Like much of America, I’m currently hooked on the Netflix original series “House of Cards.” The show features sharp acting from an excellent cast lead by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in the roles of the ultimate Washington, D.C. power couple, as they serve the viewers’ main guides to a compelling narrative about the slick underbelly of Capital politics. But one line in episode 3 happened to jolt me momentarily out of my blissful story immersion.
The line in question was uttered by the character Gillian Cole, a young activist blogger being recruited by the formidable Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). When Underwood brings up the fact that Cole turned down a six-figure salary at Google, Cole shrugs it off with a response that sounded odd to my ears.
“It was a lot of money, but for what?” Cole says. “So they could fill their diversity quota with an Asian girl peddling a Stanford degree?”
Up until that point, I had not seen Cole as being Asian. At all. I had to pause the show to stem my confusion as I scrambled to look up the actress on IMDB.
I’ve never watched the show “24,” or else I probably would have known the actress Sandrine Holt. According to her bio, she is the daughter of a French mother and a Chinese father, which partially helped explain my initial confusion. I had initially judged her as being Caucasian, but I could see hints of her Asian ancestry as well after learning of the fact — it just wasn’t very obvious to me from the start.
Holt’s versatile appearance has apparently proven quite useful from a career standpoint, because she has taken on a number of diverse roles ranging from an Algonquin Indian in “Black Robe” to a Chinese bride in “Century Hotel,” not to mention a her “24″ character Evelyn Martin. In that sense, it’s great she has been able to use her mixed ethnic background as an asset in a U.S. entertainment industry that still likes to pigeonhole Asian actors and actresses into certain roles.
But at the same time, I can’t help but feel a bit puzzled about the throwaway line in “House of Cards” that happens to reference the ethnicity of Holt’s character one time. The mention of her ethnicity doesn’t serve the character or plot at all. Frankly, I wouldn’t have missed a beat if there had been no mention of the “diversity quota” and “Asian girl.”
If TV shows and Hollywood could cast more Asian actors and actresses in stories that didn’t feel the need to explicitly call out their ethnicity — unless it’s a crucial part of the plot or character development — I certainly wouldn’t complain.
* On a side note, Holt previously said in an interview that she changed her last name from her original family name “Ho” to “Holt” because of controversy over one of her earliest roles as an Algonquin Indian in “Black Robe.” I’m really not sure why an actress with a Caucasian last name would prove less controversial than an actress with an Asian last name in such a role, but I’d be happy to learn more about that incident if anyone can enlighten me.
However, I would guess that the name change has probably proven to be a smart career move for Ho/Holt because of her versatile appearance. And given how Hollywood still has a pretty bad record in terms of casting Asian actors and actresses — even for roles that really call for Asians — I say good for her if she has found a way to thrive under the current system.