The first time I remember seeing someone who looked like me — a Vietnamese woman — onscreen, I was probably around 10 years old, and Platoon, Oliver Stone's Vietnam War epic, was playing on TV.
In the scene in question, Charlie Sheen's character, Chris, an American soldier, saves an unnamed young Vietnamese woman from being raped as the film's score swells and he gets his big heroic moment.
I don't think I stuck around for the rest of the movie (presumably, my parents realized I was too young to be watching and switched it off), and to be fair, it was just one movie — but that scene ingrained in me the idea that if anyone who looked like me had a place in a major Hollywood movie, they were the plot devices with no names and no lines, meant to support and bolster white heroes.
Though Platoon was banned in Vietnam over its problematic portrayal of Vietnamese people, I remember from growing up that the movie was extremely important to my dad, who lived through the Vietnam War, and for whom it meant a lot to see even a smidgen of his experience represented, as measly as that representation may have been. Outside of movies about the war, which are usually centered around white American soldiers with Vietnamese people in the background, it's hard to find movies in which Vietnamese actors are onscreen, and that unfortunately hasn't changed much in recent years.
The tide shifted a little more last year, however, when actresses Kelly Marie Tran and Hong Chau burst onto the scene, in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Downsizing, respectively. In Star Wars, Tran, a Vietnamese-American actor, plays Rose Tico, the first major character in the series to be played by an Asian-American woman. And in Downsizing, Chau, born to Vietnamese parents in a Thai refugee camp, plays opposite Matt Damon as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese political activist.
As the conversation on Asian representation in Hollywood continues, Tran in particular has been vocal about her understanding of just how meaningful her casting in a blockbuster like Star Wars is — not only for her own career and for the film industry at large, but also for people who have struggled to see themselves reflected.
"I remember what it felt like to not see anyone like myself in books or on film or TV," Tran told Variety in an interview last year. "When you’re really young, you tend to fall in love with characters. If you start seeing the same type of character everywhere and realize that they don’t look like you, or they don’t speak like you, you start wanting to change who you are. That’s something that I did when I was a young kid. I’m excited to be a part of this positive change."
"Representation matters" may have become a bit of a catchphrase (especially since the 2016 Academy Awards when #OscarsSoWhite brought the lack of diversity in film to the forefront), but Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City, says that we really do often underestimate just how important of a role race and culture can play in mental health.
"Seeing people who 'look like me' is a rite of citizenship, a signal that you belong," he says, adding that not seeing people who look like you impacts mental health just as much, though perhaps in a negative way.
Lundquist cites a concept called "stereotype threat," in which a person of a given racial or social group becomes anxious about confirming a perceived — often negative — stereotype about their group. (See also: My anxiety over driving, due to stereotypes of Asian women being terrible drivers.)
Being able to see diverse and positive representation, then, is extremely important for a person's self-esteem, he says.
Judith Kellner, LCSW, a psychotherapist and adjunct lecturer at New York University's Silver School of Social Work, adds that seeing someone from our ethnicity, race, culture, or religion presented positively in movies makes us feel accepted and validated as part of a larger cultural system — which is essential to our needs as human beings to connect with each other.
"It makes us feel visible versus ignored," she says. "It makes us feel that we matter versus dismissed. It makes us feel worthy versus unworthy. It makes us feel that we have value."
While the feeling of acceptance and value can come from more immediate, personal sources like your family, friends, and community, we can't understate the scale of power that the media has to influence the way we see ourselves and each other.
"Pop culture is culture," Lundquist says. "It's easy to underestimate just how many signals we receive from popular culture. We expect a person of a given race to have a certain personality, temperament, to be more likely to have a particular job. How we see people of a given racial appearance present themselves in media unconsciously sets the limit on what we see as possible for ourselves or for people around us of a given ethnic group or race."
But it's no secret that Asian people in general (let alone Vietnamese people, specifically) and other racial and sexual minorities are still woefully underrepresented in Hollywood (not to mention, woefully underrepresented in the original #OscarsSoWhite movement). A 2016 study from University of Southern California found that between 2007 and 2015, only 3.9% of characters featured in movies were Asian or Asian-American. Television, despite shows like Fresh Off The Boat and The Mindy Project, which feature Asian-American characters and actors, hasn't fared much better, and even when Asian actors do get roles in TV, they still face unequal treatment like being paid less than their white co-stars.
All of this is why it feels so revolutionary to see actresses like Tran and Chau in huge Hollywood movies — even if it shouldn't have to be revolutionary. But as more people begin to rally against whitewashing Asian roles in Hollywood and more Asian-American actors open up about their experiences, it feels as if better representation will soon be a reality, not something we have to dreamcast. And ultimately, that's a mental health issue as much as anything else.
This Sunday, Kelly Marie Tran will present at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Hong Chau has earned a nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress. I've always tuned into award shows (or, at least, watched them go down via livetweets) but this year, I'll finally get to see people who look like me be honored for their achievements — and that feels pretty damn good. It's certainly been a long time coming.