"While authentic and nuanced representation has improved greatly, there’s still a lot of awful stereotypes and lazy representation," says one.
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EW Game Changers is a series profiling the people and projects making an impact in diversity, equity, and inclusion in entertainment.

Asian representation onscreen has steadily increased since 2018's Crazy Rich Asians, From Parasite and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to Squid Game and Never Have I Ever, And the TV landscape has come a long way from the days when Margaret Cho's All-American Girl was the lone AAPI offering. But what about behind the scenes?

EW gathered three AAPI writers on high-profile shows (all of them alumni of the CAPE New Writers Fellowship, which nurtures emerging writers launching their careers in television and film) to talk about what's changed, what hasn't — and why Asian characters need to "simply exist as humans."

Eileen Shim; House of the Dragon
Eileen Shim, a scene from the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon
| Credit: Courtesy of Eileen Shim; Ollie Upton/HBO

EILEEN SHIM

  • HOMETOWN Seoul, South Korea
  • CURRENT JOB Producer on an upcoming, unannounced Star Wars series. Other credits: House of the Dragon, Light as a Feather
  • FUN FACT She taught herself how to speak English by reading the Harry Potter books with a Korean-English dictionary.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How has AAPI representation in your field evolved during your career?

When I first started working as a writer, Crazy Rich Asians was being referred to as "the Asian movie," and Fresh off the Boat was being referred to as "the Asian show" — because there was nothing else to point to. And while the number of AAPI-led projects is still not anywhere near where the demand is, it's encouraging that they no longer have to shoulder the burden of representation all alone.

What kind of responsibility do you feel to influence AAPI representation in your work?

When I got my first job as a staff writer, I was the only female writer and the only writer of color in the room. The pragmatic part of me understood that I was there to check off certain boxes for the show, but I also told myself that I had to try my best to use my limited power to advocate for better representation. It's a lot of pressure to take on, especially as a first-time writer who's also just trying to learn the ropes on the job.

Do you have any anecdotes from your career that can illustrate some of the struggles AAPI face and how you've dealt with them?

I'll never forget the time I went in for a meeting with a big-time horror producer, one who has specifically gotten acclaim for championing diversity. I was developing a horror feature with an Asian female lead character, and naturally brought it up. Imagine my surprise when the producer then cut me off after a few sentences, informing me that "Asian characters can't get horror audiences into seats." What really got me was that this producer really thought he was being helpful; he was framing all this as advice for a young, naive writer who clearly didn't know the ways of the industry yet. I thanked him for his time, walked out of that meeting, and successfully pitched it to another production company a few weeks later. Nothing felt more empowering than the validation that my instincts weren't wrong; his were.

What are your industry pet peeves?

If I could do away with any industry term, it would be "baby writer." It's reductive and infantilizing, especially when "emerging writer" or "lower-level writer" do the job just fine. I was using the term to describe myself when I first started out, until I realized that I was essentially apologizing for not having been given the opportunity to be hired earlier. You'd never describe yourself as a "baby doctor" or "baby engineer," and it just gives people a lazy excuse to keep you in a box.

Franklin jin Rho; Pachinko
Franklin jin Rho, a scene from Pachinko
| Credit: Courtesy of Franklin jin Rho; Juhan Noh/Apple TV +

FRANKLIN JIN RHO

  • HOMETOWN Richmond, VA
  • CURRENT JOB Co-producer on the upcoming Netflix series Incarnate. Other credits: Pachinko, The Exorcist, Swamp Thing
  • FUN FACT He coaches Ultimate Frisbee in his spare time.

How has AAPI representation in your field evolved during your career?

In the past few years, this community has rapidly grown. Part of this is certainly attributable to the boom in content being made, but I believe that we're also seeing a correction — long overdue — to the historic lack of representation, to something that's better aligned with reality. Of equal importance is the increase in content being created and shepherded by AAPI writers and producers. Having more AAPI showrunners and creators is vital in ensuring that more AAPI-centered stories make it to the screen.

What kind of responsibility do you feel to influence AAPI representation in your work?

At times, I find myself pushing back on feeling obligated to always represent AAPI characters and voices. But I also always end up looking at the larger landscape and reminding myself just how infrequently AAPI characters are driving stories, especially tentpole projects. While authentic and nuanced representation has improved greatly, there's still a lot of awful stereotypes and lazy representation. My general feeling is that until we see more AAPI characters playing the kinds of heroes and villains and compelling characters that inspired us to become storytellers ourselves, we do have an extra responsibility to push for these things. Because if we don't push for these things, then odds are it ain't happening.

Do you have any anecdotes from your career that can illustrate some of the struggles AAPI face and how you've dealt with them?

I've definitely struggled with finding the balance between fitting in and playing the dutiful team player and being comfortable in my own skin and having to confidence — and support — to say my piece. I think listening is such an undervalued skill, but if I'm being too quiet, am I fitting a stereotype? If I'm talking too much, am I occupying too much real estate? Fortunately, I've had a number of great bosses who have cultivated safe and nurturing spaces. It probably goes without saying that being a part of the Pachinko writers room was a special experience. My most recent room was similarly a very diverse room with more women than men. It's no coincidence that these rooms felt more egalitarian and empowering. 

Growing up, who were your role models and why?

Spike Lee probably had the most profound influence early on. Aside from the fact that he was at the intersection of two things I adored — indie filmmaking and the NBA — he espoused a can-do mentality that felt so invigorating and inspiring. Just after I graduated from college, he came to speak at the local university. I remember him conveying the sense that we could go out there, make films, and be disruptors. I loved that. 

What are your industry pet peeves?

Excessive confidence is too often rewarded, while humility and uncertainty is equated with weakness. I'm so wary of the huckster-like nature of those who proclaim things with unwavering authority — I tend to regard this as characteristic of those shilling snake oil, so I'm stunned when some pony up serious cash for a case of the goods. 

Julie Wong; Grey's Anatomy ELLEN POMPEO
Julie Wong, a scene from the latest season of Grey's Anatomy
| Credit: Courtesy of Julie Wong; Byron Cohen/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

JULIE WONG

  • HOMETOWN Walnut Creek, CA
  • FUN FACT Was Deputy Mayor to Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn and led communications for Senator Barbara Boxer and then-City Councilmember (now current L.A. mayor) Eric Garcetti.

How has AAPI representation in your field evolved during your career?

In just the five years since I became a TV writer, the success of films like Crazy Rich AsiansAlways Be My Maybe, and To All the Boys I've Loved Before has helped open the door for even more Asian American stories. The interest in content from AAPI creators and featuring AAPI characters feels like its growing, as is the variety of platforms on which to tell those stories.

What kind of responsibility do you feel to influence AAPI representation in your work? Were there any changes at your workplace (whether in content or in process) that have been made as a result of your influence?

When I was a kid, the AAPI characters on TV were few and far between — I actually can't recall any recurring AAPI female characters. When you grow up virtually never seeing anyone like you in the content that you consume, the message it sends about your place in the world is that there isn't one. So I feel a tremendous responsibility to our show and to the AAPI community, particularly our younger viewers, to advocate for inclusion and authenticity in our storytelling. I'm very fortunate to work on a show that allows for stories that shed light on the AAPI experience, as well as stories that let Asian American characters simply exist as humans.

What is the best advice you've ever gotten?

When I worked in politics and was having trouble making a tough decision while managing a campaign, a mentor told me that sometimes you just have to choose and be willing to live with the consequences. For someone whose natural tendency is to want to analyze decisions to death, it's been helpful advice both at work and in life.

Who or what inspires you?

My paternal grandma immigrated from China to San Francisco where she raised six kids in public housing while working as a seamstress in a garment factory. My maternal grandparents who were born and raised in California lost everything — including my grandpa's pharmacy — when Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. I'm inspired by their grit and determination to reinvent and rebuild their lives.

What are your industry pet peeves?

In storytelling, it's the strict and overbearing Asian American parent stereotype. They definitely exist, but so do parents like mine who have always done their best to be supportive and encouraging. My dad is the person who first encouraged me to pursue TV writing!

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