Revisiting Concepts of Asian Male Stereotypes
of Late 20th and Early 21st Century U.S. American Film
and its Effects on Contemporary Asian American Experiences
“You know what I want to think of myself? As a human being. Because, I mean, I don’t want to sound like as Confucius says, but under the sky, under the heavens there is but one family. It just so happens that people are different.”
– Bruce Lee when asked by Pierre Berton, whether he identified as Chinese or American. The Pierre Berton Show, December 9, 1971.
The pervasiveness of a system of racial ideology and stereotypes appears to be a prevailing aspect in US-American popular culture. The ways in which stereotypes of people of colour were and are still represented in media have sparked numerous sociological research and cultural debates on the life experiences of minority groups since the awareness for these minorities have grown, thanks to the strides made possible by the new social sciences and gender studies of the last decades. As part of one of the fastest growing demographics in America, interest towards the Asian American life experience has grown alongside it. In American popular culture, the image of Asian Americans is often misrepresented, limited, demeaning and weakened. One type of media that has notoriously been representative of racial misrepresentations of people of colour is the film industry. As an effective venue of propagating and reinforcing images of ethnic minorities, film has been at the forefront in shaping racist stereotypes within US culture. The power and ability to create, shape, assign, reflect and reinforce these racial ‘characteristics’ and ‘differences’ directly impacts how US society interacts with its members. Although film is not inherently biased, it does mirror choices made by the people that are involved in film production, because to emphasize and caricaturize differences between non-Asians and Asians only serves to fuel discrimination and prejudice. Therefore, it is only suitable to examine in which ways the American film landscape treated stereotypes of Asian Americans and how the unique portrayal of Asian American males in US-American film of the late 20th and early 21st century has shaped Asian American males’ life experiences over the last years. However, it shall be stressed, that although the focus of this paper lies on the male Asian American portrayal in film and the male Asian American experience, the author and this paper do not aim to deny, nor denigrate the female Asian American portrayal in film and the female Asian American experience. Second, this paperwill revisit historical representations of Asians in film in its socio-cultural context and examine how these have evolved into contemporary portrayals of Asian American males, through the reflection on chosen examples of films over the last twenty years. Whenever possible, internet links to the scenes of the mentioned examples will be provided in the bibliography. These scenes are covered under the fair-use act and do not infringe upon standing copyright of the creators under the circumstances of this non-profit educational paper. In a final step, I will reflect on how the role of film has shaped and affected the Asian American male experience in particular.
2. Defining Asian Americans
In order to further discuss the specific Asian American male demographic in this paper, it is important to discuss what will be referred to as ‘Asian American’ in this context. Foremost, ‘Asian’ is a broad generalization, that has been used to encompass a great number of nationalities and ethnicities throughout the continent of Asia. Therefore, the umbrella term ‘Asian’ may be regarded as politically incorrect and offensive. According to the United Nations 2017 Revision of World Population Prospects, it is estimated that over 65% of the world population of 7.5 billion people live on the Asian continent over 44.5 million square kilometres, almost double the size of North America alone at 24.7 square kilometres (United Nations 2017). In addition, the US Census Bureau classifies race and ethnicities according to standards set forth by the1997 Office of Management and Budget and defines ‘Asian’ as follows: “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam” (US Census Bureau). The Western-centric usage of the term ‘Far East’, further emphasizes the subjective umbrella term of being called Asian in America. In the late 1950s and 60s, Yuji Ichioka, historian and civil rights activist and one of the fathers of modern Asian American Studies, coined the term ‘Asian American’ to actively disparage racial slurs and empower the Asian demographic in the US (Kang), who were previous called ‘Oriental’ or ‘Asiatic’.
The definition of ‘Asian American’ in contemporary US culture has since widened and recognized the improper usage to categorize pan-Asian ethnicities, both by scholars in academic discourse and non-Asian Americans in popular culture. Interestingly, second generation Asian Americans, that is to define any and all descendants of first generation immigrants born outside of the US nor to parents of US citizenship, display a degree of hesitance to refer to themselves as ‘Asian’ or ‘Asian American’ and much rather prefer to emphasize their specific national or ethnic origin, such as Korean American, Chinese American, Vietnamese American and so forth (Lee and Zhou 12). Although the term ‘Asian American’ is used inclusively, there is an obvious need in US culture to distinguish these groups of origin further and emphasize the broad differences among Asian nationalities and ethnicities. The tendency to form personal identity through the reference and conformity to the sub-cultures of Asian Americans’ origins, however, is not unique to Asian Americans, which can also be observed among Italian Americans or Irish Americans. Nonetheless, what stands out is a clear distinction in the introduction of Asian Americans in media, who are often referred to as ‘…Korean American actor’ or ‘…Chinese American actress’. This distinction is not used to introduce White actresses and actors, which implies a degree of ‘foreignness’. This distinction has deeply embedded its roots in US culture. It is therefore necessary to revisit the historical representation of Asians in US film within its historical context.
3. Representation of Asians in Film in its Historical Context
The history of the portrayal of Asians or Asian characters in US film may be referred to, to put it mildly, as troublesome. For a very long time, racist images of yellow face, the buck teethed, glasses wearing caricature, have prevailed in early 20th century American film, which transformed to the ‘martial arts craze’ of the late 60s and 70s. In order to understand the distinct styles of portrayals of Asians and Asian characters in American film, it is just as important to gain insight into the political and sociocultural context at its time of conception and usage. The image of the Asian as exotic and foreign, much as Orientalism, has its roots in the colonial struggle for dominance by Western powers. The opening of Asian ports led to several publications in America, notably Madame Butterfly of 1898 by American author John Luther Long, in which a young Japanese woman converts to Christianity in order to marry an American sailor. In this case, hyper-sexualization of the Asian female, as ‘petite’, ‘graceful’ and ‘sexually open’ and the dominance of White Christianity sparked interest in American readership. Beginning with the California Gold Rush of the 19th century, Chinese non-professionals migrated to the US in increasingly larger numbers around the 1850s to find work in menial labour or gold mines. Around this time, Chinese male labour also provided most of the work force in the construction of the American railroad system until its completion in the late 1860s (Chang 34ff). Resentment and racial tensions between White Americans and Chinese immigrants grew when economic competition and cultural tensions grew, which culminated in a series of laws restricting immigration of people of Chinese origin. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 signed by then President Chester A. Arthur specifically prohibited the immigration of unskilled Chinese labourers (Chinese Exclusion Act). The Chinese men in America, now separated from their families who were planning to join them, were now forced to opt for work that was considered feminine, such as cooks in restaurants or laundry work, settling in their own neighbourhoods. Additional Anti-Chinese laws, such as requiring special licenses to open businesses in the US, that discriminated the Chinese work force even further, led the remaining Chinese to live a timid ‘under-the-radar’ life. As political tensions grew in early 20th century, leading up to the Second World War, Asians and especially the Japanese in America became a target for discrimination. Anti-Japanese wartime propaganda depicted the villainous, devious, conical hat-wearing, yellow, buck-teethed and slanted-eyed ‘Jap’ as a threat to American democracy and freedom, thereby creating the infamous caricature that has prevailed until today. In an attempt to consolidate a strong relationship to US ally China, one of the most ridiculous examples of racial discrimination of the time is Life magazines article on ‘How to tell Japs from the Chinese’, seemingly demonstrating a phenotypical difference between the two nationalities (Life Magazine). This xenophobic rhetoric borrowed elements of racist sentiment of Western Imperialism of the 18th and 19th century that conflated into the term ‘yellow peril’, the fear of an Asian, foreign and yellow mass of lesser men that would conquer the world, if not checked by White supremacy (Dower 283f).
This explains the different depictions of Asian characters in American film of the early 20th century to a certain degree. Charlie Chan, a fictional detective character in a series of films produced throughout the 1920s and 30s, conceived as a timid, emasculated, unassertive and apologetic Asian man is displayed as non-threatening to American audiences. Although demonstrating intellect and ability, Chan does not represent the more masculine traits of dominance, assertiveness and charisma of White fictional detectives of the time (Kim 179) and therefore attributing the character a distinct asexuality. Instead, Charlie Chan serves to prove himself only by appeasing his White superiors (Ibid). In stark contrast to Charlie Chan, the character of Doctor Fu Manchu, originally created in British literature and then adopted to the screen, depicts the evil criminal mastermind, reinforcing the notions of yellow peril. As the mysterious and foreign villain, sporting the iconic style of moustache (see Addendum 1), the character calls for the destruction of the White man and rape of White women (Newman, 131f). In one of the most iconic films of US popular culture, 1961s Breakfast at Tiffany’s displayed one of the most egregious uses of yellowface. Yellowface is the deliberate practice of using makeup to overly exaggerate stereotypes of phenotypical Asian features on dominantly White actors and actresses, as well as the use of accents attributed to people of Asian origin. The use of yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Mickey Rooney (see Addendum 2) seems to be expressively over exaggerated, touching into comical region. However, its offensive nature in caricaturing real people further strained the relationship between Japanese Americans and non-Japanese Americans in the post-war time period by reinforcing Anti-Japanese wartime propaganda (Koch), instead of bridging the divide, especially when regarded in the socio-cultural context of the treatment of Japanese Americans in American detainment camps. In an attempt to establish existing movie stars of the time, prominent actors, such as John Wayne have also been subject to a range of films that conform to the practice of ‘whitewashing’, which is the attempt to make ethnic characters more appealing to a dominantly White audience by casting White or less ethnic looking actors and actresses in ethnic roles. In the 1956 film Genghis Khan, infamous Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan is played by none other than distinctively known tough American actor John Wayne (see Addendum 3). The acceptance of other portrayals of Asians in American film became recognized along the rise of martial arts films of the 1960s and 1970s.
Most notably, Bruce Lee transformed the cinematic landscape and conceptions of what Asian masculinity looked like in his role as Kato in the TV-show The Green Hornet (1966-1967). Lee’s role created a new type of Asian man: the Asian male martial artist, donning peak physical performance and mastery of hand to hand combat. Lee’s breakthrough role in Enter The Dragon in 1973 paved the path for a new generation of Asian actors, finding new recognition as a strong and sexy character in American viewership. But, just as Bruce Lee opened many doors for Asian and Asian American generations to come, many doors were closed as well as the one thing, that the film industry resents is risk. In the following chapter, I will demonstrate, that the historical portrayal of Asian characters in the past has either prevailed in many instances of contemporary American film or transformed into new characterisations, that nonetheless play on the same racist notions of how the American film industry views Asian Americans.
4. Contemporary Cinema
One of the risk-aversion techniques employed by the film industry is the practice of typecasting actors and actresses in general and coupling Asian American Actors exclusively with stereotypes. Over the course of the last decades, several distinct types have materialized, that allowed the American film industry to effectively marginalize Asian American actors on the big screen. By providing a selection of films to underline my argument, I will also examine how and in which way these types play on existing racist stereotypes. Namely, these types are (I) the Martial Artist, (II) The Nerd, (III) The Foreigner and sub-type (IV) The Emasculated
The Martial Artist: This type of character is an ambiguous concept, in the way that it personifies an overt masculine character. By pushing the boundaries of what Asian actors are capable of both physically and technically, Bruce Lee, technically Lee Jun Fan, his original Cantonese name, paved the way for Asian male martial artist actors to be regarded as sexy and strong. At the height of his career just before his death in 1973, Lee’s charisma and physical skill, albeit smaller than his non-Asian counterparts, led him to overcome his opponents in films such as Fist of Fury (1972), Return of the Dragon (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973). A cult following has since been established in American pop culture that supported not only future generations of Asian and Asian American martial artists, but also covertly underlined the appeal of the character: the Martial Artist is appealing, but different enough to be seen as the foreigner, incapable of assimilating and adapting American culture and displaying a distinct foreign accent when speaking English. Although born in the US, Lee spent his childhood in Hong Kong. In an interview on the talk show The Pierre Burton Show, the host Pierre Burton asks Lee whether he identified as Chinese or American (see epigraph), Lee simply answers to be recognized as a human being, consciously transcending the system of racial breath that permeates US culture. The trope of the foreign Martial Artist directly influenced actors such as Jacky Chan, Jet Li or Donnie Yen, all highly accomplished Asian actors in the US film market. In the case of Jacky Chan’s successful Rush Hour series (1998, 2001, 2007) and Shang-High Noon (2000), propelled the actor with his skill as a martial artist, but also his slapstick comedy, playing the naïve foreigner, paired alongside the better-knowing, but crude American friend, who introduces the characters of Chan to the American way of lif
The Nerd: The Nerd, after the Martial Artist, is one of the most widely recognized characterisations of Asian American actors in film. The Nerd is a mathematical genius and a tech wizard. He is shy, geeky, awkward (especially in the presence of women) and often wears glasses to symbolize his intelligence. His entire persona revolves around the idea of the so-called Model Minority Myth. Coined in an article of the New York Times in 1966: Success Story: Japanese American Style. According to the University of Texas at Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center the stereotypes of Asian Americans as a Model Minority are perceived by non-Asian Americans as high-achieving, smarter than average and displaying a higher degree of socio-economic success (UTA CMHC). At firstglance, this sort of stereotype does not seem to negatively impact life experiences. However, this sort of cultural stigma lends other ethnic groups to exhibit feelings of resentment, which are not perceived as highly regarded as the Asian community, such as the Hispanic-American or African-American communities. While reinforcing the idea and accentuating the seeming differences between the groups, it only serves to widen the gap between the role of class, race and ethnicity in the discourse of US culture (Poon 479ff). Additionally, many second-generation Asian Americans exhibit passive acceptance to a socialized pressure from within the family sphere as well as the public sphere to conform to model minority myth. It also degrades and homogenizes the diverse life experiences made by young Asian Americans (UTA CMHC). A poignant example of the Nerd perpetuated in American film can be found in The Big Short (2015), in which the global financial and banking crisis of 2007 was picturized. In one scene, Jared Vannett, played by Ryan Gosling, a banker for Deutsche Bank, attempts to convince his peers of his predictions for the financial market:
“Look at my quant. He is my quantitative. My math specialist. Look at him! You notice anything different about him? Look at his face, his eyes! I’ll give you a hint. His name is Jiang. He won a national math competition in China. He doesn’t even speak English. Yeah, I’m sure of the math.”
Jiang, thus far remaining silent and only adjusting his glasses, then turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and addresses the audience directly:
“Actually, my name is Jeong. I do speak English. Jared likes to say it though, because he thinks it makes me seem more authentic. And I got second in the national math competition” (The Big Short That’s My Quant).
Just as Jiang/Jeong passively accepted Jared’s stereotypical characterization, the audience may also passively accept this example of the model minority myth
The Foreigner: The Foreigner is a persona that permeates several other types but may also stand on its own. This representation of Asian Americans embodies the submissive immigrant, the small and inferior, the subordinate, the non-confrontational, aspects that Charlie Chan already established in the 1920s and 30s. In contrast, this characterization is often ascribed to Asian American neighbours, the grocery and convenience store clerk, the nail salon worker or dry cleaner, who barely speaks any English, if at all, and when he or she does, it is often broken or heavily accented, further reinforcing the sentiment of the invisible, passive bystander, the perpetual foreigner, never able to assimilate to US culture. In the film American Psycho (2000), Christian Bale portrays the role of egomaniacal, self-absorbed, yuppie-banker at day and psychotic serial killer at night, Patrick Bateman. After a particularly bloody night, he curses out the Asian dry-cleaner store owners, who were unable to remove the ‘Cran-Apple-Juice’-stained bed sheets. While the Asian woman only speaks Chinese, she is drowned out by Bateman’s rant, while her Asian husband calmly inspects the sheets, disinterested in how Bateman aggressively abuses his wife:
“Bleaching? Are you trying to say bleaching? Hahaha, oh my god. Two things: You can’t bleach a Cerruti. Out of the question. TWO. I can only get these sheets in Santa Fe, they are very expensive sheets […] hahaha, if you don’t shut your fucking mouth, I will kill you. Now listen, I have a lunch meeting in twenty minutes […] I need those sheets cleaned by this afternoon. Listen, hahaha, I cannot understand you. This is crazy, you are a fool. I cannot cope WITH THIS STUPID BITCHING” (American Psycho CranApple Stains).
In this case, the language barrier cannot be crossed between the two characters, as Bateman abuses the Asian woman with his use of language and stature. The Asian male character is reduced to ridicule, as he is seemingly disinterested, even when Bateman threatens to kill his wife. The situation is then only defused by the introduction of another White character.
The Emasculated: Like the Foreigner, the Emasculated may be defined as a sub-type of other more distinct personas. Part of this persona experiences a unique emasculation of its character. He is not the romantic lead and is constructed to be undesirable. Stereotypes of Asians as being portrayed as feminine, lacking the physical appearance, such as height or penis size and charisma to attract the romantic interest of female co-characters. This stereotype can be linked to a study at the University of Washington, which found that East Asians are perceive as being less masculine than White or Black American males (Wilkins, Kaiser and Chan 427-431). The stereotypes of the asexual Asian in film and film making can be traced to the reimagination of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love story in Romeo Must Die (2000), starring Asian actor Jet Li and Black singer Aaliyah. Throughout the film it is clear, that there is a physical and emotional attraction between the two characters. However, in the final scene, both share an intimate moment, in which the character of Aaliyah gently caresses the hands and face of Jet Li’s character. The cinematography suggests an upcoming romantic kissing scene. However, both simply hug, while Jet Li’s character stares into the distance. Both walk away from the camera holding their hands (Romeo Must Die Final Scene). Years after the release of the film, rumours of an alternate endingwere confirmed, in which both characters do share a kiss, but tested negative in pre-screenings of the film (Vargas). It seems that American audiences do not accept portrayals of Asian men in a sexual manner (Chiung 60f).
The practice of whitewashing, as introduced in Chapter 2 Representation of Asians in Film in its Historical Context, is another type of risk-aversion techniques employed by the American film industry. It is the practice of consciously replacing Asian characters with White leads, often actors and actresses with greater track records, in films that portray an Asian thematic setting. In the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film and Television, Japanese American actor Mako Iwamatsu recalls a meeting with one of the executives of Warner Brothers and its Vice President replying about the choice to cast David Carradine to play a Chinese character in the television series Kung Fu (1972-1975) (see Addendum 4): “If we put a yellow man on the tube, that audience would turn the switch off in less than five minutes” (Adachi). While whitewashing has not fallen out of fashion, the reasons behind remain the same. Industry executives and producers perceive a greater risk in casting lesser-known Asian actors and actresses, instead relying on popular White actors and actresses to carry the film to box office success. But how can Asian actors and actresses establish a track record, if they are not cast in the first place? This inherently racist and discriminatory practice becomes even more tragic, when it has been established time after time, that White actors and actresses do not automatically guarantee financial success in the US, seen in movies such as The Last Airbender (2010), an all-White cast in the big-screen production of one of the most iconic animated cartoon series: $131 Mio. Domestic Gross against $150 Mio. Budget. The reboot of Power Rangers (2017) replaced the traditionally Asian American character with Elizabeth Banks: $ 85 Mio. Domestic Gross against $100 Mio. Budget. Keanu Reeves plays one of the 47 Ronin (2013), a Western retelling of the 1962 film version of renowned director Hiroshi Inagaki: $38 Mio. Domestic Gross against $175 Mio. Budget. (Box Office Mojo). Films that borrow from the trope of the White lead character finding enlightenment in the exotic and serene environment of Asia nevertheless found massive success in sales: films such as The Last Samurai (2003) starring Tom Cruise, Seven Years in Tibet (1997) starring Brad Pitt and Doctor Strange (2016) starring Benedict Cumberbatch demonstrate the appropriation of the exotic ‘Asian-ness’ paired with a White lead in a humbling of the exotic ‘Asian-ness’ paired with a White lead in a humbling experience can nevertheless generate enormous amounts of ticket sales. The scarcity of Asian American male actors, especially in lead roles, reveals the underlying problem with the American film industry: The (un)willingness to accurately portray Asian American issues and the overreliance on stereotypical typecasting and whitewashing is a result of discriminatory and racial bias produced, perpetuated and ingrained in US culture. The question that arises is how this cycle has affected the life experiences of contemporary Asian American males in the US.
5. The Effect on the Asian American Life Experience
The lack of representation of Asian Americans has lend growth to a greater awareness of Asian American issues and life experience, especially by Asian American advocates. Although Asian Americans comprise over five percent of the American demographic and is one of the fastest growing (US Census Bureau), less than 4 percent of speaking characters in 700 popular films were made up by Asians, according to a study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative (USC). A study at the University of California, Los Angeles found that in television, only 2.6% of actors and actresses were Asian (AAJC). This vacuum of diversity has also been picked up by book publishers, such as Lee & Low Books, who in 2014 published numbers on the real diversity of American film. Out of the top 100 best-selling Sci-Fi and Fantasy films only 8 had a protagonists of colour (Low). The peripheralization of Asian minorities in American film contributes to a growing invisibility of Asian Americans. Youth culture, which is especially impressionable by mainstream media are denied factual and accurate representations of Asian Americans, while White, Black and Hispanic youths do not (Lee and Zhou 19), which can lead to racial tensions between the groups. Scholarly research has begun to acknowledge the rising tensions and tried to pinpoint the underlying issues that Asian Americans face today. Researchers at Columbia University identified so-called Racial Microaggressions that shaped the Asian American experience. According to the study, Asian Americans often feel unwelcome in America, are subjected to the model minority stereotype, are denied the experience of racism (in contrast to members of the Black community), are denied ethno-geographical differentiation, feel like second-class citizens and invisible in America (Sue et al. 75-77). This experience creates resentment and tension within and from other minority groups towards Asian Americans. An experiment conducted at the University of Toronto found that East Asians who did not conform to common stereotypes were subject to negative reactions and harassment from people of other races (UoT). To deny Asian Americans the experience as minorities may negatively affect the ability and possibility to challenge and critique covert racist discrimination based on stereotypes. Herein lies the issue in which film as a media negatively reinforces inaccurate and false representations of Asian Americans. The distorted lens through which film strategically deploys a complex range of Asian American stereotypes unto the American viewership does only care for quick and satisfying feedback loops, instead of purposefully engaging the viewers with original thought. What remains through shallow and rapid bombardment of our auditory and visual senses is only the repeated and reinforced collective imprint of misconstrued representations of Asian Americans. If the images projected in everyday life are only negative, it is no wonder, that negative stereotypes have prevailed in US culture for such a long time.
The denial of any tangible masculinity of Asian American males in the context of sexual desirability has been introduced prior to this chapter. Interestingly, there is a direct link in American dating and marriage statistics. They indicate that Asian American males are far less desirable than their White, Black or Hispanic counterparts by women. Statistics published by the online-dating platform OKCupid (2014) indicate, that over the span of 2009 to 2014 Asian men have been consistently rated from eleven to sixteen percent less desirable by all groups of women. A research paper by Anderson et al published in the Sociological Science magazine in 2014 hereby examined political ideology and racial preferences and found, that although conservatives were more open in revealing racial preferences, liberals and moderates exhibit the same kind of actual racial preference in dating (Anderson et al). A quick search in the blogosphere has also revealed issues brought fourth by Asian males in dating and there seems to be an agreed upon acceptance on how the standards of perceived and construction attractiveness has been skewed in favour of non-Asian males.
A form of passive acceptance has developed in Asian American males over the last decades. Eliot Chang, a comedian and advocate for Asian American issues, condensed a series of talks at American universities, how the media portrays Asians and how Asian Americans passively accept that portrayal: a) Asian Americans tend to laugh at stereotypical jokes directed at themselves, because they are used to it; b) Asians are only accepted, when they have assimilated to another subculture, denying their own cultural heritage; c) being ‘Asian’ does not elicit enough interest in US culture, therefore there is a high number of young Asian Americans who distance themselves from their origins; d) because non-Asians will first and foremost identify Asian Americans as Asians first, Americans second, it would be a mistake to deny the personal cultural heritage (Chang). Other actors and directors have gone the route of comedically making fun of their own origins to satirically emphasize the ridiculousness of Asian stereotypes in film. Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), starring John Cho and Kumar Patel in lead roles, contains a scene, in which the worried parents of both protagonists are interrogated by an incompetent Government agent and his translator:
Agent to Translator: “Ask the Lees what they know about their son’s terrorist activity!”
Translator: *speaks unintelligible fake Korean*
Father Lee in a perfect American accent: “Look. We have been American citizens for over 40 years. Now, frankly, I find this very offensive!”
Translator to Agent: “They are using some sort of dialect I have never heard before. But I’m pretty sure he said something about going on the offensive.” (Harold&Kumar 2)
Although the mockery and portrayal of Asian Americans in Harold and Kumar are overtly comedic in nature and caricaturized, people affected by Asian American issues have to ask the question: Does this portrayal positively or negatively impact the advocacy for Asian American issues in contemporary US culture? Is the intention of the film’s portrayal of Asian Americans clear to any audience member regardless of social background? Or does it perpetuate negative stereotypes, which is only made clear to people who are aware of these issues? Recent cases in the film and television industry have also re-sparked discussions between Asian and Black communities. Steve Harvey, popular TV-show gaming host and Chris Rock, popular comedian both publicly made racist jokes involving and on behalf of Asian Americans (CNN). The discourse that arose quickly died down, without either of them apologizing for the incidents. Clearly directed at a model minority, the jokes were supposed to be taken in jest. Nonetheless, these incidents overshadow the historical and contemporary tension between Black and Asian communities as well as non-Asian and Asian communities. The dissatisfaction felt throughout Asian communities may stem from a normalization of reductive thinking and argumentation in US cultural discourse.
Considering the ways in which Asians have been portrayed in American film throughout the 20th century and the transformation these portrayals have underwent, the prevalence of underlying racist and discriminatory stereotypes still forms the basis of contemporary representations of Asians in American film. Generations of Asian Americans are subjected to a racially charged and inaccurate portrayal under a homogenizing umbrella that needlessly voids any and all distinction between hugely diverse ethnic communities. If American cultural discourse allows for a free and deliberate representation without ascribed restrictions on how Asian Americans are supposed to operate in, maybe then will the Foreigner, the Emasculated, the Nerd truly die out and give way to healing the divide between the communities. Likewise, to empower Asian Americans must first mean to educate the American audience in ways which are both relatable and engaging. Fortunately, film series such as The Fast and The Furious under Asian American director Justin Lin or last year’s Crazy Rich Asians by Jon Chu have made great strides in putting Asians unto the big screen in America while also generating enormous amounts of profit for its executives. This trend can also be observed in the recognition and success of other films which chose to emphasize a diverse cast of people of colour. And the times are changing quickly. Over the last three years, films depicting the issues of people of colour life experiences and marginalized minority groups have either won or been nominated in categories for the Academy Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes. The examples given naturally cannot encompass the diversity and complexity of modern film making, nor does it aim to. But they do seem to at least suggest a crack in the perpetual cycle, in which the possibility of acculturation, acceptance and celebration of diversity becomes the cultural norm, instead of overtly and covertly accentuating the differences, of which there are so few.
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