Why Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar nomination isn’t a big deal

Naomi Seah is a freelance journalist and columnist.

OPINION: After 94 years of the Academy Awards, aka the OscarsMichelle Yeoh has become the first Asian actress to be nominated for the prestigious Best Actress category … kind of.

Those with a discerning eye may have seen Yeoh being touted as being “the first self-identified Asian” to be nominated for the category. That’s because she’s not the first actress with Asian heritage to be nominated or – here’s hoping – even to win the award.

The first Asian nomination would go to Merle Oberon of 1936’s The Dark Angel, who had Sri Lankan (and Māori!) heritage on her mother’s side. Oberon was born in British India, but claimed to have been born in Tasmania, hiding her ancestry and instead “passing” as white.

Oscar winner Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) – now widely considered a racist film – also had Asian heritage but passed as white. Like Oberon, Leigh was born in British India; her mother may have had Parsi Indian and/or Armenian heritage.

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Oberon and Leigh’s stories aren’t just an interesting footnote to Yeoh’s nomination, though. They illustrate the sad history of the awards, and Hollywood itself as institutions that continue to uphold white supremacy, not just in casting, but in the subject of films.

Had Oberon and Leigh’s heritage been known – despite their undeniable talents – would they even have had opportunities to star in these films, let alone be nominated for Best Actress? Anna May Wong’s struggle to land Asian roles in the early 20th century, despite being Asian-American, would tell us no.

Michelle Yeoh (center) in a scene from Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Allyson Riggs/A24 Films

Michelle Yeoh (center) in a scene from Everything Everywhere All At Once.

The Oscars has had its fair share of criticism, with #OscarsSoWhite trending on and off after a 2016 nominee list revealed zero people of color for the second year running.

Best Actress is a particularly colorless category. Besides its dismal record with Asians, Best Actress has only had one black winner – Halle Berry in 2001 – and boasts a grand total of 13 black nominees since its inception in 1929.

So what does it mean, really, that Asians are finally being recognized by this frankly racist body that has no problem awarding white actors for yellowface? For myself, and many other Asians, it doesn’t mean much.

Naomi Seah is a freelance journalist and columnist.

Supplied

Naomi Seah is a freelance journalist and columnist.

Asian film has always excelled, with Hong Kong having a titanic film industry that inspired some of Hollywood’s biggest directors. Tarantino fans can thank John Woo – a Cantonese filmmaker – for Tarantino’s signature gory style.

Asian film has been recognized by many other award bodies, with the first Asian actress nominated for a Golden Globe way back in 1956.

Besides eurocentric awards bodies, there’s also the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Asian Film Awards. Yeoh won an award for best newcomer at the first ever Hong Kong Film Awards in 1982.

The Academy has even less of an excuse for the lack of Asian nominations considering Yeoh’s career in Hollywood is also long and prestigious.

She’s starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), both of which received multiple Oscar nominations. Yet Yeoh wasn’t up for any of them. The nomination feels like too little, much too late.

As for Hollywood itself, it’s only recently that the movie machine has deemed Asian stories worthy of the silver screen – Asian stories that aren’t orientalist fantasies marketed towards white audiences, that is. And it turns out it’s pretty hard to nominate Asians for Best Actress when there aren’t any Asian women in leading roles.

So while Yeoh’s nomination is well deserved for a stellar performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), Yeoh herself said it best: “We know of so many more amazing actresses than myself… I stand on their shoulders.”

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