were considered. Understandable, as the Hannibal novels, upon which the television show is based, are about two male characters.
That’s great! We want quality television. This brings up the problem with representation. Park’s character getting killed off might not be such a big deal as it regards her ethnicity if we could flip on any show and knew there was a chance we could see a quality, flawed, multi-dimensional Asian character in a decent range of roles.
Much like the killing off of Taraji P. Henson’s Detective Carter from Person of Interest brought a huge backlash and not just because fans loved her character. Carter was an awesome character strong and smart, flawed and vulnerable, loveable and loyal, Henson’s two and a half season portrayal of this character was just as great as the character herself.
The Burden of Representation is real. Just ask Rhimes about the backlash she receives regarding Scandal’s Olivia Pope. Many have argued that Pope should be written better, differently, be a better representation of Black women now that we finally have one in the spotlight on primetime. While many acknowledge that Olivia Pope doesn’t represent all Black women, they perpetuate the burden by accepting the fact that in America’s eyes – she actually does. Except – that she doesn’t.
Many of these critics fail to realize that the problem is not how Shonda Rhimes writes Olivia Pope, and the argument of whether or not Olivia Pope is or should be a role Model is irrelevant. The problem lies within the lack of representation in these very visible positions in Hollywood and America.
If we had a bevy of Black women to choose from, a wide array of Asian characters that represented a more accurate picture of our world and the complexities of the people within it, then the actions of one, the loss of another wouldn’t be so significant. These exits and departures, these decisions would not be so difficult for the fans and artists alike.
It is not on Shonda Rhimes to write her characters differently to save face in front of company (portray a certain, more “acceptable” version of blacks to white people) any more than it is Sandra Oh’s burden to factor in these Hollywood/American-imposed issues when making decisions about her career and following her dreams.
It’s true. We’re going to miss Dr. Cristina Yang, for more reasons than we have time to discuss.
A great farewell gift would be to work toward making sure Dr. Yang isn’t the last Dr. Yang.
You know, battling the burden. Changing the spotlight.
Farewell, Dr. Yang.
[Written with Kylee McIntyre, Contributing Writer, The Visibility Project]