Why Michelle Yeoh’s “silence” at the Golden Globes was profound for Asian women

Caroline Jeon said she was pleasantly shocked on Tuesday when Michelle Yeoh came home Golden Globe Award For Best Actress, Exodus ordered the music to stop playing after she interrupted her speech.

“Shut up please. I can beat you up, okay? And I’m serious,” Yoh laughed, before continuing.

Jeon, a 26-year-old Korean-American resident of New York City, said she’s used to seeing “old white actors” defiantly run out on stage. It was a refreshing Yeoh moment for Jeon, an assertively self-proclaimed Asian American woman.

“For her to be so confident but also playful about it… It’s reassuring, encouraging, and mostly affirming for me to see,” Jeon said.

Host Jerrod Carmichael explained during the ceremony that the exit music came from a pre-recorded track, not from live pianist Chloe Flowers, who had performed TV and movie songs as the show moved into commercial breaks.

The moment spread instantly. And for Asian women, who are dealing with historical pressures from within and outside society to make themselves small, Yeoh’s cynicism had a deeper meaning.

“We’ve seen Michelle Yeoh take up space and insist on using her voice,” said Kathryn Ceniza Choi, author of A History of the Asian USA. “We have to live with these stereotypes and expectations of being sober and rambunctious in everyday life. So watching that on such a big stage for something like the Golden Globes was profound.”

Nadia Kim, a professor of sociology, Asians, and Asians, said Yeoh — who during her interview spoke about the racism she witnessed in her early days in Hollywood, as well as the diminished opportunities for aging actresses — represents Asian women across the spectrum of personalities. American Studies at Loyola Marymount University. Using humor, she appealed to those who are more conservative by showing elegance, Kim said. At the same time, she represented other Asian women who had to speak out.

For example, Jeon said she was often reminded by loved ones to tone down her personality in places within the Asian American community. And in professional networking situations that are dominated by white peers, she said she understands the judgment she might get as “the loud Asian girl.” But Yeoh seems to be deftly moving through the world.

“Even though she has this fiery side… her side that we’ve seen in movies and also in cases like this, she still has the quiet regal elegance,” said Jeon. “She switches between those two sides of her personality as appropriate to the situation.”

Kim added that the humorous applause is also useful in the context of women of color who are often said to be content and thankful for what they have. Yoh said, she realized what she deserved and didn’t allow it to be stolen from her for the time being.

There’s a trope that people expect “you should be a grateful minority,” especially in a predominantly white world. “At the end of the day, most of the roles go mostly to white actors,” Kim said. “She has been respected throughout her career in which she has been denied opportunities. Indeed, her career has recently exploded into the mainstream of Hollywood. That is something she has admitted.”

Experts added that Yoh’s statement “I can hit you” was less of a physical threat than an uninhibited acknowledgment of her martial arts skills. While many women are taught to underestimate their strength, especially in front of men, Yoh displayed her strength in these five words.

Yeoh’s refusal to come off the stage wasn’t just about making a personal statement herself — she wanted her message to be heard on behalf of the community. By sharing stories about painful brushes with racism in Hollywood like asking if she spoke English, Yeoh was giving audiences a glimpse into the realities of those of the racial group.

“It was a rare moment where they were playing exit music. I think she was acknowledging that, not just for her, but for all the Asian actors and Asian Americans or Asian expatriates,” said Kim, who called Yoh’s speech “very political.” “How many times have we seen an award for a leading actress or actor go to someone who looks like her?”

In fact, Yoh’s last words on stage were a tribute to those of Asian descent.

“This is also for all the shoulders on which I stand, all those who have come before me, those who are like me and all those who go with me on this journey forward,” Yoh said in her speech. “So thank you for trusting us, thank you very much.”

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