Professor Nancy Wang Yuen is a sociologist, documentary producer, and pop culture geek who has made a career examining how mass media represents Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. She has recently published a book titled, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, examines the obstacles minorities face in Hollywood. Wanting to learn more about Yuen’s career and work, she was nice enough to allow me to interview her for Sequart.
Nicholas Yanes: You have made a career out of examining popular culture. Could you discuss the first moment in which you know you wanted to seriously discuss popular culture in an analytical manner?
Professor Nancy Wang Yuen: I grew up as a latchkey kid and the television set was my babysitter. I watched hours of television everyday and noticed that the TV world did not match my real world, which was much more racially diverse. The lack of women of color was especially egregious. Internally, I began interrogating this mismatch at a young age.
Yanes: Becoming an academic is not the easiest mountain to climb in regards to building a career. What was your motivation for wanting to pursue this career?
Professor Yuen: I loved college because I experienced a great intellectual and moral transformation. I had the opportunity to take an Italian cinema course, and saw rare and classic films on the big screen. I was privileged to take “Art as Social and Political Commentary,” a class taught by a professor who was a former Black Panther. I came into political consciousness in my first sociology class. I dreamed of becoming a professor to help transform students’ minds and hearts.
Yanes: It still feels as if the study of popular culture isn’t as accepted as other academic fields. Have you encountered any institutional obstacles towards pop culture scholarship? Additionally, what do you think scholars of popular culture could do to further establish this field as worthy of serious academic inquiry?
Professor Yuen: Popular culture, despite its wide influence, is often understudied in sociology. I did receive a National Science Foundation fellowship in graduate school to study racism in Hollywood, so my experience has been the exception. When it comes to book publishing, popular culture is also more valued for its wide appeal. With the rise of “fake news” and our president-elect hovering between reality shows and Twitter, I hope more scholars will pursue popular culture as a serious topic of inquiry.
Yanes: It has never been easy to study race and gender, but now it feels dangerous to do. What steps would you like to see taken to encourage the continued study of race and gender?
Professor Yuen: Sociologists have always studied race and gender, so perhaps we are more subject to critique than other fields, with the exception of ethnic studies. My personal choice to study racism and sexism is a moral imperative.
Yanes: Your latest book is Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. What was the motivation behind writing this book?
Professor Yuen: I’ve always wondered what motivates actors of color to pursue a job that had so many barriers. After interviewing 100 working actors for my dissertation—African American, Asian American, Latina/o and white actors—I had to share their compelling stories with a wider audience.
Yanes: While researching this book, what was information you came across that took you by surprise?
Professor Yuen: Actors of color are both less powerful and more resourceful than the public thinks. They are less powerful since they do not create the roles they portray and have no control over storylines. At the same time, they employ a variety of strategies to alter and subvert stereotypes. They attempt to change out racist costumes, transform accents and even rewrite dialogue. Sometimes they are successful but often times they are not. However, many see themselves as activists within an industry that views them as disposable, interchangeable and marginal.
Yanes: In addition to the U.S. becoming a more diverse nation, Hollywood is increasingly making movies for a diverse global audience. Yet, movies rarely reflect this diversity. So what are some of the structural elements in Hollywood that keeps it from hiring actors and creators from diverse backgrounds?
Professor Yuen: Colorblind racism underpins Hollywood’s rationale for excluding actors and creators of color. The unsubstantiated belief that people of color are not bankable, despite data showing otherwise, remains powerful in Hollywood. Consequently, Hollywood would rather blame an invisible market than recognize their racial bias.
Yanes: After all the research you’ve done on racism in Hollywood, what do you think the average consumer could do to encourage more diversity in films and television?
Professor Yuen: The average consumer can support diverse projects by going to films with diverse casts/creators opening weekend. They can also follow and tweet at television shows that feature diverse casts/creators. If they want to go a step further, they can boycott and protest (in person and on social media) films/TV shows that are racist/sexist.
Yanes: After people finish reading Reel Inequality, what do you hope they will take away from it?
Professor Yuen: I hope they gain a deeper sense of racism in Hollywood and how it affects all actors of color–from the average working actor to the celebrities. I also hope they become empowered to keep the Hollywood industry accountable for its racist/sexist hiring and storytelling practices.
Yanes: Finally, what are some projects you are working that people can look forward to?
Professor Yuen: I am part of a team of researchers conducting a large-scale study of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in prime time television. This study evaluates not only the raw numbers but also the type, quality, and complexity of characters portrayed by AAPIs in network/cable television and digital streaming services like Netflix.
I am also working on a museum exhibit of pioneer Asian American actresses featuring Anna May Wong, Miyoshi Umeki, Nancy Kwan, Tura Satana, Margaret Cho and Mindy Kaling.