To say there’s a lack of representation in the media would be an understatement. Though we’ve come a long way — look at all the Disney Channel shows that feature a black actor as the lead! — we still have a looong way to go; that’s clear when you see how many times white actors portray Asian characters in movies, for instance; white actresses, too. Hearing names like Kyo Kusanagi, Hideo Kuze, Motoko Kusanagi, one would think you’d see someone of Asian descent pop up. Instead, though, those roles were filled by talents who dyed their hair darker, or were even CGI-ed to look like they could, potentially, have Asian ancestry. (As if.)
White-washing is very real, but, like we said, we’ve come a long way. When you think of the original Charlie’s Angels trio, there were three white women. But when the 2000 flick came out, it featured two white women, and — hello! — one Chinese woman! (Thanks for paving the way, Lucy Liu.) It’s been proven that you don’t need to look anything like your book character to have a great impact on fans. So, here are eight white characters portrayed by awesome Asian actors on TV and in movies, proving just the same:
Emily Fields, Pretty Little Liars
Many fans of Sara Shepard's Pretty Little Liars book series were less than thrilled to learn about Shay Mitchell's casting as Emily Fields on the ABC Family (now Freeform) television adaptation. In the novels, Emily has hazel/green eyes, and strawberry blonde hair that's tinted green from chlorine; Shay's physical appearance is pretty much the exact opposite of that.
That backlash from readers probably stung a lot for the actress, especially considering she's half-Filipino (the other half is Scottish & Irish) and grew up in a predominantly white area. "It was the first thing people noticed," she told Yahoo! Style in 2015. "They’d say, 'Are you the daughter of my nanny?' I hated being asked who I was, and all my friends had blonde hair and blue eyes."
As a result, she dyed her tresses to a lighter shade, wore colored contacts and even hid from the sun to leave her skin as pale as possible.
Fortunately, fans started whistling a different tune upon witnessing the brunette beauty in action. She's now a fan-favorite on the show!
Photo: ABC Family
Mona Vanderwaal, Pretty Little Liars
PLL stepped outside the mold again when casting the sometimes-evil Mona Vanderwaal. In the book series, Mona has white-blonde hair, light blue eyes and a few freckles — a far cry from Janel Parrish's jet-black hair and brown eyes; she can probably thank her Chinese mother for those qualities.
Photo: ABC Family
Camille Belcourt, Shadowhunters
The former head of the New York vampire clan has blonde hair and blue eyes in Cassie Clare's Mortal Instruments book series. Yet, if you watch the Freeform drama, you'll notice that Camille looks nothing like that. That's because the beauty who portrays her, Kaitlyn Leeb, is partially Chinese.
NGL, Kaitlyn does a great job at playing a character everyone loves to hate.
Betty Rizzo, Grease Live!
Vanessa Hudgens is said to be a blend of a bunch of backgrounds, from Dutch, Irish & Native American to Latina, Filipina & even Chinese. Only one of those nationalities overlaps with Stockard Channing, and it isn't Filipina or Chinese. (Stockard is also part Irish.) That means that when Baby V played Rizzo, the role Stockard originated in 1978's Grease, she was changing up the part from a full-on white character to one derived from... a plethora of other cultures, including Asian ones.
Nikita Mears, Nikita
In case you didn't know, the drama Nikita is based on the French film La Femme Nikita, starring a — you guessed it — French actress, Anne Parillaud, as its leading lady, Nikita. But when The CW adapted it for the small screen, the network chose the Hawaiian-born Maggie Q to be the star, who, yes, is French (as well as Irish & Polish), but also has a strong connection to Vietnam from her mother's side.
"90% of the scripts I get are for white girls," Maggie said in a 2007 interview with CNN, before Nikita was even a glimmer. "And Asians may think I look really Western, but Westerners think I look really Asian. So I am in this sort of, pocket of, this big questionable pocket, so I definitely need to go in and really make people see more than that. And it's not easy."
Photo: The CW
Reggie Mantle, Riverdale
Ross Butler is tearing down Asian stereotypes, left and right. "I told my agents, 'Don't send me out for [roles written for Asian actors],'" he said in a Refinery29 interview earlier this year. "For a while, I didn't get any auditions, or I'd get very few... But then I started to pick up momentum and started booking roles that weren't [necessarily written for] Asian actors. For K.C. Undercover, my role wasn't written for an Asian actor, and I was the only Asian in the audition room. That's a trend I see today, when I go out for non-Asian roles: I'll be one of the only Asian people in the room, if not the only one."
When he was cast as Reggie on The CW's new show, Riverdale, based on the Archie comics, that was yet another wall he tore down, as Reggie is known to be a white character. "When I was a kid, there wasn't an Asian-American Ryan Gosling, or an Asian-American Robert Downey Jr. that you would look up to," he continued. "Now, [on Riverdale] I play kind of a jerky football player.
Oh, and it doesn't stop there. "On [Netflix's] Thirteen Reasons Why, I play a nice basketball player who does a bad thing, and on Teen Wolf I played a lacrosse player," he added. "Asians can be athletic, we don't have to fit into this image that [the media] has for [us]. Booking these roles that aren't necessarily [for Asian actors] is something I'm proud of and, hopefully, will keep doing."
Photo: Instagram (@rossbutler)
Kimberly Ann Hart (Pink Ranger), Power Rangers
The upcoming reboot of Power Rangers is really changing things up: an Asian actor is playing a black character, a black actor is playing a white character, a Latina actress is playing an Asian character and, you guessed it, an Asian actor is playing a white character.
On the OG Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers television series, Kimberly (a.k.a. the Pink Ranger) is portrayed by Amy Jo Johnson, who's of Portuguese/Azorean, English and French-Canadian descent. Naomi Scott, the new Pink Ranger, is English-born, but she's of Gujarati Indian (and Scottish) descent.
Arthur Curry (Aquaman), Justice League
Looking at any DC Comic featuring Aquaman, you can tell right away that the character wasn't meant to be Asian. Yet, that's exactly what Arthur Curry's shaping up to be in the new Justice League films, courtesy of Jason Momoa.
"Aquaman is especially cool, because being a Kanaka Maoli — being Hawaiian — our gods are Kanaloa and Maui, and the Earth is 71 percent water, so I get to represent that," he said in an interview with Daily Beast. "And I'm someone who gets to represent all the islanders, not some blond-haired superhero. It's cool that there's a brown-skinned superhero."
Photo: Warner Bros.