In her memoir Making a Scene, which is out today, actor Constance Wu details her experiences of workplace harassment and sexism during her time on Fresh Off the Boat—things she hinted at during an appearance last month at the Atlantic Festival. At the event, Wu told the story behind what drove her to write the 2019 tweetstorm that turned the public against her, which eventually led to a suicide attempt. Now, in Making A Scene, Wu dives even deeper into the topic, revealing how the pressure of onscreen Asian American representation was manipulated into a tool of control by those who had power over her.
In the chapter “You Do What I Say,” Wu discusses her many interactions with a senior producer, whom she identifies only as M—, while filming the first season of the show, which range from uncomfortable to downright violating. Since FOTB was her first major television job after years of minor roles in theater and TV, Wu was unfamiliar with many Hollywood norms, including who would handle her business matters, what she should wear, and what promotional work she was contractually obligated to do, which was a weakness that M— took advantage of.
He subjected her to constant sexual harassment: badgering her for “sexy” selfies late at night, pressuring her to attend social events with him, and even touching her inappropriately at a sporting event. When she didn’t act the way he wanted her to, M— would either insult her; subject her to long moments of “punitive silence;” or make off-handed comments that made her feel bad about herself (“No, you know what? It’s good that you have big arms. It means you’re strong. Strong women are great. Good for you”).
But perhaps M—’s most powerful weapon was the pressure of Asian American representation. Because M— was also Asian American, Wu looked up to him for succeeding in an industry that continues to be predominantly white, at all levels. For Wu, M—’s guidance often came off as care, as a resource to a rising actor like her. “When I lost myself, he brought me back down to earth,” she wrote. He “kept me from saying and doing reactive things that would hurt my career. He took time to care for me.” But as time went on, this transformed into unrelenting control that was rife with both racism and sexism.
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During one particular conversation, M— said to Wu, “You know what the best thing about producing this show is? That I can fuck whatever aspiring Asian actress I want to.” Simultaneously making Wu feel grateful that she was the one cast in her role and reminding her that she was easily replaceable because of the scarcity of shows like FOTB, M— left Wu with no other choice than to blindly obey him for fear of the consequences: replacement, or worse. For M—, Asian representation was a burden to hold over actors’ heads, not a source of pride or inspiration.
The strain of perverted representation followed Wu for the entirety of her relationship with the senior producer. On a different occasion, M— tried to force Wu to attend a film festival with him, which Wu wanted to skip due to exhaustion. But M— was relentless:
He lectured me that it was for my own good, that he was only trying to help me, that I was insulting the AAPI community if I didn’t go. That everyone else was going and if I didn’t it would make me look bad. That I was being difficult and it would hurt my career. That he was protecting my reputation and he could easily ruin it.
Wu could sense the multiple standards she was being subjected to: “Privately, I wondered if I were a white actress, would I have been labeled ‘difficult’ for not wanting to attend a film festival during my time off? It’s not like I had a film in the festival.”
In recent interviews and in the book itself, Wu has emphasized her fear of jeopardizing not only FOTB’s reputation, but M—’s as well. He was an Asian American producer who had seemingly made it to the top due to hard work, and Wu was worried about the domino effect of criticizing a fellow Asian American in the industry.
In a particularly heartbreaking reflection towards the end of the chapter, Wu writes:
Was it really ungrateful behavior? Or normal? Or was it only ungrateful in the context of an Asian woman’s rare existence on the playing field? And even if it was the latter, didn’t context matter? If I was so lucky as to be on the playing field, maybe I had to be perfect and gracious… or else they’d never let anyone else on.
The harassment she experienced on FOTB is a painful but necessary story for Wu to share, and much of the rest of the book is playful. But sharing these darker moments feels like part of the process in which she’s liberated herself from the shame that once bogged her down: “I didn’t care how I sounded; I just needed to finally make a sound.”