Why “Identifies As Asian” Is Trending Following Michelle Yeoh’s “Best Actress” Win At The “95th Academy Awards”

“Correct but at what cost.”

Actress Michelle Yeoh made history at the 95th Academy Awards by taking home the Oscar for “Best Actress” for her starring role in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Michelle Yeoh made history as the first Asian woman to win the award.

For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof to dream big, and dreams do come true.

— Michelle Yeoh, in her acceptance speech

Michelle Yeoh accepting the Oscar for “Best Actress” | Slate

But while netizens were praising the monumental win, some are finding offense with articles and tweets stating that she is “the first actress who identifies as Asian to win.”

However, despite how the phrasing might seem, netizens are clarifying that the wording is actually intended to acknowledge actors and actresses who hid their Asian heritage in Hollywood to avoid discrimination.

Actresses Merle Oberon and Vivien Leigh are the two names most netizens are referencing.

Merle Oberon was nominated for an Oscar for “Best Actress” for her role in The Dark Angel in 1935. Although she was the first Asian actress nominated for an Oscar, no one knew at the time.

Merle Oberon | IMDb

Born in Mumbai, India, Merle Oberon traveled to England to act in films with her grandmother who accompanied her under the guise of being her maid.

After making her first big break in The Private Life of Henry VIII, publicists suggested that Merle Oberon “invent a background story to explain her race,” according to BBC.

Tasmania was chosen as her new birthplace because it was so far from the US and Europe and generally considered to be ‘British” to its core.

— Director Marée Delofski via BBC

| Everett

Merle Oberon never publicly revealed her Anglo-Indian heritage, instead canceling public appearances when journalists became too curious, and taking lessons to change her accent. The truth of her heritage was only later revealed in a biography written after the actress’s death.

Through his book, Sen hopes to be able to convey the enormous pressures Oberon faced as a South Asian woman ‘navigating an industry that wasn’t designed to accommodate her and producing such moving work while fighting those battles.’

Dealing with those struggles couldn’t have been easy. It feels more productive to extend grace and empathy to her than to judge.’


Actress Vivien Leigh also notably won “Best Actress” twice, for her starring roles in Gone with the Wind in 1939 and A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951.

Vivien Leigh | The Hollywood Reporter

Like Merle Oberon, Vivien Leigh is believed to be of Anglo-Indian heritage, although there is still discussion about the Hollywood star’s ancestry. Born in Darjeeling, Vivien Leigh attended school in England, where she started dreaming of becoming an actress.

| Variety

Still even if netizens understand the intention of the phrasing, many argue that the descriptor of “the first person who identifies as Asian” needed better context and “wording.”

Michelle Yeoh herself has acknowledged Merle Oberon’s nomination.

Actually there was another first, Merle Oberon… But she had to hide her identity. She was of half-Asian descent. Her mother was from India, I believe. But she always came out acting purely as a British woman. So she had to hide that.

— Michelle Yeoh

And Michelle Yeoh voiced for hope that Asian actors receiving nominations and “equal opportunity” becomes “a norm.”

I would love to see… where this is a norm that you see faces like ours, that they are up there, being nominated and being given equal opportunity to play those roles so that we can have a seat at the table.

— Michelle Yeoh

Michelle Yeoh | @FilmUpdates/Twitter

Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar win is monumental; hopefully showing the beginning of a long-needed change in Hollywood’s culture.

You can hear more of Michelle Yeoh’s thoughts here.

Source: CNN (1) and (2), BBC and Forbes India

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