Michelle Yeoh: An Example of How Brilliant Women are Overlooked
On Jackie Chan's sexism, 'Everything Everywhere All at Once', and Feminism in cinema
“You get to that stage in your life and your career where you feel: ‘I’m being sort of overlooked here,’ because you are now relegated to these kinds of [minor] roles. The guys seem to be doing it. They’re still like superheroes in their 60s and 70s. Why does a woman not get the opportunity to be that?”
—Michelle Yeoh, in an interview with The Guardian
When I was a kid, a goofy man on TV was doing stunts under the burning sun, climbing buildings, and comically beating up bad guys. Mom pointed to him and said, “You know who that is? That’s Jackie Chan.” Later, I was introduced to Bruce Lee. And Jet Li. And a lot of other Lees. But not once did someone introduce me to the ballet dancing, beauty queen, squash player, swimmer, and one of the greatest martial artist-actresses in the history of cinema, Michelle Yeoh.
Who is Michelle Yeoh?
You might know Michelle Yeoh from her recent martial arts, sci-fi comedy, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Or as Shang-Chi's wise, graceful aunt in Marvel's Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, or as the intimidating mother-in-law in Crazy Rich Asians. But Michelle Yeoh was kicking ass and taking names way before that. In her long career, she has acted with Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, and she is also going to be appearing in James Cameron’s Avatar sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water.
But did you know that her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once that finally brought her the attention and praise that she deserved, almost never happened?
'Everything Everywhere All at Once’ was originally intended for Jackie Chan
The filmmakers of Everything Everywhere All at Once, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert opened up about how the role was originally written for Jackie Chan, and it was only when he was unavailable for filming, that they realised the story would work much better with the wife as the lead. Their original intention was to cast Michelle Yeoh as the main character's wife.
Scheinert said, "We have these very strong moms and grandmoms, and we're also both kind of dopey, gentle guys ourselves. Why on earth didn't we write it this way from the get-go?'"
Yeah, why didn't they? And why didn't the world speak her name sooner? Or as widely as they spoke of her male counterparts? Why did it take so long for us to give her the recognition she deserved?
Why was Michelle Yeoh Overlooked?
One of the reasons is that when men write martial arts movies, they immediately drift towards a male protagonist. A woman is often cast as the damsel in distress. Or when Hollywood writes goofy action hero roles, it often does so for men before it does for women. This led to Michelle being cast as a supporting actress more than she was cast as the lead. This would've been the case with Everything Everywhere All at Once as well, if it wasn't for the unavailability of Jackie Chan for the lead role.
Michelle Credits the Powerful Roles She Received to the Women Involved in Filming
During the beginning of her cinematic career, Michelle was cast as the lead in an action film. She was one of the first women to not play the role of a damsel in distress in a Chinese action-comedy. She credits this change to the film producer’s wife who criticized the filmmakers for bringing someone all the way from abroad and sticking her in the same box as they’ve done with women for so long; she encouraged them to try something different. And so, in Michelle's first film, 1985’s Yes, Madam!, despite being the winner of a beauty contest, she was given the role of a badass fighter cop instead of a helpless, pretty victim.
In James Bond’s Tomorrow Never Dies, she was the first woman to not play the role of a sexualised Bond Girl, but that of a better-than-bond deuteragonist spy, whom the audience felt deserved her own spin-off. She credits this change to one of the major producers of the film, Barbara Broccoli, for why such a powerful, emotionally complex female character in a Bond film was possible.
On Jackie Chan being a “Male Chauvinistic Pig”
Michelle Yeoh is proud to say that she is one of the two women Jackie Chan is afraid of because, according to her, Jackie is a “male chauvinistic pig who believes a woman should stay at home, and cook, and don’t do anything, and be the victim;” And she told him she'd “kick his ass” if he ever said that to her again.
It was a major gut punch to hear that my beloved childhood hero Jackie thought that my place was inside the house, being a silent victim. I used to watch his movies, and the cartoon he inspired, Jackie Chan Adventures. It was the best one on the local cable cartoon channel. I used to imagine myself as Jackie’s young, spirited, trouble-making on-screen niece, Julie. I'd imagine going on adventures with him, beating up weirdly, monstrous bad guys and Shadowkhans to obtain the sacred, powerful magic stones before they could get into the hands of the evil dragon demon, Shendu. Oh, but how Jackie shattered a sweet childhood memory.
But despite his misogyny, Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh have a good friendship rooted in healthy rivalry. In their 1992 action-comedy, Supercop, Michelle Yeoh rode a motorcycle from a valley onto a moving train without wires, jumped from a speeding van onto a moving car's windshield, almost getting killed as she slipped down the side, saved by Jackie's quick thinking to slow her fall, only for her to get back up, and say, "I know what I didn’t do right. Let’s go again now.” She was doing dangerous stunts over dangerous stunts that at one point during filming, Jackie had to say, “Michelle, are you trying to kill me? If you do anything more than that, where am I gonna come from?” And that’s when he did the helicopter stunt.
After the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, Jackie texted Michelle. He said: ‘Wow, I hear amazing things about your movie. Did you know that the boys came to see me in China?’ And Michelle said: ‘Yes, your loss, my bro!’”
Michell Yeoh is Everything Everywhere All at Once
All the years of acting and Martial Arts have culminated into Michelle’s recent film, Everything Everywhere All at Once, a much-needed, heartfelt, action-packed, funny, tearjerker where her full prowess as an actress is unlocked.
One thing that sets Michelle Yeoh apart from her male counterparts in martial arts is that she doesn’t bring a fixed version of herself to a role, like Jackie Chan brings his humor, or like Bruce Lee brings his seriousness.
Michelle Yeoh gives any character a life of its own. She manages to look entirely different from one film to another. If she plays the role of an intimidating mother-in-law, she evokes a sense of aversion, if she plays a hardworking immigrant, she evokes empathy, if she plays a spy, she evokes excitement. She is capable of dominating a scene with her presence, but knows when to give other actors the space to shine next to her. More than a revered martial artist, she is truly a brilliant actress.
Not only is she kind, appreciative, but also critical where needs be. She is never one to shy away from offering her feminist opinions. Usually, when women are involved in a male-dominated field, they tend to downplay the importance of their presence there, or the sexism they face there, but Michelle calls it out without hesitation. She is never one to shy away from insisting what a powerful female character means for all of womankind or how a famous, beloved, martial arts hero is actually a “male chauvinistic pig.”
When the time comes you want to teach your children about a martial arts action hero, don't forget to teach them about Michelle Yeoh. The super fucking talented, witty, fearless, sexy, powerful Michelle Yeoh. She is Everything Everywhere All at Once.