Apr. 11, 2021
Over the past decade, Sociology professor Nancy Wang Yuen has been researching, speaking and publishing on the topic of how actors of color are portrayed in Hollywood, seeking to provoke conversation and awareness to make a difference. With a master’s degree and Ph.D. in sociology from University of California, Los Angeles, Yuen spent her graduate studies immersed in research to discover the missing piece in Hollywood and how actors of color are affected by media representation.
Yuen, an associate professor of sociology, started teaching at Biola in 2008, while continuing to research and work in Hollywood. Her time spent with those in the media industry led her to work on multiple documentaries, including two she is currently working on. Next semester, Yuen will be offering a new course melding her two interests of sociology and documentary filmmaking. Here, Yuen gives insight to her research and what originally inspired her studies.
What inspired you to research the impact of typecasting in the media?
Growing up, my babysitter was the television set. I watched (way too many) shows, ranging from Gilligan’s Island to GI Joe. For a long time, these images shaped my vision of America. My first sociology class helped me realize that film and television do not accurately represent society. And, for the first time, I realized that people who looked like me were missing from the cultural landscape except as stereotypes. I was bewildered, sad and angry. I channeled these emotions into my doctoral research. I became fascinated by the question of how professional actors of color, against all odds, can work in an industry that marginalizes and stigmatizes them. From my research rose evidence of innovation and redemption among the actors I studied.
What were some of your findings?
I found that race is central to how Hollywood typecasts actors of color. When a Latina actor only plays housekeepers or when a black male actor only plays thugs, Hollywood reproduces the racial/gender stereotypes existent in U.S. society. At the same time, I found that actors of color display a range of coping and activist strategies that help them succeed as actors without compromising their racial identities. Within Hollywood, actors of color challenge stereotypes by altering characters’ physical dress, dialogue and behaviors. Outside of Hollywood, actors of color seek and create non-stereotyped roles in theater, independent films and Web television.
Your chapter, "Playing Ghetto," in a recent anthology describes the issue of typecasting for blacks. The article received attention from outlets such as the Los Angeles Times. Do you think the media is moving towards making a change towards any of these issues?
My chapter discusses the inundation of “ghetto” representations of blacks in Hollywood largely written by white male writers who may not have personal contact with blacks in their everyday lives. Writers largely write about what they know, and if they are not living in black communities, their depictions of black “ghettos” (and black people in general) tend to reproduce stereotypes. Whites make up 75 percent of U.S. population, but 90 percent of television writers and 95 percent of film writers. Until this disparity narrows, I foresee little racial progress in how Hollywood represents blacks and other people of color.
You said that the way we view people groups can affect positive change. What would you hope would change?
I believe very strongly that all of us hold racial stereotypes — many of them coming from popular culture. Studies show that when a person does not have direct personal contact with members of a particular racial group, their ideas about that person come from popular culture. I hope that as we see an increase in quantity and quality of representations of people of color, we will shed many of these stereotypes. As a result, we will stop assuming things about people solely based on their race/gender.
You’ve also worked on a few documentaries, including two you are currently invested in. How did you get involved with making documentaries?
My documentary work came from the social networks I developed through my fieldwork research in Hollywood. I received an email from one of my key informants soliciting help in getting grant money to make a documentary. Since I had prior success at grant writing, I volunteered my time and expertise. I wanted to give back to the actors and other creative personnel who were so instrumental in my research. I became a co-producer as I took on more duties, eventually coordinating and conducting many of the interviews.
What do you hope comes of the documentaries you are currently working on?
The first documentary, “Living in Silence: Toraichi Kono,” is a story of how Toraichi Kono, a Japanese immigrant who came to America with nothing, found his version of the American Dream by becoming personal secretary and confidant to Charlie Chaplin, and then lost it all in an environment of fear, accusations and paranoia.
The second documentary explores the controversy over the “Confucius Classroom,” a Chinese language class at a public middle school in Hacienda Heights/La Puente. On one side are opponents who protest the classes as an alleged instrument of Communist doctrine. On the other side are proponents who see the class as a valuable tool for learning another language. We hope to show a clear narrative that represents all voices. We plan to screen both documentaries within our local communities and on college campuses — including Biola. We will also submit them for film festivals and public television stations.
Can you share what your upcoming class on documentaries will look like and why you decided to teach a course on documentary films through the sociology department?
I feel that my students are most engaged when they choose their own subjects and conduct original research. Since we are increasingly becoming a media-saturated culture, I decided to offer a new class, “Visual Sociology,” that marries my interest in documentary filmmaking with the topic of sociology. Essentially, it is another method to capture sociological phenomena using visual media. Students will read papers on visual sociology and watch/critique different types of documentaries. The goal is for students to make their own documentary shorts, with technical support from my teaching assistant, Andrew Hatling, a student from Biola’s cinema and media arts program.
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