Lucy Liu: Taking Elementary Steps to Combat Racism in Hollywood

07 Jun
Lucy Liu in Payback (1999).

Lucy Liu in Payback (1999).

While browsing, I found an article entitled, Lucy Liu Talks Candidly About Racism and Stereotypes in Hollywood.  The author, S.E. Smith, asserts that she is not only an acclaimed Asian American actress, but also someone who “would be a lot of fun to hang out with.”  Her roles in the past are indicative of the racist issues that occur time and time again in Hollywood; for example, she has been cast as a Dragon Lady (Ling Woo in “Alley McBeal”), a martial arts star (“Charlie’s Angels” and “Kill Bill”), and, the infamous “mysterious sex worker with links to the Chinese mafia” (“Payback”) (1).

Liu explains that she would like to be acknowledged simply as an actress, not only as an Asian actress, and there in fact is an inevitable distinction in Hollywood.  She says, “People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me” (1).  She also continues expressing that there also is some sort of balance between ‘too Asian’ and ‘too American’.  She explains that she never really fit in either category, which became a “frustrating” process even as an accomplished actress.  Despite establishing herself as a talented actress, once she was cast as Sherlock Holmes’ therapist, ‘Joan Watson’, in Elementary, there was an uproar of controversy.  As a Chinese American woman cast in a role typically thought to be played by a white male, she faced the criticism for breaking “boundaries for an old and much-beloved classic” (1).  As a fan of all the Sherlock Holmes-inspired novels and shows (particularly, Sherlock!  If you haven’t seen it, you should make it a summer project!  You won’t regret it!), I was excited to see a new spin on the original Holmes/Watson dynamic.

Lucy Liu (left) and Jonny Lee Miller (right) as Watson and Holmes in Elementary (2012).

Lucy Liu (left) and Jonny Lee Miller (right) as Watson and Holmes in Elementary (2012).

Sherlock Holmes, played by Jonny Lee Miller, is a former consultant to Scotland Yard, and also a substance abuser.  He moves to New York City, where he stays at a rehab facility, and then lives with Watson, “who becomes his sober companion and eventually his apprentice” (2).  The anger that emerged from the fans was explosive and drove Liu to respond, “If I didn’t try anything different, I’d still be doing a Calgon ad. You have to be a pioneer, which means doing things that are not scheduled and different. When you do stuff, it’s not always to please other people–it’s to please yourself. For me, the more individual you make something, the more universal it can be. You have to be a pioneer” (1).  And, I would agree with Smith that Liu is indeed a pioneer for the Asian American community through enduring, withstanding, and confronting the racism of Hollywood.  This, however, is not only applicable to Hollywood, but also to real life, which there is the drive for minority women, like Asian Americans women, to go against the grain and declare themselves as equals to their white counterparts.






Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “Lucy Liu: Taking Elementary Steps to Combat Racism in Hollywood

  1. xiaodiw

    June 8, 2013 at 10:25 am

    Some time ago, when I was watching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, there was a scene when the doctors were watching a horror movie. One of them claimed that “You know, it’s always the blonde who survive and the black (or dark) hair girl always die in the end.” Does this kind of agree with what Swathi points out here? Certainty. Especially with Asian actors and actresses. I’m a big fan of American TV shows! As an Asian female, I notice that, often, most of the Asian actors and actresses are assigned with some characters who end up with really bad destinies. They either feature some villains or people who are vulnerable or defenseless. I understand that in this white-dominated world, people of color may not have an equal chance in the TV and movie industry. They usually have to work much harder to get an opportunity than a white actor or an actress even they are “equally” beautiful.

    We’ve talked a lot about beauty norms in the society and by saying beauty norms, it usually refers to whiteness. Whiteness is the mainstream beauty standard while beauty from other races are considered “exotic”. However, I feel that Hollywood is doing better in embracing beauty from difference races as there are more and more non-white people being featured in the movies. It definitely takes some time for people to be comfortable with beauty from other races.

  2. emilypatriciamarie

    June 8, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    I LOVE “Elementary”! I really, sincerely appreciate its representations of diversity (Lucy Liu! Black people! Latin(o/a)s! And best of all, a Trans woman! All represented as JUST PEOPLE not defined by their non-normative traits!). But probably my favorite part is the close, platonic relationship between Holmes and Watson, as most modern tv shows with a male and female lead MUST throw in sexual tension, often leading to a relationship (because all men and women who are close MUST have sex, right? Ugh.)

    Unfortunately, there has been a HUGE backlash from the “Sherlock” fan community. Much of it based in racism, sexism, and fetishization of homosexuality (those who want “Sherlock” Holmes and Watson to get together, but also believe that “Elementary” Holmes and Watson must get together, and claim that the decision to make Watson a woman was homophobic? The Sherlock fandom is a strange, convoluted place without logic much of the time).

    This negative reaction from the “Sherlock” fandom made me rethink “Sherlock”, and notice its implicit but pervasive sexism and racism. I haven’t been able to enjoy the show the same way since.

    If you want to know more about the interesting/strange dynamic of the “Elementary”/”Sherlock” fandom wars, I suggest searching for “Pressed Sherlock Fandom”, Tumblr would be a good place to start, though I warn you that it can get pretty ugly.

  3. thescotchtapemedic

    June 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    I was arguing with some students here a couple weeks ago (it started over why Benedict Cumberbatch shouldn’t have been cast as Khan BUT THAT’S ANOTHER STORY), and they made the argument that diversity doesn’t sell. That our media predominantly features white and male protagonists because we consumers wouldn’t want to see or read a story about women or people of color.

    And Elementary totally flies in the face of all that! It’s a very successful show and it has one of the most diverse casts I’ve ever seen. And all without tokenizing the nonwhite, nonmale, noncis characters.

    When I brought up Elementary as a positive example of diversity, they asked me why it was okay for Watson to be recast as an Asian woman but it wasn’t okay for a character of color to be recast as a white man. Ignoring all of the obvious reasons of unequal representation and oppression, I told them this: it’s because Watson’s race and gender really don’t matter in the context of the story. There aren’t any plot points about his being a man or being white. His character isn’t more informed and nuanced by his being a white male. Watson is still the same character whether Watson is Asian or white or male or female. And I think that a lot of that comes from the belief that the cis white hetero male is “default” and everything else is nonnormative. Which actually does tie into unequal representation and repression, and THAT is REALLY important.

    Media matters, and Elementary matters is what I’m saying.


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