John Cho on Asian Representation and Sulu’s Husband
Albert L. Ortega/ Kevin Winter/ Jonathan Leibson/ Getty Images
A couple months ago, the Internet came to a collective agreement that John Cho deserves better than the bullsh-t sidekick roles he has been relegated to. That agreement was immortalized in the hashtag #StarringJohnCho, where famous movies starring mediocre white people were reimagined with John in the leading roles.
Earlier this week, Vulture posted this piece called You Haven’t Seen Everything John Cho Can Do. We haven’t seen what John can do because he is a Korean American actor in Hollywood. Simply put, he isn’t given opportunities to show us what he can do. Vulture asks him about representation in film/ television and his answers are thoughtful, candid and reaffirm why he should star in everything.
“We're obsessed with race, this country. And unfortunately now I am too. Because I've had to be, in response.”
John Cho has had to be obsessed with race not only because he’s become a symbol of Hollywood’s reverence for white mediocrity and blatant disregard for non-white talent but because with his face—his beautiful, chiselled, perfect face—comes responsibility.
“I've always had a sense of responsibility. Like that was the unfair burden of being 23 and looking at the sides as they came through the fax machine wondering how would a young Asian-American person feel about this? How would this be regarded?”
This is what sometimes gets lost in the diversity conversation. There is an unfair burden on minority actors because since there are so few of them, they end up being the faces of their generation. John Cho knows how much his presence on screen will affect the young people growing up watching him. He has to think hard about every role. He doesn’t have the luxury of being careless. Mindy Kaling and Shonda Rhimes have both discussed how their white counterparts get to just be creative and do their jobs without the constant pressure of representing an entire race of people.
John put a lot of thought into his character Sulu in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond. You’ve probably seen the headlines. In this installment, it’s revealed that Sulu is gay. I’m a Trekkie (say something) and I don’t give AF if Hikaru Sulu wasn’t originally written as a gay man. John doesn’t either but he did think a lot about the cultural implications this reveal would have. He thought about how Asian men are usually portrayed and was conscious of what he calls the “feminization of Asian men.” Asian guys don’t get to be sex symbols. It is a crime that John Cho is not more of a sex symbol. Can we objectify John a little more, please? For equality’s sake?
Here’s the most fascinating part of this interview: John pushed for Sulu to have an Asian husband in Star Trek Beyond. He continued to push for it when they couldn’t find an Asian actor willing to play gay on location in Dubai (they ended up casting screenwriter Doug Jung.)
“It was a little Valentine to the gay Asian friends that I grew up with… I always felt the Asian gay men that I knew had much heavier cultural-shame issues. This is probably more so for my generation than for yours, but I felt like those guys didn't date Asian men because of that cultural shame. So I wanted it to seem really normal in the future.”
One of my closest friends is a gay Asian man. When I asked him about these comments he said he could relate. It was hard for him growing up as an Asian AND a gay man. Now, imagine the little gay kids who get to look up to a badass, confident action hero who is also Asian and casually married to an Asian man. Maybe it will seem a little less hard for them when they get to pretend they are Sulu on the Enterprise sitting next to Captain Kirk.
My hope is that someday soon, someone who looks like John will get to play Kirk, not the guy sitting next to him.