RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You have seen the Oscars so white stories. You've heard the frustrated awards speeches. Hollywood has a diversity problem. But for the Asian-American actors who do end up on screen, there's another big hurdle, one that NPR's Ashley Westerman has been noticing for years.
ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Growing up, I had a lot of celebrity crushes. There was Leonardo DiCaprio...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TITANIC")
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jack Dawson) I'm the king of the world.
WESTERMAN: ...Freddie Prinze Jr...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHE'S ALL THAT")
FREDDIE PRINZE JR.: (As Zack Siler) You know, I made that bet before I knew you, Laney.
WESTERMAN: ...And of course, all of the Backstreet Boys.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT IT THAT WAY")
BACKSTREET BOYS: (Singing) I want it that way. Tell me why ain't nothing but a heartache...
WESTERMAN: On the rare occasion I did see an Asian-American guy on-screen, I, an Asian-American gal, was just not that into him.
PHIL YU: I think that Asian men are kind of seen as just these stereotypes.
WESTERMAN: Phil Yu runs the blog Angry Asian Man. And he says they have been relegated to playing some predictable roles over the years.
YU: There's the evil Yellow Peril stereotype, like Fu Manchu. And then there's the stoic monk-like martial arts master and the nerd, like Long Duk Dong, "Sixteen Candles." It's kind of the most notorious example.
WESTERMAN: Actor Yoshi Sudarso knows the stereotypes very well. He's the guy often stuck performing them.
YOSHI SUDARSO: We are effeminate. We are not masculine. We are the best friend. We are the butt end of the jokes but not not the romantic lead.
WESTERMAN: Sudarso is starring in a new short web film called "It's Asian Men!" - exclamation mark. It features a group of hot and baby-oiled Asian-American dancers trying to capture the attention of an unimpressed young woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S ASIAN MEN!")
BO HAAN: (As character) You know what? You got this. Go get her man. You got this.
WESTERMAN: NaRhee Ahn wrote and directed the film to make a point.
NARHEE AHN: I think that the tired old argument that Hollywood executives and studios and casting directors have been hiding behind is that there are no Asian-American men capable of being romantic leads. And that's just patently untrue.
WESTERMAN: But here's the thing - in real life, there's some evidence that Asian-American men struggle, too. Over the years, online matchmaking service OKCupid has studied its user activity. It's found that Asian-American men receive far fewer matches and messages compared to men of other races on their site. For guys like actor Yoshi Sudarso, that stings.
SUDARSO: I've been left for and when I find out who it is, I was like, oh, non-Asian guy. That's cool. I think it's just they see us as the safe choice until they can get something better.
WESTERMAN: And those are attitudes Hollywood has fueled, not fought, through casting. Now, to be fair, Asian-American men are playing more nuanced characters. There's the loving father and husband in ABC's "Fresh Off The Boat," the main crush in the CW's "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and, until recently, actor Steven Yeun on the AMC hit series "The Walking Dead." Julia Kim, who is with The Casting Society of America, has even noticed more Asian-American men showing up for casting calls.
JULIA KIM: So as casting directors, we have more choices to present, and we're not just, you know, our hands aren't tied to this one Asian actor or the two Asian actors.
WESTERMAN: Yet diversity roles continue to lag for actors like Sudarso who see the problem as more than just landing major parts.
SUDARSO: It opens up so much more roles for us, not only just for the industry but in our daily lives. It puts us in a different position, and it will go into not just how people see you but how you see yourself.
WESTERMAN: He hopes that "It's Asian Men!" will help challenge some of those long-held impressions one sexy dance move at a time. Ashley Westerman, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKUP MAN")
THE BLEMISH: (Singing) I don't mind being your backup man. I'm the backup plan.
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