During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.
Over the course of her 15-year career, Jeannie Mai Jenkins has made a name for herself in entertainment — from co-hosting the popular talk show “The Real” to amassing more than 2 million followers on Instagram. But as a Vietnamese American woman, Mai’s success has required her to navigate an industry where people who look like her rarely rise to prominence.
“Not only was I really aware of a lack of Asian representation, but I was also aware of how much the men who are hiring me for my job savored the sexier or the more exotic I could look in my role,” Mai Jenkins, 42, told TODAY over the phone.
At the beginning, the style guru was often the “pretty co-host on the sidelines of a big actor,” she said. Despite knowing nothing about cars, she found herself working on several car shows. And while she understood what was happening — that she was being asked to embody a stereotype — pop culture had offered so few rebuttals to sexualized images of Asian women that she accepted them too.
“I was like, ‘Well, this is what we’re known for. And this is what’s going to pay my bills,’” Mai Jenkins said. “Coming up in my career, (those stereotypes) were the only things that I had to define who I was in Hollywood.”
Only later did she realize that Hollywood’s portrayals of marginalized communities don’t remain within the realm of TV and film — they also materially influence how people are treated in the day-to-day. The notion of Asian women as submissive and hypersexual, for example, leads to the normalization of sexual violence against them. Moreover, the inundation of narratives of "rich" Asians — like those found in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Bling Empire” — erases the massive socioeconomic diversity within the community.
“That can actually be very, very dangerous for us,” Mai Jenkins said. “It can make us into a monolith.”
Embracing her culture
As a child, Mai Jenkins said, she was “very free in the pride of her culture.” She didn’t even register the feeling as pride at the time — it existed naturally, without a second thought to its political significance. She grew up in a three-bedroom house in San Jose, shared with 15 family members who her parents had sponsored over from Vietnam during the war. There were grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins; different Vietnamese soup broths and language dialects flowed easily between them.
But as she grew older, she became “quieter about being Vietnamese” whenever she left the house.
“I didn’t speak my native tongue. If my mom, who walked me to school, spoke to me in Vietnamese, I answered her in English,” Mai Jenkins recalled. “If, looking in my lunch bag and depending on what my parents packed me, there was something I thought was smelly, I masked it.”
As a TV presenter, Mai Jenkins has ensured that Vietnamese culture remains an unmissable part of her public persona — whether it’s wearing the áo dài, a traditional Vietnamese dress, or telling stories about her family history. Still, she said, the recent events of horrific violence against the Asian American community have further ignited her passion for her identity.
While using her platform to speak out against anti-Asian hate, she’s tapped into “an astounding pride for my culture,” she said. “For myself, and for who my parents raised me to be. It’s making me have a very somber moment with myself, because I realized I’ve always had this pride. It just took me (this moment) to see it.”
The future of Hollywood
If Mai Jenkins is being honest, not much has changed from the beginning of her career to now. She remains one of the few Asian American women in daytime television — and they don't fare too well in the world of acting, directing or producing, either. “I don’t think there’s enough diversity, period, in the decision-making of these very influential, powerful positions,” said Mai Jenkins.
But while this may sound pessimistic, Mai Jenkins is hopeful about the possibility for genuine progress, and always will be. Rather than pessimism, her perspective stems from an impulse to hold Hollywood to a high standard of Asian representation — higher than those who might point to “Crazy Rich Asians” as a hallmark of diversity.
“We just need Hollywood to show that we are more than just crazy rich,” she explained. “And it’s disheartening to see no representation of the Asian Americans that contribute to American society — to technology, science, fashion, social media. Everything.”
In addition to increasing representation in Hollywood, Mai Jenkins also emphasized that change requires an everyday commitment on the individual level.
“What about your everyday mindset? What kind of language are you using that’s most positive and progressive towards stopping anti-Asian hate?” she asked. “How are you having these discussions with your younger generation in your family to your older generation, which may be different? How are you also standing in solidarity for our Black brothers and sisters until they get their due justice? It’s no longer enough to say I'm not racist, no longer enough to say I'm not racist. We need to be anti-racist.”