When the rebooted Hawaii Five-0 premiered on CBS in 2010, I tuned in to see Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park. Kim, who signed on to play Chin Ho Kelly, had just come off the hit show Lost. Park, who was assuming the role of Kono Kalakaua, starred in one of my favorite shows of all time, Battlestar Galactica. Early promotional posters featured Kim and Park front and center. As a Chinese American who was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the United States at age 5, I was thrilled to see a show with Asian American leads set in a location with a majority Asian American and Pacific Islander population.
Fast forward to 2017. Last Friday, Variety reported that Kim and Park were not returning for an eighth season of the show, reportedly due to a breakdown in salary negotiations. Specifically, reports allege that Kim and Park’s final salary offers from CBS were 10 to 15 percent lower than their castmates Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan’s salaries. O’Loughlin and Caan’s pay reportedly also includes lucrative back-end deals with a cut of the show’s profits.
Kim confirmed on Wednesday that he and CBS were unable to reach an agreement over his contract, adding that the “path to equality is rarely easy.”
CBS responded with, “We did not want to lose them and tried very hard to keep them with offers for large and significant salary increases.” Apparently, it wasn’t enough, and none of this comes as a surprise. While I’m disappointed that Kim and Park will no longer be on the show, I’m proud that they’re standing up in the face of Hollywood’s race and gender wage gaps.
Kim and Park’s exit from the show isn’t just about Asian American actors being underpaid—they’re underrepresented, too.
Wage gaps reinforce an unjust system that prizes white men’s labor over that of white women and people of color. Some people have argued that, as the show’s leads, O’Loughlin and Caan deserve to make more than Kim and Park. But although Kim and Park’s roles are ostensibly those of supporting characters, they are just as integral to the show and its success. Beyond that, the fact that two white men were cast as the main leads in a show set in Hawaii, where white people only make up 22.1 percent of the total population, was problematic in the first place. This reflects Hollywood’s biased casting of white men as leads over other groups, even when it doesn’t make much demographic sense.
After Kim and Park’s departures and Masi Oka’s earlier exit, Hawaii Five-0 has lost all its original Asian American regulars. The show has effectively erased Hawaii’s 83.7 percent Asian and Pacific Islander population. This obliteration seems unfathomable, but is all too common in Hollywood.
Based on my current research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in television, the majority of television shows set in cities with significant Asian American populations (like Seattle and New York) have no Asian American regulars. In fact, over 60 percent of all broadcast television shows fail to feature a single Asian American or Pacific Islander as a regular character.
During negotiations, O’Loughlin and Caan could have taken pay cuts like the actors in Friends and Big Bang Theory have to raise their co-stars’ salaries, or at least spoken up in support. Instead, they have been silent up to this point, missing a major opportunity to be allies against a broken system.
While the gender wage gap is well known, the racial wage gap is just as pernicious a problem—especially for women of color.
Living at the intersection of marginalized identities means women of color are the most vulnerable to pay gaps. According to the American Association of University Women’s 2017 gender pay gap report, Asian American women make 85 cents to every white man’s dollar, African American women make 63 cents, Native Hawaiian/Pacific islander women make 60 cents, American Indian/Alaska Native women make 58 cents, and Latinas make a meager 54 cents. This is compared with white women, who make around 75 cents to every white man’s dollar.
Race and gender pay gaps can be even worse in Hollywood, where equal employment laws have been historically thwarted. In 1969, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) held a one-day hearing in Hollywood to address the “clear evidence of a pattern or practice of discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964” in the film industry. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.”
The EEOC presented evidence that people of color were excluded from nearly all jobs in Hollywood except the lowest-paying and lowest-skilled jobs. In response, the Justice Department prepared lawsuits to address the “gross underutilization” of racial minority workers in major positions of talent and production. However, the studios successfully lobbied and campaigned against this intervention, solidifying sexist and racist discriminatory practices—including pay gaps—to this day.
That’s why it wasn’t shocking when news broke that the Park’s final salary offer was reportedly lower than Kim’s. A CBS insider expressed that negotiations with Park were “complicated by the actress’ desire to only do a handful of episodes.” However, just earlier this year, CBS allowed Scott Caan to do five fewer episodes. According to Variety, the result is that he appears on the show less frequently than Kim and Park, yet makes much more.
Although this salary negotiation reportedly didn’t pan out in Kim and Park’s favor, I’m optimistic about their futures. Kim writes on Facebook that he has “new acting projects on the horizon” and that his production company 3AD’s first show, The Good Doctor, will air this fall on ABC. Park will appear at Comic-Con this summer at Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica reunion. With her history of playing strong and powerful women on screen, her act of defiance is an example of life imitating art.
Clearly, Hollywood has a long way to go when it comes to valuing actors of Asian descent.
The continued erasure of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Hollywood has generated many conversations and protests on social media. This is partially due to news like that of Kim and Park leaving Hawaii Five-0. But people are also becoming more vocal about the practice of whitewashing, which goes hand in hand with undervaluing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders actors financially.
Emma Stone played Alison Ng, a mixed Chinese/Hawaiian/Swedish character in Aloha, released in 2015. Zach McGowan was recently cast to play native Hawaiian, Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele in the upcoming WWII film Ni’ihau. It’s promising that public conversations have started to make whitewashing bad business: One studio executive admitted that the controversy over casting Scarlett Johansen as Major Kusanagi “impacted the reviews” for the 2017 film Ghost in the Shell, which bombed at the box office. But the tide is slow to change, and this insulting practice persists.
Despite being the fastest growing and biggest movie-going racial group in the United States, Asian Americans continue to face lower wages and representation in Hollywood. By courageously standing up for fair wages, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park have instigated essential conversations on racism, sexism, and equity in Hollywood. Kudos to them. As for Hollywood? It’s time to do better.
Nancy Wang Yuen (Ph.D. UCLA, 2008) is a sociologist, documentary producer, and pop culture geek. She is the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism (2016), the first book to examine the barriers actors of color face in Hollywood and how they creatively challenge stereotypes. She is an expert scholar and speaker on race and media, regularly contributing to the Huffington Post. She pioneered the first study of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on television and is currently conducting a 10-year followup study, PRIME TIME: Asian Pacific Americans in Television. She is an Associate Professor and the Chair of the Sociology Department at Biola University.
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