Words by Stephanie Tran
When Fresh Off the Boat (FOTB), a fictionalized account of Asian American chef Eddie Huang’s childhood and the first Asian American comedy on broadcast television in two decades, was renewed for a sixth season in May 2019, fans of the landmark television show were elated. Few expected one of its leads, Taiwanese-American actress Constance Wu’s devastation at the news. “So upset right now that I’m literally crying. Ugh. Fuck,” and “Fucking hell,” Wu tweeted, commenting “Dislike” to a post by the official FOTB Instagram account about the renewal. When someone congratulated Wu on Twitter, calling the renewal “great news,” Wu responded, “It’s not.” Although few could have anticipated Wu’s reaction, the backlash to her comments were far from surprising.
Before these comments, Wu, also known for starring as the protagonist in the Golden Globe-nominated, Asian-helmed and -led movie Crazy Rich Asians, was the Asian American audience’s darling. She had called out anti-Asian bigotry in Hollywood and made her markby acting in not one, but two groundbreaking Asian American pieces of media. Despite (or perhaps because) of Wu’s reputation, online backlash to Wu’s comments was swift: Asians and Asian Americans called Wu “ungrateful,” and even Gemma Chan, Wu’s Crazy Rich Asians British co-star, liked a tweet calling Wu “rude, petty, mean-spirited, and ungrateful.” (Chan later sought to negate any drama, stating that she had accidentally liked the tweet). Although Wu quickly apologized for her comments, stating, “Plz know, I’m so grateful for the FOTB renewal,” adding, “I’m proud to be a part of it,” Wu’s critics largely didn’t accept the apology—she’s neither the first nor the last to suffer that fate—and Wu deleted all of the tweets on her account, disappearing from social media.
Last Thursday Wu returned, revealing that her comments (which she called “careless”) prompted a fellow Asian actress to privately message Wu, telling her that she was a “blight” on the Asian American community. The messages impacted Wu deeply, leading her to attempt suicide. “I started feeling like I didn’t even deserve to live anymore,” Wu wrote. “That I was a disgrace to AsAms [Asian Americans], and they’d be better off without me.”
The honesty and humility with which Wu has returned to social media as well as the time that she has taken to care for herself should be lauded.
For those familiar with Asian American perfectionism, the backlash to Wu’s comments, as well as the news about her suicide attempt, are not surprising. The very same perfectionism that Asian Americans expect of ourselves and each other is a part of the “model minority” trope that strives for accomplishment and a strong face at the cost of our individual happiness and authenticity. If that veneer of perfection blows up, especially publicly, criticism from the community follows, and individuals can quickly spiral. “That was not a rampage,” Wu said about her original comments, referring to people turning a few comments into a perceived tirade, “It was just how I normally talk. I say fuck a lot.” Wu may have made the comments for many reasons—she was disappointed and frustrated about losing the opportunity to pursue other projects, her FOTB character Jessica had stagnated in her character growth—but she had also made the cardinal sin of being publicly outspoken about her discontentment in a way that was unacceptable to her audience.
When Wu broke that unspoken rule, many members of the very same Asian and Asian American community that had proudly championed her quickly disavowed her. Others piled on, misogyny and racism on full display (because of course a woman—and an Asian woman at that—should be quiet and demure). Industry peers riffed on her tweets. Even people ostensibly defending Wu bought into the criticism, with one recent article implying that part of Wu’s break from social media was spent "working on" her supposed “petty” and “rude” behavior, as though any female actress who stands up for herself isn’t immediately labeled similarly.
Some of the attacks on Wu feel personal—aside from the betrayal that many Asian American fans may have felt upon reading Wu’s tweets, other marginalized people, such as Black audience (whose representation wasn’t as supported as Wu’s in FOTB) may have also taken her words personally. They may have also felt that Wu, by starring in such hugely representative pieces of media such as FOTB and Crazy Rich Asians, betrayed marginalized, non-Asian diaspora communities as a whole. Regardless, those critics who truly felt hurt by Wu’s comments still bought into the expectation that Wu should have kept her grievances private.
“AsAms don’t talk about mental health enough,” Wu wrote in her latest post. She alluded to the pressure of being a representative of the Asian American community, adding, “While we’re quick to celebrate representation wins, there’s a lot of avoidance around the more uncomfortable issues within our community.” If Wu was “messy,” flawed, or imperfect when she publicly expressed her frustration, so, too, were the members of the Asian American community and peers who turned their backs on and attacked her instead of reaching out with compassion or to ask for clarity. The honesty and humility with which Wu has returned to social media as well as the time that she has taken to care for herself should be lauded. While Wu has taken the time to heal and grow, the community still has a lot of work to do. If we Asian Americans are going to make any actor a beacon of representation, we need to acknowledge the actor as a flawed individual and the community itself as imperfect as well.
Published on July 21, 2022
Words by Stephanie Tran
Stephanie Tran is a 30-something law graduate and Vietnamese-American child of South Vietnamese political refugees whose publications include a paper on the socializing effect of the German Grimms version of “Cinderella” and another on the gender inequity that Chinese businesswomen face. You can read more of Stephanie’s thoughts on Twitter at @youandyourego.
Art by Robinick Fernandez
Robinick Fernandez is a prolific and visionary creative director whose work blends the worlds of art, architecture, design, and fashion. For two decades Robinick Fernandez connected art with design for global brands, and his work has left an impact having navigated across many countries and cultures including Europe, Asia, the United States and beyond. For his next venture, he celebrates his Filipino American roots as Creative Director for JoySauce, being committed to cultural storytelling, sustainability, forward-thinking design, and conscious content .