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Constance Wu's reveal speaks to the profound pressure Asian American women face

Actor Constance Wu, pictured in 2018 at the premiere of <em>Crazy Rich Asians</em>, has opened up about mental health struggles in a social media post.
Emma McIntyre
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Getty Images
Actor Constance Wu, pictured in 2018 at the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, has opened up about mental health struggles in a social media post.

After being largely under the radar for three years, Hollywood actor Constance Wu broke her silence last week, opening up about her mental health, and in doing so, admitting there's still a lot of work left to do to for and within the Asian American community.

It all started back in 2019, when Wu's ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat announced it would be renewed for a sixth season. Wu responded to the news with frustration, writing on Twitter: "So upset right now that I'm literally crying. Ugh. F***" and "F***ing hell."

Wu, who has also starred in the movies Crazy Rich Asians and Hustlers, later clarified that her grievances were related to a missed work opportunity. Despite her explanation, users on social media still condemned Wu's comments, branding her as ungrateful, selfish and a diva. The backlash led her to a mental health crisis and a suicide attempt, Wu revealed on Twitter last week.

"I was afraid of coming back on social media because I almost lost my life from it," Wu wrote. "[Asian Americans] don't talk about mental health enough. While we're quick to celebrate representation wins, there's a lot of avoidance around the more uncomfortable issues within our community."

When Asian American women try to be ambitious, it's often been met with pushback

In her statement, Wu wrote, "I'm not poised or graceful or perfect. I'm emotional. I make mistakes."

Asian American experts say while that confession may not appear profound to some, for others, it spoke volumes about the pressures typically felt by Asian American women.

"Asian American women want to be their authentic selves but their image and behavior are prescribed by society and family expectations," says Hyeouk Chris Hahm, an associate dean of research at Boston University's School of Social Work, who has extensively studied mental health disparities in the Asian American community.

While no two experiences are alike, Hahm points out that in spaces like the workplace, many Asian American women are stereotyped to be soft-spoken, respectful and followers rather than leaders. When they try to break out of that mold by speaking up for themselves, they can be met with pushback, Hahm added.

"When Asian American women try to be autonomous, ambitious, self-fulfilling, it's been historically perceived as threatening the social order and social norm," Hahm said.

Recently, Twitter users have pointed out that double standard after comparing Wu's backlash to actors such as Robert Pattinson, who received a more positive reception after bad-mouthing his breakout film, Twilight.

"The harshness behind the overall reaction to Wu's tweets demonstrates the implicit yet widely-held hostility towards Asian women," said culture writer Roslyn Talusan in a 2019 Playboy article. "As it stands, humanity isn't afforded to angry, insubordinate Asian women."

For many people of Asian descent, individual reputation is tied to their community's reputation

In her tweet, Wu said it wasn't just the online harassment, but shame from other Asian American acquaintances that felt traumatizing.

According to Wu, a fellow Asian American actress — who she didn't name — privately condemned her, calling Wu a "blight" to their community.

"I started feeling like I didn't even deserve to live anymore. That I was a disgrace to [Asian Americans], and they'd be better off without me," she wrote.

Words like "blight" and "disgrace" can be especially hurtful to Asian Americans, said Jenn Fang, the founder and editor of Reappropriate, an Asian American-centered race and gender blog.

"Being a public figure, especially on social media, criticism happens," Fang said. "But for Asian Americans, this thread of criticism is particularly personal and difficult to bear because it suggests we don't belong and we should leave the Asian American community."

Hahm points out that it's not just people of Asian descent — many immigrants of all backgrounds can relate to the burden that comes when an individual's reputation is seen as a reflection of their family or community's reputation.

"Reputation is important for many immigrants because it creates trust and trust becomes a foundation for immigrants rebuilding their wealth, social networks, and resources," Hahm said.

Hollywood is only one of the places where representation matters

To Fang, part of Wu's online criticism also had to do with fans' staunch loyalty to Fresh Off the Boat, and the pressure for Asian American representation in media.

When the sitcom first aired, there was a lot of anticipation amongst Asian Americans, Fang recalled, mainly because it was the first time in roughly two decades that network television focused on an Asian American family.

"There's a sense within the community that if we can see more of ourselves in media, we will feel more like we belong," Fang said. "Common among Asian Americans is this question of where we fit, where do we belong?"

According to Fang, that's why on-screen representation matters, and why there's still a lot of room for improvement — whether that's forgoing harmful stereotypes or accurately reflecting the experiences of South Asians and Pacific Islanders. But she also underscores that Hollywood is only one avenue where representation matters for Asian Americans.

"The problem, however, is that when we focus exclusively on issues of media representation without addressing it alongside other issues, we run the risk of forgetting that improved media representation is not by itself a solution to anti-Asian racism," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.