The character's name was Julie. She was a paleontologist who went to college with Ross, and they reunited while on the trip. She was smart and had funny lines and wore the same cool 90s clothes the other characters wore. She was also of Chinese descent.
All of this is made even more significant when you think about what else was happening on primetime television at the time: Margaret Cho's All-American Girl had just gone off air in March of 1995 after a tumultuous run and what would later be revealed to be a clash between network executives and the creative vision of the show. All-American Girl was not a perfect show, but it also was never given the chance to be what it could have been. Looking back to All-American Girl, you can't help but conclude that people weren't ready to see an Asian lead in primetime, let alone a whole family in a sitcom.
Two months after the last episode of All-American Girl aired on ABC, Julie showed up on Friends, and was given a small recurring role through the rest of the year.
All of those attributes, of course, are another type of "Asian stereotype" (the nice, quiet "model minority"), but in the context of seeing that kind of character on Friends played by a Chinese-American actress was an important moment. From her character's backstory and role, you can see that the show-runners didn't set out to write a storyline about "Ross' Asian girlfriend." They wrote a storyline about yet another roadblock to Ross and Rachel's relationship; the woman they cast in the role just happened to be Asian, but they never made her character about her ethnicity. (The most was the first moments of Julie's on-screen appearance when Rachel says loudly to her, "Welcome to our country!" and Julie responds back, as loud, "Thank you! I'm from New York!")
Watching Lauren Tom on Friends for that brief storyline made me think that I could be an actress if I wanted to. It was an ambition that my mom and sister were careful to warn me would be too difficult of a fight--not because they wanted to discourage me, but because they wanted to protect me. Of course, I know now how difficult that is--especially in an industry that doesn't always look ready for diversity. Asian actors and actresses get shut out for lead roles, or they get asked to play caricatures. Or, they don't even get cast in roles "meant" for Asian actors.
I've heard the argument turned around before--that if Asians want to see themselves represented in Hollywood, then more Asians should try to become actors and actresses and writers and directors. But that argument ignores the barriers in the industry that have historically prevented minorities from succeeding and rising into leadership roles where they can effect change. Check out this People Magazine article from 1996 that looked at African-American representation in Hollywood, which observed that only 3.9% of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 5,043 members were black; only 2.3% of the Directors Guild and 2.6% of the Writers Guild membership were black. And African-Americans made up less than 2% of Local 44--a 4,000-member union that included set decorators and property masters.
The article continues:
Within that fraternity, studio executives, producers and superagents make handshake deals on the beach at Malibu or after backyard barbecues in Bel Air. And if blacks are shut out of the socializing, then they're also cut out of the wheeling and dealing that takes place. Such was the case last month at a small dinner party at the Malibu home of record and movie mogul David Geffen. The dozen or so guests who shared caviar, roast duckling and small talk with visiting President Bill Clinton—among them co-DreamWorks SKG founders Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg—were exclusively white, and exclusively male.That was in 1996, nearly two decades ago. And sadly, I don't think much has changed to improve this.
So what is an actor or director or writer of color supposed to do? Push aside their racial identity in order to try to appease industry executives? Take the stereotypical roles written "for them" in hopes it'll lead to something bigger? The blunt truth is that you could be the most talented actor out there, but if a casting director doesn't "see" you for the part, then step back and take a supporting role.
I don't want to generalize here and say that everyone in power in Hollywood is ignoring the obvious lack of diversity in the industry. There are some, like ABC executive Paul Lee and actress Jessica Chastain, who have used their voices and roles to push for change. I think having allies like that are significant for others to realize that Hollywood does in fact have a diversity problem. It's not something that minority actors and actresses are just complaining about because they aren't getting bigger roles; it's something that is real and recognized by a wide range of people.
Diversity is healthy for any business; Hollywood, and the media in general, is no exception. When I think about how influential the media was on my upbringing, I realize that I always searched for a friend on my TV, someone I could relate to and share a common experience with. Someone who didn't find Cantonese "weird" or the Japanese snacks my mom used to pack in my lunch gross. Randall Park said it best in a post he wrote for KoreAm Journal last summer: "People are hungry to see themselves represented on television, and people rightfully want to be represented properly."
There was nobody on TV growing up that I felt was close to representing me, but I so desperately wanted to invest in a character that I could "get." The closest I had was the character of Julie because she reminded me of my older cousins, and I looked up to them. When I saw that character show up on Friends, I rooted for her because I think subconsciously I was rooting for my family. "Look, Mom--she's like us. I can be like her."