Where are the Asian Female Leads in Primetime Drama?

TV Features

It’s either the alluring lead star, the thriller narrative, the How to Get Away with Murder-esque storytelling, or all of the above. ABC’s new primetime thriller Quantico is one of the hottest shows to debut this season. One thing that makes Quantico stand out from other new shows is its lead actress—a Bollywood star, acting in her very first American show. Priyanka Chopra plays a young FBI recruit who becomes the prime suspect for the biggest terrorist attack in the U.S. since September 11. Quantico is one of those rare drama series where the central character is played by an actress of Asian descent. The last time that happened was with Maggie Q in the CW’s reboot of Nikita, which ended in 2013 after four seasons. Before that? It was Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong in the short-lived The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. And that was in 1951. So, where are all the Asian leading ladies in primetime drama?

We can state the obvious, and bring up Lucy Liu in Elementary and Q again in last season’s canceled Stalker. In Elementary, Liu plays a female version of one of the most famous side-kicks in fiction history—Dr. John Watson, a white male. But, while Liu is considered a leading lady and helps drive the story, Elementary will always be about her partner, Detective Sherlock Holmes—played by white actor Johnny Lee Miller. The same could be said about Maggie. She was also billed as a leading lady in Stalker, but only second to her white, male co-lead, Dylan McDermott. It shows that when an actress of Asian descent (and this is largely true for any woman of color) is given the chance to play the lead in primetime drama, she will most likely play secondary to another character, which will either be non-Asian and/or male.

Back in April, Fusion reported that only 6.6% of the main cast members in all five network TV—surveyed during the Fall 2014 primetime season—were of Asian descent. That’s only 52 out of 800 actors. And there were only three shows that featured an actor of Asian descent as the main character: Fresh Off the Boat, The Mindy Project and Scorpion (we can now add Aziz Ansari’s Master of None). But these strides we’re making—and, indeed, there is progress to be celebrated—will be far more exciting when we start seeing more Asian actresses in the kinds of lead roles that lend themselves to critical acclaim, like Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife and Gina Rodriguez’ Jane Villanueva in Jane the Virgin. It’s also important for Asian leads to simply be included in pop culture-centered conversations about actresses to watch on television. When Glamour featured their game-changing women of T.V. for the recent October issue, they gave covers to Rodriguez, Taraji P. Henson, and Emma Roberts. All of these women are deserving of the cover, but Glamour could have made a bolder statement if they also included “game-changers” like Chopra, who is the first Indian star to lead her own American series, or even Constance Wu, who has received critical praises and nominations for her role in Fresh Off the Boat.

It also seems that the way for any Asian entertainers to lead a television show these days is to go through the sitcom route. Last year, there were two sitcoms with leads of Asian descent—ABC’s Fresh off the Boat and Selfie (the latter was canceled after 13 episodes). And it took a decade for another all-Asian series to air on network TV—the first, All-American Girl, aired in 1994, starring Margaret Cho. But between All-American Girl and Fresh Off the Boatt,we had Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project and Steve Byrne on TBS’ Sullivan & Son (both shows premiered in 2012). Ken Jeong’s Dr. Ken debuted last month and Ansari’s Masters of None took the world by storm last week (“Indians on TV” is an excellent episode to watch, given the subject matter here). That Ansari’s series is on Netflix further highlights the fact network and cable channels seem more willing to create sitcoms for Asian actors. Is it easier to get away with making fun of Asian stereotypes in sitcoms? Are we supposed to believe that there are simply more comedic Asian entertainers than dramatic performers?

Quantico is in a position to change this conversation and to earn a spot alongside shows like Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Empire and Jane the Virgin—primetime shows that have made a pop culture impact, and are anchored by actresses of color. But if the staggering lack of Asian visibility in dramatic television and other forms of entertainment is to really be addressed—and, at some point, resolved—Quantico certainly cannot do it alone.

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