When you search for ‘Constance Wu’ on Google, the predictive search adds up a couple suggestions for further exploration. It offers a search for her age, her spouse and her social media, all of which are par for the course when it comes to Googling a celebrity, but then there is ‘Constance Wu accent.’ On her hit ABC comedy series, Fresh off the Boat, the Virginia born actress has a Taiwanese accent to play Jessica Huang, a 1st generation immigrant to America. Seeing Google offer that result up reminds you of just how often nosey people must have asked Wu if her accent was her ‘real’ one, or what she ‘actually’ speaks like, or if she can just show off her accent from the show for a bit as if it’s a comedy sketch. Asian Americans make up as large a percentage of the population as Italian Americans, but their level of on-screen representation is so minute that some people just expect Wu to not ‘actually’ be American. Over the course of three seasons on Fresh Off the Boat (the show started its 4th season this year), the first network comedy centred on an Asian American family since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl in 1994, Wu has become one of the breakout stars of network TV. In a field where Asian American women are few and far between, stuck in bit-part roles or their talents dismissed by condescending critics as appeasements for a China driven box office, Wu has carved out her own path that is fresh, exciting and utterly without compromise.
The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Wu grew up performing in local theatre groups before graduating from State University of New York at Purchase’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts with a bachelor of fine arts in acting in 2005. Like many New York actors, she put in the time on Law & Order: SVU and the soap opera One Life to Live, but she felt more at home in the world of theatre, telling GQ magazine, ‘the theater community felt like such a wonderful place where you could be creative and there was almost zero judgment. I’m learning how to make television people my tribe and seeing if that works. I’m actually not sure if it does, to be honest.’ Aside from one or two projects, Wu’s career before her breakout sitcom role was decidedly dramatic in its focus, although the scattered contents of her early filmography highlight the scant opportunities available on film and TV for Asian American women: Guest episodes of Franklin & Bash, a role in tiny budget indie Sound of My Voice, and a part in a modern retelling of Cinderella set in a massage parlour called Year of the Fish, where everything was animated via rotoscoping.
Acting is the good part: Getting the gigs is the thankless grind, one that’s made near impossible by structural racism, sexism and good old Hollywood nepotism. For Wu, in a 2015 New York Times interview, the key to surviving this was to ‘do it [acting] for its own sake… Because accolades go away. Even if I did win every award ever, Hollywood forgets things in, like, 15 minutes. If you base your value on those types of things, it’s very empty.’
After one comedy pilot she starred in never got off the ground, Wu landed the role in Fresh Off the Boat, and she found herself as the breakout star of a series that had a lot of eyes on it. As every article covering the show noted, it was the first network primetime sitcom in twenty years to centre on an Asian American family. According to a multi-university study from September of this year, ‘Mono-racial AAPI (a person of single or multiple Asian or Pacific Islander heritage) make up 4.3%, while Multiracial AAPI (person of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage and non-Asian heritage) account for 2.6%.’ Those numbers are shocking enough, but sting even more when compared to the statistic that ‘nearly 70% of TV series regulars are white, and at least 96% of TV shows have at least one white series regular’. On top of a severe lack of AAPI actors in lead roles, there’s also a continuing disparity of an AAPI presence in shows set in multi-cultural locations like New York City. It’s dishearteningly common to see an L.A. set series where people of colour are non-existent, or even worse, in settings of majority people of colour demographics where they are still centred as the protagonists, as was the case with Hawaii Five-O, a show that did so while actively marginalising its AAPI cast).
For Fresh Off the Boat, the expectations were on levels that white majority shows never have to deal with: As well as having to reckon with being the only one of its kind in two decades, the series was forced to deal with questions of being ‘relatable’ to non-Asian audiences (Asians were usually bundled into one demographic in these discussions), on top of claims of being too cliched or stereotypical in its depiction of immigrants trying to live the American dream in 1990s Florida, and that was before Eddie Huang, the writer whose memoir the show is based on, expressed his own disappointment with the final product. Shows like Fresh Off the Boat don’t get to define themselves by their own rules, at least not a first, because the bar is set unfairly high.
The reviews were uniformly excellent, and Wu’s write-ups were especially glowing. As Jessica, she is a sitcom mother who gets to be more than the nag; she’s a woman grounded in strong, unshakable self-belief and passionate ties to her heritage, and she also gets to be really weird sometimes (the show itself is wonderfully odd in its approach, something I haven’t seen written about it much). Best of all, she’s hilarious, and the jokes are with her, not at her: There are no shitty digs at Jessica’s Taiwanese accent, which in and of itself feels revolutionary for a medium that still has one foot in the past yearning for the ‘good old days’ of acceptable TV racism.
The accent opened up a lot of questions from critics (a notoriously white field) over whether or not that element was too stereotypical for the show. In an interview with Time, Wu pointed out how tiptoeing around the reality of immigrant life can often further marginalise those depictions:
‘I think the reason people have been quick to throw the stereotype criticism on us is because there will always be people who are laughing at the wrong thing. Some people are like, “Oh, stereotypical accent!” An accent is an accent. If there were jokes written about the accent, then that would certainly be harmful. But there aren’t jokes written about it. It’s not even talked about. It’s just a fact of life: immigrants have accents… It’s choosing authenticity over safety, and I think that’s bold. The people who are going to laugh at the alleged stereotypes are the same people who are going to laugh at their Chinese waiter in the restaurant next door for very coarse, uneducated reasons.’
Wu has no desire ‘to placate the idiots’, and neither does the show. Now, having found its niche, it’s happy to tell those relatable stories of the typical American family without sacrificing the elements that make it a distinctly Taiwanese immigrant narrative. There’s no reason why shows about white people should be the supposed default narrative, relatable to all, while AAPI stories are dismissed as being for that audience alone, and you don’t have to smudge away the cultural specificities to make that happen. By the time the show got to its second season, Wu felt more comfortable giving creative input to the show, making sure it created that specificity that enriched the characters and story, even in the little ways.
The specificity and accomplishments of Wu and Fresh Off the Boat feel all the rarer when you contrast them with the realities of Hollywood. As the show was picking up steam, whitewashing of Asian roles seemed to make a mainstream comeback, between Scarlett Johansson landing the lead in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan ancient in Doctor Strange, and Emma Stone suddenly becoming a Asian for Cameron Crowe’s Aloha. This wasn’t just AAPI erasure - it was outright removal from the narrative of entertainment. Fans hungered for representation, and they took to the internet to demonstrate. Following the viral success of #StarringJohnCho, Wu became the figurehead for a demand for increased AAPI female representation on screen, with her image being photoshopped onto posters of everything from The Hunger Games to Easy A to Mother’s Day. They’re just images but that can be powerful enough to inspire a change in thinking: Why shouldn’t Constance Wu be headlining the biggest franchises on the planet? Why does the visual of that seem so off-putting to the industry? Why do we see it so rarely? For Wu, the social media campaign was an extension of her own vocal opposition and calling out of a business that ignored women like her.
It’s hard to speak up in Hollywood. Even now, as people feel safer than ever to talk about their experiences with systemic abuse and marginalisation following the fall of Harvey Weinstein, we shouldn’t understate how doing so remains a risk for many. There’s a reason so few women of colour have been included in these conversations, and there’s a reason the one accuser out of dozens that Weinstein decided to deny publicly was Lupita Nyong’o. The fear exists that if you condemn even the most obvious discrimination in the industry, you’ll be deemed ‘ungrateful’ and quietly blacklisted from future work. Wu has been vocal from the beginning and that refusal to ‘know her place’ in a racist industry has been as inspiring as her role as Jessica: She took no prisoners in calling out Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen’s racist Asian jokes at the Oscars, she speaks frequently about the scarcity of roles for AAPI talent, condemned the continuing whitewashing of Asian parts, and then there’s Casey Affleck.
Accused sexual harasser Casey Affleck sailed to a Best Actor Oscar win after a year of near-watertight PR, wherein he and his team, aided in no small part by Manchester By the Sea producer Matt Damon, crafted the ideal awards campaign that strong-armed a quick-to-appease entertainment press into avoiding unplanned questions about the allegations made against him in 2010. Affleck had full on white-man power during that year: Friends in high places, established clout in an industry happy to support him, the ideal ‘hard working underrated actor’ narrative, and the agreed upon silence of culpability. You didn’t ask questions of Affleck being an alleged serial sexual harasser because that meant you risked future access to all his friends, and that simply wouldn’t do. He played by a different set of rules to other accused bad men in the industry, and it paid off in the end. Brie Larson protested with calculated silence during his big moment, and that had incredible power, but it was Wu who spoke out loud and demanded the world pay attention to this obvious problem.
She wasn’t just critical, she was scathing, and rightly so. She also wasn’t quiet about the potential risks to her own acting work, writing on Twitter, ‘I’ve been counseled not to talk about this for career’s sake. F my career then, I’m a woman & human first. That’s what my craft is built on.’ Now, we’re having louder and more interrogative conversations about the industry’s complicit behaviour in shielding and rewarding misogynists, but Affleck has conveniently laid low during this. Call it good PR, but I truly believe Wu’s refusal to shut up about the elephant in the room that is Casey Affleck is one reason he’s shunning the limelight right now.
Next, Wu will be breaking further barriers as the star of the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, Crazy Rich Asian, another story with cultural specificity that Hollywood never would have touched even five years ago without a ‘relatable’ white protagonist (and indeed, Kwan was asked to change the lead to white by an early potential producer). Majority Asian casts in a Hollywood production are as rare in film as they are on TV, with the most recent examples of note being Memoirs of a Geisha and The Joy Luck Club. It’s another project with the weight of representation on its shoulders, but as Wu noted to Entertainment Weekly, ‘We need many stories. We need another rom-com that’s totally different from Crazy Rich Asians. There just needs to be more.’ Here’s hoping Wu gets more.