Content warning: This newsletter contains references to suicide and self-harm.
Over the weekend, actor Constance Wu took part in a Q&A at The Atlantic magazine’s Atlantic Festival to talk about her upcoming book, Making a Scene and, of course, those tweets came up.
A quick refresher: in 2019, following the news that Fresh Off the Boat, the ground-breaking sitcom she starred in, had been renewed for a sixth season, she tweeted, “So upset right now that I'm literally crying. Ugh. Fuck.” Then, when a fan congratulated her, calling the renewal “great news,” she replied, “No, it’s not.” This… did not go over well. As the New York Times explained in a recent profile of the actor, “the backlash was instant. [Wu] was accused of being privileged, insensitive to struggling actors, to underpaid actors, to out-of-work actors, to Asian American actors, to her cast and crewmates, to the people who loved the show for what it meant for Asian people and to Asian people, generally. Rumors began to circulate online that she was a diva, unpopular on set and difficult to work with.”
And these comments weren’t just coming from trolls; this past summer, she revealed that another prominent Asian-American actor was so upset by her tweets that she told Wu she’d become a blight on the Asian-American community. Wu felt so ashamed that she attempted suicide.
The day after sending those tweets, which she now characterizes as careless, she apologized and said the reason for her unhappy reaction was disappointment over having to give up another project that she was passionate about, but in this Q&A with Atlantic staff writer Shirley Li, she offered some more context. She said she had been sexually harassed by an executive producer on Fresh Off the Boat for the first two years of the show, and while she eventually felt her job was secure enough to tell him to stop, she’d never really addressed those feelings.
“It looked really bad from the outside, [like] ‘Oh, she thinks she's this big movie star,’ when really it was just that I wanted to have a fresh slate where I didn't have… all these memories of abuse,” Wu told Li, visibly tearing up. “A few people knew what was happening, and to go to work every day and see those people who knew that he was sexually harassing me being buddy-buddy with him, it felt like a betrayal.”
So. Finding out Fresh Off the Boat would be back for another season after everyone thought it was over also meant feeling relieved that she could move on from something she’d never been able to talk about, then being pulled back in. It’s no wonder her first reaction was negative. But it’s the ‘something she’d never been able to talk about’ that I want to focus on, because while it’s not fair that Wu felt she had to stay silent, I’m not surprised that she did.
In the Q&A, Wu spoke about her decision to stay silent so as not to change people’s opinion of Fresh Off the Boat: “that show was historic for Asian Americans—it was the only show on network television in over 20 years to star Asian Americans, and I did not want to sully the reputation of the one show we had representing us.” Which, of course. Her community has had so few opportunities to see themselves represented on network TV in a meaningful, positive and loving light that the idea of exposing any darkness or rot feels almost cruel, even disloyal.
But there was a practical reason to keep quiet, too. Wu understood something I think anyone from a ‘marginalized’ background knows intimately: that our future opportunities depend on our current successes—and that success is just so fragile. Even the tiniest hint of scandal might have jeopardized the network’s perception of the show, and would almost certainly attach itself to her, her co-stars and even the producer, making it difficult to land other opportunities, build a professional reputation and, by extension, tell other Asian stories.
Just look at the stats: according to the Director’s Guild of America’s 2022 Inclusion Report, “34% of dramatic television episodes in the 2020-21 season were helmed by directors of colour and 38% were directed by women… While the shares of episodes directed by women and directors of color continued to see incremental growth, gains were not evenly shared. Latino and Asian directors saw minimal gains, continuing to remain underrepresented at 9% and 7% respectively.” The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s most recent study, Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films, found only 7.2% of speaking characters were Asian, and more than a third of all movies had no speaking or named Asian character. Only four of the directors in the study’s sample were Asian, and none of those were women. Even as gains are made in general toward diversity and inclusion, most of the power remains in the hands of a fairly homogenous group of people, so it’s understandable that racialized, and especially Asian, creatives would not want to risk jeopardizing access to opportunities by drawing attention to any flaws in themselves or their projects, real or perceived.
I often think about this type of defence in the context of critique, especially since there’s still a real impulse to judge racialized creators’ work solely on its representation instead of its storytelling or other markers of its quality (which is actually patronizing, not protection, btw). But what Wu described is deeper, and thornier than that. She didn’t want to call attention to the actual harm that was done to her by a member of her community for fear of letting that community down or undermining its collective success. In short, she disregarded her own well-being to protect her people… who, I must note, very quickly turned on her when she was no longer behaving the way they thought she should.
That’s made all the more tragic when you consider what actually happened to her. In “You Do What I Say,” the essay Wu wrote on Fresh Off the Boat for Making A Scene, she details how the producer, identified only as M, manipulated her—from “demand[ing] a direct line to her at all times” to inserting himself into her business affairs, making over-personal comments about her appearance, clothing and even dating life, requiring she send him selfies (which he’d criticize as ‘not sexy enough’) and once, brushing his hand against her crotch. His cruelty didn’t stop, even when she finally started telling him ‘no’ once the show had been renewed for a second season and she felt more secure; instead, he began displaying “a gentle warmth and camaraderie” with even the most junior person on set, which he’d noticeably drop every time she was in the room. “No one knew why we’d stopped being friendly. The timing of it made me look horrible—like I was the diva who suddenly refused to speak to him once she became successful,” she wrote. “He made sure I felt like an outcast on set, no longer part of the club.”
Worse, even though she knew how it made her feel, she was scared that her story wasn’t ‘bad enough’ to justify calling it sexual harassment, or even for it to count as real pain.
There’s a lot here that likely feels familiar to women of colour and queer people of colour in particular: Wu not knowing if her pain was valid or her trauma bad enough to ‘count,’ the tactics M used to keep her feeling off-balance and uncertain—and the fact that she couldn’t understand the full scope of what was happening, even when she knew it was making her feel bad.
And then there’s the dynamic of feeling like she had to protect a man who had hurt her in the name of racial solidarity.
When she described her thought process for not speaking out about M’s behaviour, Wu explicitly talked about the impact that would have on him: “I thought: ‘You know what? I handled it, nobody has to know, I don’t have to stain this Asian American producer’s reputation. I don’t have to stain the reputation of the show.’”
“While Phylicia Rashad’s celebration of Bill Cosby may seem like a one-off, the reality is that she’s a reflection of the old guard of Black elites who benefit from keeping systems of harm alive for the sake of legacy and reputation,” says @ClarissaMBrooks https://t.co/PyfYDWFdhn— The Cut (@TheCut) July 16, 2021
Now, let’s think about how Phylicia Rashad has talked about Bill Cosby. In 2015, Rashad overtly pushed a conspiracy theory, reportedly saying, “forget these women. What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it’s orchestrated. I don’t know why or who’s doing it, but it’s the legacy. And it’s a legacy that is so important to the culture… Someone is determined to keep Bill Cosby off TV.” And last summer, when his conviction for sexual assault was overturned due to a technicality (not because there was evidence that he hadn’t assaulted anyone, but rather that “prosecutors violated Mr. Cosby’s rights by reneging on an apparent promise not to charge him,” as the New York Times explained), she tweeted the slightly more measured, “FINALLY!!! A terrible wrong is being righted—a miscarriage of justice is corrected!” Rashad’s comments are harmful in a variety of ways, especially to survivors of sexual violence, whereas Wu’s self-sacrifice is more sad than anything else, but… there’s a shared idea there, and that is prioritizing a man’s legacy, work and future over the harm he may have caused, not because he’s individually talented, but because of what he means to a community.
I’ve even felt that impulse, after several women spoke publicly about the toxic workplace at The Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj in August 2020. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe them; it’s that I didn’t want to believe Minhaj could contribute to, or even oversee, a toxic workplace. But this was a mistake. As I wrote back then, “progressive spaces created by people with good intentions aren’t magically immune to injustice. Inequality is like smog… so even as we’re fighting them, we’re breathing them in. That means we can believe in anti-racism and behave in ways that uphold white supremacy. We can say we want to empower marginalized folks and still actively keep them out of positions of real power. We can preach the importance of diversity and still not understand that BIPOC are no longer satisfied with a seat at someone else’s table. And we can create spaces that are meant to be safe for everyone, and still buy into patriarchal ideas about who [has value].”
The sad thing is, this is so common. As Connie Wun, co-founder of the nonprofit AAPI Women Lead, told NBC News this week, “Wu’s yearning to protect the show’s reputation reflects how women of color become ‘receptacles of violence… We actually have to calculate whether or not we can speak and how we can speak and who will be harmed. In addition to the harm that we are experiencing, we have to actually balance and manage everyone else’s expectations.’”
I think it’s obvious why we do this—there aren’t enough stories, shows, projects, whatevers, by, for and about us, so we feel fiercely defensive of what we do have. Washington Post columnist Christina Emba tackled this dynamic back in 2018, when literary star Junot Díaz was accused of miosgynist behaviour by several women in the literary world, including author Carmen Maria Machado. (Díaz was later cleared of misconduct by MIT and welcomed back onto the Pulitzer prize board after an ‘exhaustive’ independent investigation.)
“There’s a strain of frustration that is particular to communities of color, one that makes the accusations against Díaz feel particularly bitter after last week’s guilty verdict in the Bill Cosby retrial,” Emba wrote. “Accusations of sexual assault have historically been used in the United States to tear down the achievements—and the lives—of men of color. Will the movement be used to kill our heroes—the rare Latino literary star, ‘America’s [Black] Dad’? So what if there was misconduct? Protect our men. We need them the most… But clinging to these flawed heroes does us more harm than good. The false sense of security allows us to choose not to look further afield for those who might be better, and new. And unquestioned loyalty lets us allow things we shouldn’t—the increased vulnerability of women of color, for instance—in the service of some ‘greater’ cause.”
But how great can that cause be if it requires some of us to subsume our pain, our needs, our very selves so it can thrive? This mindset is a natural consequence of believing that we'll just have to take what white people allow us forever, but we shouldn't be settling for what the white supremacist system allows! We should be (and are) building a better system, one that doesn’t accept victimization as an unavoidable consequence of creative expression. Because what's more important? Not allowing predators to hurt people, or consuming the art they make? To me, it's obviously the former—especially since there are so many other artists who not only have stories to tell, but are committed to bringing others with them. I mean, over the course of its seven seasons, Ava DuVernay hired 42 female directors for Queen Sugar, and 39 of them were first-timers.
Maybe it’s time to start thinking about what unquestioned loyalty actually costs us, who we ask to bear the brunt of this labour—and whether there are other, better places to direct our allegiance. Because… there are.
There won’t be a newsletter next week, but I’ll still be posting on Instagram so come through!
Food writer Alicia Kennedy on Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Rico and colonization.
The Cut’s analysis of Don’t Worry Darling’s Stepford Wives-inspired aesthetic, where it works and doesn’t work—and why this visual approach remains so popular.
This frankly horrifying look at how the podcasts and influencers of the manosphere are radicalizing real life men, from the perspective of the women in their lives.
Vulture’s reminder that director David O. Russell has been mistreating and verbally abusing his actors—especially the female ones—for years.
Rihanna signing on to headline the 2023 Super Bowl halftime show—and Deadspin writer Carron J. Phillips’ very thoughtful essay questioning why she would do that, considering she turned down the gig in 2019, saying, “there’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”
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