The Walking Dead returns this weekend, and to celebrate, Entertainment Weekly has six collectible covers. All of them look great, but one is super special: The Steven Yeun version marks the rare occurrence of a mainstream American national publication featuring an Asian man.
Last spring, we found that of 800 main cast members on 100 network TV shows, just 52 (6%) are of Asian descent. In the fall, despite new network TV shows like Fresh Off The Boat, Dr. Ken, and Quantico, that number was only up by one percent. And although there are cable shows like Walking Dead and Into the Badlands—not to mention Netflix's Master of None—actors of Asian descent are underrepresented in American pop culture.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars since 1929, and only two men of Asian descent have ever been nominated for a Best Actor award (Yul Brenner, of Mongolian and Buryat descent; and Ben Kingsley, whose father is of Gujarati Indian descent). Only six have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor: Sessue Hayakawa, Mako, Pat Morita, Haing S. Ngor, Ben Kingsley, and Ken Watanabe. That's just seven Asian guys up for acting Oscars over a span of 87 years.
Phil Yu, the blogger behind Angry Asian Man, agrees that the cover feels like a milestone. As did EW's 2014 Walking Dead covers: "Although that time," he told me via email, "Glenn shared the cover with his lady love Maggie." But still: "Other than that, off the top of my head, I can't remember an Asian dude on the cover of a mainstream national magazine. Unless we're counting Black Belt."
There have been a smattering of Asian actors on mainstream magazine covers over the years, but it's just a handful of guys… Literally, you could count them on one hand. And part of what makes Yeun's EW cover so awesome is the character he plays. Yu put it this way: "I started reading The Walking Dead comics because someone tipped me off that there was a pretty cool Asian-American character in it. When I heard they were making the show, my first question was, 'Who's playing Glenn?' Steven Yeun is one of four original surviving cast members from season one. Being able to see an Asian-American character grow into a vital, beloved, badass member of the group, on the most popular show on TV? It gives me all the feels. And it's all right there on the cover."
In some ways, though, this victory is bittesweet. As Yu points out:
This is a crazy-ass moment happening on TV right now. In some ways, I've been waiting for these shows my whole life. I wish I'd gotten to see a guy like Glenn on TV while I was growing up. Asian good guys were few and far between. It's just refreshing to see an Asian-American character who is not there to be the martial arts expert or the funny foreign sidekick. Glenn is the heart of The Walking Dead. He's the everyman. He's me.
And shouldn't American entertainment reflect Americans?
Representation matters. It's important for black women to see themselves as objects of beauty on magazine covers, it's vital for Latina women to be cast in roles other than maids, and having a cover devoted to Glenn, the brave, zombie-killing hero, matters.
Plus? It's good for business. Phil Yu added: "I don't usually buy EW. I read it in the waiting room at the doctor's office. But I'd track down this issue at the newsstand."