If you haven't heard of Amy Chua and her parenting memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," by now, you are officially out of the loop. Excerpts published in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago set off a boisterous debate about American versus Chinese parenting styles. Were the extreme tough love methods Chua depicted helpful or hurtful? Everyone seems to have an opinion or a response. Every Asian-American I know has been quick to point out that not all Chinese mothers are like Chua, though her tactics and her mindset are awfully familiar. The "Tiger Mother" controversy has lingered in the public consciousness for an unusually long time, a cultural moment that is going to be used as a point of reference for years to come. Of course, the book is selling like mad.
So it's no surprise that Hollywood is interested. Other recent adaptations of women's memoirs have included "Eat, Pray Love," "Julie & Julia," and "The Devil Wears Prada." It's not a genre that gets much press, but these tell-alls have always been a staple of cinema aimed at women. "Tiger Mother" would seem to be a perfect choice for adaptation, with its newfound cultural cachet, and ability to rouse strong emotions. There are early stirrings of putting "Tiger Mother" on the big screen, according to The Hollywood Reporter. However, there's one big problem that will significantly impact the likelihood of an adaptation actually being made. As a literary agent interviewed for the HR article points out, studios may balk at the prospect of a film starring an Asian lead actress.
I know Hollywood is a far more conservative town that it's reputed to be. I know that the content of mainstream films has always lagged woefully far behind social reality in terms of racial representation and diversity. I know there have been some significant gains for minority actors and actresses in recent years, especially on television. I know we have to patient. That said, comments like this always make me want to throttle the big-shot Hollywood creative types. The prevailing attitude toward the marketability of minority actors and actresses is a self-fulfilling prophecy. No lead roles for Asian actresses means they'll never have the opportunity to break out and become box office draws. And in the name of marketability - rather, in the name of pandering to the segment of the audience they think is secretly racist - I know Hollywood is going to compromise this material.
If a "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" movie gets made, I wouldn't be surprised to find that the Caucasian actor playing Chua's husband, who happens to be Jewish, ends up with top billing. Or if they decide to reframe the events of the book from a Caucasian woman's point of view. Or if they drop Amy Chua and her family completely, and have Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson try to use Chua's parenting tactics on their own adorable onscreen children. Suddenly a book about the Asian-American experience becomes the movie about the white, Middle-American co-option of the Asian-American experience. They've done it so many times before. If the studios can't figure out an angle on "Tiger Mother" that would downplay the involvement of Asian-Americans, its chances of being made into a film will drop like a rock. Sure, they made "The Joy Luck Club" - seventeen frickin' years ago.
The most frustrating thing is, I can think of several familiar Asian-American actresses who could be great Tiger Mothers, mostly from television. There's Sandra Oh, who seems to pop up as a supporting best friend in everything these days. Olivia Munn has been kicking ass on "The Daily Show." Lucy Liu and Ming Na, the closest thing we had to Asian-American movie stars in the 90s, would welcome the work. Or there's a slew of younger actresses who are overdue for a break. A character based on Amy Chua has the potential for all kinds of interesting dimensions, and its a chance for an Asian-American actress that doesn't come along every day.
The movie business has been getting into a lot of these fixes lately, being called out for whitewashing and underrepresentation more and more often. I think it's because the discrepancy between the portrayals of minorities onscreen and actual reality keeps getting wider. America is not going to be a majority Caucasian nation for much longer, and we're already seeing signs of the cultural shift. Hollywood may be squeamish about multiculturalism, but the real world has no such bias, so cinemas are missing out on a lot of great - and potentially lucrative - stories. By the way, when can we expect that movie about the Chilean miners?
Let's get a Tiger Mother on the case. They'll never know what hit them.