Statistically, I’m the least attractive person in the dating scene. Alongside black women, the Asian-American male is considered the most ugly and undesirable person in the room.
“‘Excuse me, do you like Asian men?’ No thank you. I don’t even like Chinese food. It don’t stay with you no time. I don’t eat what I can’t pronounce.’”
“[Every] Asian-American man knows what the dominant culture has to say about us. We count good, we bow well, we are technologically proficient, we’re naturally subordinate, our male anatomy is the size of a thumb drive and we could never in a thousand millenniums be a threat to steal your girl.”
Asian-American men, like me, know the score. That is, we don’t count at all.
Hollywood won’t bank on me. Think: When was the last time you saw an Asian male kiss a non-Asian female in a movie or TV show? Or when was the last time an Asian-American male was the desired person in a romantic comedy? And more specifically, when where they not Kung Fu practitioners or computer geniuses? I can only think of two examples: Steven Yeun as Glenn from The Walking Dead and John Cho as Harold from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. So it takes either a zombie apocalypse or the munchies to see a fully breathing Asian male lead, or a Photoshop campaign #StarringJohnCho for an Asian protagonist with actual thoughts in his head.
It’s so rare to see a three-dimensional Asian male character, with actual hopes and dreams, that Steven Yeun remarks in GQ Magazine:
GQ Magazine: When you look back on your long tenure on The Walking Dead, what makes you proudest?
Steven Yeun: Honestly, the privilege that I had to play an Asian-American character that didn’t have to apologize at all for being Asian, or even acknowledge that he was Asian. Obviously, you’re going to address it. It’s real. It’s a thing. I am Asian, and Glenn is Asian. But I was very honored to be able to play somebody that showed multiple sides, and showed depth, and showed a way to relate to everyone. It was quite an honor, in that regard. This didn’t exist when I was a kid. I didn’t get to see Glenn. I didn’t get to see a fully formed Asian-American person on my television, where you could say, “That dude just belongs here.” Kids, growing up now, can see this show and see a face that they recognize. And go, “Oh my god. That’s my face too.”
Growing up, I never had that, either. I can’t help but think of this scene from the biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, in which Bruce Lee watches the controversial Asian stereotype played by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to a theater filled with derisive laughter. This moment with Bruce Lee is most likely fictional, but the weight of it is not lost on us:
This was a powerful moment for me as a kid, because I grew up with the same sort of mocking laughter, whether it was watching Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with my white neighbors, or being assailed by the Bruce Lee wail in the local grocery store. I knew they were laughing at me, and not with.
“But hey wait!”—I’m told, with fervent knowing, “I know some Asian guys who are hot!” and I’m pointed to an infamous Buzzfeed list that shows “the hottest Asian men who will prove you wrong about Asian men,” with zero irony. Yes, I’ve seen the list. And yes, they’re like I expected: hard-rock glistening abs that are impossible for the working Asian dad, with classically European, chiseled faces and surgically-lifted eyes. More than that, it plays into the same creepy objectification of Asians as sexual play-toys.
Perhaps even worse than the portrayal of Asian men is how they’re not. More often, an acting role becomes “whitewashed” to suit a global audience, or an Anglo-American is the audience-avatar as a safety net for box office returns (remember, the last samurai in The Last Samurai was white).
I know this is a shrill, ill-discussed subject with all kinds of variables, but from the prosthetic slanted eyes in Cloud Atlas to race-bleaching in Ghost in the Shell to the the “Yellow Peril” demonizing of Asian males as evil ninjas and drug dealers in Daredevil and Iron Fist, Asian-Americans—especially males, as females can still literally serve as co-stars—are vastly both mis- and under-represented. We’re used for a footnote joke at the Academy Awards (the same year that there was a campaign called #OscarsSoWhite), an overly loud insane person in raunchy comedies like The Hangover or Saving Silverman, or a “funny foreigners” punchline in the falsely interpreted romantic comedy, 500 Days of Summer.
One of the obvious reasons that Asian-Americans are sidelined in the mainstream is because there’s no money in it. It’s that simple. Freddie Wong, in his parody video of Ghost in the Shell casting Scarlett Johansson, says it best:
“Because, as a studio executive, the immorality of whitewashing a beloved work of Japanese culture is outweighed by my fear that audiences won’t want to watch a movie starring an Asian woman. And I don’t have the balls to take that risk. Besides, whatever political outrage this decision evokes doesn’t materially effect how much money I make.”
In other words, we’re stuck in a Catch-22. There can be no roles for an Asian-American unless it guarantees a profit, but since we’re not portrayed regularly in most media, there’s never a chance for Asian-American leads to draw a profit in the first place. I get the bottom line here, and I’m not so oblivious to consider that investors are all idealistic innovators. The creative risk is too daring. From an executive’s point of view, I can almost painfully understand.
So besides whitewashing an entirely Asian property, the next best thing is to throw in a scrap of representation by using the whole stereotype. Make the Asian guy the smartest or the martial artist, and there’s your token diversity. It’s why major Hollywood blockbusters have now made shoehorned references to China: because they’re a huge source of box office revenue, and a pandering shout-out to China, no matter how forced or unoriginal, will mean more ticket sales. (It’s even going the other way, with Chinese movies like The Great Wall casting a white role to get more sales in America.)
Yet these roles have little nuance and only serve to further someone else’s plot. I’m the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the Magical Negro, rolled into a non-threatening sidekick or the meditative Zen master. I will never be the action star or the romantic lead. God forbid that an Asian-American male would ever win against a non-Asian.
In some cases, Asians have capitalized on their own mockery by making fun of themselves in minstrel-like deprecation. I was surprised to find that the first winner of Last Comic Standing was a Vietnamese-American named Dat Phan, until I saw his routine, which went for the lowest hanging fruit possible. If you can’t beat the laughter, why not become the jester? Even other Asians want in on their own sabotage. Representation for the Asian-American only seems to happen when it aims for the least common denominator.
The cheapest move, of course, is to completely hijack the “exotic quaintness” of Asian culture without going “fully Asian.” Our culture is pillaged to boost a pseudo-masculinity. It’s easy: throw in Chinese tattoos or an Asian-type mysticism, and the non-Asian character instantly gains credibility. You can make up an Asian-sounding name, like “David Wong,” actual name Jason Pargin, a white author at Cracked.com, or Michael Derrick Hudson, a white poet who uses the pen name “Yi-Fen Chou,” and watch the doors open. All the benefits, none of the fuss. Use my name without the actual struggle.
Of course, Asian-Americans are accused of allowing such undercover racism in the mainstream because we’re silent, passive, and obedient. We’re easy targets. We don’t typically march or cause disruption. We’re not socially involved. It’s why a huge clothing company like Abercrombie & Fitch can make shirts with Asian stereotypes like “Two Wongs Can Make It White.” It’s why Stephen Colbert (whom I love, by the way), can get away with non-apologies when he cracks yet another Asian joke. It’s why Ryo Oyamada, a 24 year old Japanese college student, can get run over by a police car in New York, and the officer goes free and no one chants in the streets.
If you replaced the race with any other, the response would be louder, with solidarity on every side. Asian? No one cares. Literally and statistically, no one cares. Worst of all, it appears that Asians don’t care, either. It’s always a surprise when we speak up. You can drag an Asian-American off an airplane, and the most noise you’ll hear from other Asians is that they just don’t want to be seen as noisy and displeasing.
The thing is, there are no shortage of Asian-American men who are physically and intellectually desirable, who could portray themselves as fully living beings with compelling stories and relatable conflicts. Is it possible that the mainstream, for all its talk about diversity, is afraid of encountering a man who is both Asian-American and attractive? Is it simply intolerable to witness an Asian-American switch lanes between the sidekick and the star? Has the Asian-American male been permanently imprinted as comic relief or Karate expert? Is it too culturally explosive to pair an Asian-American male with a non-Asian female? Can we really handle an Asian alpha male who gets the girl at the end? (Much less a non-Asian female lead get an Asian guy at the end?)
I have to admit that some of this is on us. No, I don’t mean that we brought it on ourselves. I would never, ever perpetuate blaming the victim. I mean that we can still fight against the pervasive, seemingly impermeable walls around the identity of the Asian male, by reaching and demanding for more challenging roles in every sphere of media. The shift in perception of the Asian-American male coincides with a shift in self-perception.
Is it also possible to take a creative risk without guarantees? I know today’s market is less likely to pave new ground, with its risk-averse eye on sequels and reboots and recycling the same tale, but I wonder how we can tell new tales without resorting to the cheapest, easiest cliches, without exploiting Asian culture for “mystical credibility” but celebrating its uniqueness with a thoughtful exploration of both its treasures and its trials.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Lewis Tan, the half-Asian-American actor who was rejected for the role of Iron Fist. In a recent interview, he says:
“I’ve turned down a couple roles. My agents will tell you when I first signed with them, I turned down the first three or four things that came up. I’ve just turned down roles that were super-stereotypically Asian that I didn’t feel represented me and I didn’t want to do. Not to necessarily say they’re bad roles, but it just wasn’t me. I’m not going to do this dorky Asian accent and just play someone in the background. That’s not why I’m here to act. I’m here to represent and to make stories that I believe in and to achieve new things in the industry.”
— J.S. Park