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The colour of women

Nikita and Joan Watson,two non-cartoonish and complex characters on US TV,just happen to be Asian.

Written by New York Times | Published: November 23, 2013 5:01:45 am

Mike Hale

Nikita and Joan Watson,two non-cartoonish and complex characters on US TV,just happen to be Asian.

The CW series Nikita begins its fourth and final season — an abbreviated run to tie up story lines,as the reluctant assassin Nikita stands falsely accused of killing the president — and while there’s still a chance,I’d like to celebrate a small but significant milestone. For six more weeks,two of the strongest and most interesting female leads on television are being played by Asian-American actresses.

I’m talking about Maggie Q,finishing her turn as Nikita,and Lucy Liu,in her second season as Joan Watson on CBS’s Elementary,where she is every bit as central as Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes. Both shows have their formulaic elements,but Nikita and Joan are non-cartoonish,reasonably complex,multidimensional characters,and in prime time,there aren’t too many actresses getting that kind of opportunity in a lead role.

Of course,that broader look also indicates that the overall picture for Asian actresses isn’t so happy. A lot of them are working,but in roles far down the food chain from Nikita and Watson,and often playing characters conceived or shaped to reflect longstanding stereotypes about Asians. Even Maggie Q and Liu haven’t completely escaped those archetypes. Both are playing the latest iterations of durable characters traditionally inhabited by white performers,so it would seem that race shouldn’t have any particular bearing. But the truth is that they resonate with two of the most common sets of images — or clichés — about Asian women: the high-achieving,socially awkward Dr. Joan Watson is a refined example of the sexy nerd,and the lethal,sometimes icy Nikita,able to dispense violence while wearing tight,microscopic outfits,evokes a long line of dragon ladies and ninja killers. In both cases,though,the actresses and their writers have avoided or transcended easy stereotypes. A lot of effort has gone into humanising Nikita. In Elementary,Watson has embraced her role as apprentice detective after suffering a catastrophic failure as a doctor,taking some of the shine off her super-competence.

There are other actresses playing less evolved versions of the Nikita-style action hero. Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May,the black-leather-jacketed pilot in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC),is a stoic enforcer with a dragon-lady vibe; Grace Park’s Kono Kalakaua on Hawaii Five-0 (CBS) is equally lethal but favours bikinis and tight jeans. It takes some looking to find Asian actresses in roles that don’t easily fit into one of these two broad categories. There is,of course,another major Asian-American female television star not mentioned yet: Sandra Oh,whose Dr. Cristina Yang is not the lead but is a major member of the ensemble on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. As with Nikita and Watson,Yang displays some typical Asian markers — she’s a hypercompetitive,socially awkward doctor — whose race is matter of fact because there’s so much more to know about her. Yang,along with Watson and Nikita,could be considered exceptions that prove a rule,but I think the real lesson here is probably that TV would be a better place for women of all races if Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy,Scandal) could just write all the shows.

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