Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hollywood and the Jeremy Lin Show

Now don't get too excited, sports fans. I'm not here to talk about basketball. Despite being a Lakers fangirl from an early age, sports were never really my thing, and I rarely spend much time in that sphere, the occasional Sharks hockey game and the yearly Superbowl telecast not withstanding. But sometimes, something happens in the sports world that transcends those boundaries, that becomes a truly universal cultural moment. We've got one right here, right now. Jeremy Lin, a twenty-three year old Chinese American from Palo Alto playing for the New York Knicks has become the NBA's newest star, after an incredible run of wins that includes a smackdown of my beloved Lakers on Friday, where Lin scored an eye-popping 38 points. With an irresistible underdog story, the player's fun personality, and the unmistakable sheen of novelty in the mix, "Linsanity" has erupted practically overnight.

I want to talk about Jeremy Lin. Hell, everyone wants to talk about Jeremy Lin. The media coverage has been downright dizzying to behold. Sports commentators and business analysts have been falling over themselves to try and predict the course of Lin's career and the economic boon he might bring to his team, the league, retailers, and even the struggling MSG Channel that broadcasts the Knicks' home games. There have been dozens of heartwarming print pieces about Asian Americans welcoming the emergence of one of their own as a sports hero on the national stage. A book deal is reportedly already in the works. It might be a little early for Hollywood to be getting involved in all this, especially as we don't whow whether Lin is going to become a consistent performer or just a flash in the pan, but there are already a lot of murmurs. Wouldn't Lin's unlikely story work great as a feature film? What other sports star out there right now has a narrative half as compelling?

This is all very nice to think about, but from where I'm sitting, Hollywood is not ready for Jeremy Lin. I don't mean that he wouldn't be welcomed as a product spokesman, or that the gossip industry wouldn't love him, or that he wouldn't be great at doing all the media-related things that basketball stars normally do. The trouble is that right now, Hollywood doesn't have the talent in place to really be able to respond to or capitalize on Lin's breakthrough. There were some mild grumbles over the weekend that the new episode of "Saturday Night Live" made no mention of Jeremy Lin, though his meteoric rise was a major topic of conversation in New York for much of the preceding week. This wasn't a big deal, as the story was new and still very much in progress by the time the episode went to air, but then you realize "Saturday Night Live" couldn't really do a Jeremy Lin sketch - nobody in the cast is East-Asian or looks close enough to pass. They'd have to fly in John Cho or Harry Shum Jr. or Bobby Lee for a guest spot.

Dramatizing the Jeremy Lin story would be just as problematic. Do you see very many Asian American kids in movies or on television? Anybody who looks cool and athletic enough to play a young Jeremy Lin? Hollywood would have to go out looking for an actor to fit the part. Of course, they often do that anyway, when an atypical role or character comes along. But Justin Lin isn't all that atypical looking - he's just a skinny Chinese-American guy. Sure, he's taller than average, but that's easy to fudge on film. This begs the question why Hollywood has so few actors who fit the simple criteria of being young, good-looking, East-Asian, and not speaking with a funny foreign accent. The answer, of course, is because Hollywood doesn't generate much media where Asian-Americans get leading roles. Their parts are too often comic relief, exotic love interests, supportive friends, nerds, doctors, and tech support. But whatever you want to call Jeremy Lin, he's definitely a main character, and his ethnicity is non-negotiable.

I've observed before that Hollywood has a poor record in its representation of certain groups of minorities, including East-Asians, which is going to catch up with them sooner or later as the ethnic mix of the United States keeps shifting toward the multicultural. Jeremy Lin very well could be the first real Asian-American sports superstar, Tiger Woods aside, but he's far from the first Asian-American to break into the mainstream consciousness and he's not going to be the last. Hollywood, however, has consistently refused to change with the times, and still whitewashes roles, imports foreign actors instead of nurturing American-born talent, and ignores the fact that ethnic minorities are part of their audience. If they keep this up, they may find themselves falling behind the cultural curve and out of touch with the mainstream public.

For one thing, the usual claim that American audiences have no interest in watching Asian-Americans on their television screens has just been proven completely untrue.

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