The real winner this Hollywood awards season is representation. Here’s why it matters to our work.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Michelle Yeoh plays the hero and protagonist, Evelyn. It’s a complex but realistic character: she is a mother, wife, small business owner, an immigrant, trilingual, and a caretaker trying to juggle life. She also has many interests. She is a novelist, chef, teacher, singing coach, and a watsu technician—and that’s just in her present life before the movie transports us into a multiverse of realities.
In the opening scenes, the IRS auditor tries to force her into a role that’s all too familiar for Chinese immigrants in America: go back to the laundromat and don’t make trouble. This was a way for the movie to acknowledge both the subtle forms of racism as well as structural barriers codified into tax law. From there, havoc breaks out.
This is not a movie about a family that’s trapped in others’ expectations. Far from it. The movie asks us to see into a world where everyone in our pluralistic society can be themselves. It is about representation, but also about limitless possibilities and reaching one’s full potential.
Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, this brain-bender of a film centers on a “middle-aged Chinese immigrant who is swept up into an insane adventure in which she alone can save existence by exploring other universes and connecting with the lives she could have led.”
As I write this, Everything Everywhere All at Once has swept the awards season with numerous wins at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors’ Guild Awards. Yeoh dedicated a recent win to “all the little girls who look like me … we want to be seen, we want to be heard.” It has 11 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress in a Leading Role. If Yeoh wins for best actress, she would be the first Asian to do so. Yeoh enthusiastically said, “I hope this will shatter that frigging glass ceiling to no end, that this will continue, and we will see more of our faces up there.”
With Representation, We Advance Equity
There is something fundamental about being and feeling “seen”—fully acknowledged as our whole selves. What’s more, being seen can determine whether we are able to live a life of wellbeing with equitable access to health, educational, and economic opportunities. Whether we are seen and heard influences decisions about the policies and practices that rule our world. Sometimes, being seen becomes a matter of life and death: discriminatory sentiment, incidents, and hate crimes add up over time and contribute to chronic stress that undeniably harms health. This makes diverse representation in popular culture a critically important aspect of social change strategy.
This seems especially notable at this time when anti-Asian sentiment has become a public health crisis. While visibility is important for all groups, Everything Everywhere All at Once highlights the unique experience of Chinese immigrants. It simultaneously shows the various lenses through which the characters could see themselves and upends tired tropes. More importantly, it allows us to witness the intentional creation by one family, both ordinary and fantastic, of a more positive future for themselves.
RWJF grantee Gold House elevates Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs) to lead and thrive in culture and commerce through unity, investment opportunities, and promotion. Their research shows that APIs are the fast-growing racial group in the United States. Yet APIs are still vastly underrepresented in front of and behind the camera.
What You See Can Change Your Mind
Amplifying diverse voices to shift the national conversation about equity and wellbeing is a core part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s efforts to build a Culture of Health. A growing portfolio of work focused on entertainment, arts, and culture is part of the narrative change efforts happening across the Foundation.
The stories that show up in TV and film makes a difference in how we treat people in real life.
Define American, another grantee, studied immigrant portrayals on TV. There are signs of progress, but there's still a lot of work to do. While immigrants of Black and Asian descent have doubled over the years, Latine representation has dropped to abnormally low levels. Nearly half of immigrant characters on TV are associated with crime, which is contrary to what research says.
Why does accurate representation matter? Because viewers of shows that center immigrant experiences had a deeper understanding of real immigrants’ lives and better attitudes toward immigrants. People who see regular or recurring immigrant characters on TV are more likely to understand immigration-related issues, take action to support immigrants in the U.S., and believe that diversity is a valuable asset to society. In a country that seems deeply polarized, TV and film are powerful tools for more accurately reflecting the world we live in, and the world we want to live in.
Culture Change as an Upstream Strategy to Build Equity
Daniel Kwan, one half of the writing and directing team of the film, said, “It has been an incredible year for API stories pushing the boundaries of expectations for what an Asian American story can be…. We are getting a taste of what it looks like for our stories to be refracted through the many prisms of genre and experimentation, a privilege once only reserved for storytellers not stuck in the margins.”
The premise of this movie is not as fantastical as it seems: the stories we see in scripted TV and film are helping us recognize our different histories and experiences in ways that help drive a more equitable future for all. Everything Everywhere All at Once is ultimately about how every experience has value. We all have a role to play in propelling these narratives forward.
If you’re a funder, join the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and our colleagues in investing in narrative change in pop culture and entertainment as a key component of policy and culture change strategy.
If you’re a researcher, I invite you to read my colleague’s piece on how to collect and use representative data so we get a better picture of real life experiences.
If you’re a storyteller, engage culturally relevant writers, directors, producers, and experts to celebrate the complexity of our human experiences.
Or if you’re someone enjoying a TV show or movie, join me in considering:
- What characters do you see? What’s their lived experience? Cultural norms?
- What happens? What are the financial, family, and other social issues the characters face?
- Where is the story set? What are the physical spaces like?
- Who wrote, directed, and produced this story? Who is starring in it?
- And finally, do you find yourself doing, thinking, or talking differently since you watched it?
If you enjoy television and movies as much as I do, get to know Gold House and Define American to see how various groups come together to create a better, more representative future onscreen and off.
About the Author
Isabelle “Belle” Gerard, senior communications officer, brings more than 15 years of experience advocating for culture change and social justice to her role.