Ugly Asian Male: On Being the Least Attractive Guy in the Room



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.

Take it from Steve Harvey, who won’t eat what he can’t pronounce:

“‘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.’”

Eddie Huang, creator of the groundbreaking Asian-American sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, responded to Steve Harvey in The New York Times:

“[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 happens 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

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18 thoughts on “Ugly Asian Male: On Being the Least Attractive Guy in the Room

    1. “When was the last time you saw an Asian male kiss a non-Asian female in a movie or TV show? ”

      Spoiler alert:
      My first thought is of the end of the movie “The Replacement Killers.” I wanted the two characters, John Lee & Met Coburn, to kiss soo badly. They seemed to have such chemistry. But that doesn’t answer your question.

      The last time I recall an actual romantic relationship like you describe was in the series “Rising Son.” (early 199 0s, I think). Russel Wong’s character had a long-term relationship with a fellow musician who was Caucasian (Keri Russell, I think). Of course, they were both extraordinarily gorgeous. Anyway, they did more than kiss on screen (**fans self**). It was a good series, IMO, about two Chinese immigrants (brothers) trying to find a life and love, and overcome the contention in their relationship to each other.

      The first Asian-American performer who I recall noticing was George Takei as Sulu on classic Star Trek. I can’t forgot his performance in “The Naked Time.”

      I hope things change. Soon. And I’m sorry that you’re between cultures. God bless you, brother.

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      1. Thank you, Jen. George Takei was fantastic as Sulu. I also wish Russell Wong had become more of a star, I really thought he could’ve been an A-lister, but maybe the world wasn’t ready for that.

        Interestingly enough, of all the romantic Disney animated films produced, the only one that hasn’t featured a kiss between the “prince” and “princess” characters is Mulan. But again, I guess American audiences weren’t ready for two Asians kissing in a Disney film (though the premise of the film itself is far more progressive than the expected outcome of two co-leads kissing).

        I’m sure there are examples to counter the whole kissing thing (as many have pointed out through my inbox), but they’re definitely the exception. I guess the main point being: there’s a de-sexualization of Asian-American men, for whatever reason, and I highly doubt that’s going to change any time soon. While I don’t think simply adding sexualization will fix the void of Asian-American depth in Hollywood, I guess the overarching hope is that Asians are more “normalized” as real people who have emotional interests.

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        1. I read through and it was an informative article. Being Asian myself I can definitely see the transparent issues of stereotyping in American media and entertainment. However, this is not some new phenomenon that only happens here. Every culture/civilization has a homogenous majority and that’s what will drive financial decisions which will ultimately effect creativity of the work if it is meant for commercial consumption.

          China, South Korea, Japan, India, etc…. makes it explicitly hard to impossible to be cast in a role if you are not with the ethnic or caste majority. If you are an immigrant/foreigner or appear as an ethnic minority you will also be typecasted as no more than a “token” persona. In most cases audience just cannot relate or overcome the race hurdle unless the role is clever or the actor is exceptional, which lets face it… is incredibly rare in commercial blockbusters or “hit” tv shows.

          So enough about the problems, trials and tribulations. Let’s talk about the progress to a solution too see more representation. It was mentioned briefly that the China is the second largest entertainment consumers in the world. That says something loudly to media and entertainment executives around the world. Hell, even creatives are salivating over the opportunity to receive foreign capital to fund their projects beyond the typical monopoly of Hollywood studios.

          Money talks… African Americans make up only 13% of the population yet they are near equally represented to whites in lead roles. Further, they dominate the American music industry in terms of talent and production. This is emergence of black media and entertainment is not only due to Protesting about inequality and misrepresentation in the industry but by investment in this market. Production companies funded by African Americans and other like minded investors to create African American media and entertainment companies. Building a niche market to produce content suitable for their audiences which eventually bleeds into the mainstream and becomes mainstream.

          The rise of China as an economic superpower has granted an opportunity for east Asian media and entertainment to extend out and have a hand in what mainstream Hollywood creates commercially for not only Chinese audiences but also for American audiences. It’s a two way street or a double edged sword when you invite these partnerships. Through sheer economic force, American media will have to reflect on its portrayal of Asian stereotypes and typecasting if they want to not just Appeal to foreign audiences but accept Financing from their government.. (all media companies in china are state run, they just don’t say it out loud).

          I think morality and ethics need to be ignored here. It’s money that runs the world. What we see and how we are told to feel and react is driven by economics not social justice.

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      1. I’ve been concerned with lack of proper representation concerning people of color, so hearing your own words and story of how that has affected you personally was really great 🙂 Basically, thanks for sharing your story and the stories of others dealing with this!

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  1. This is really interesting and very sad. I guess I would never have even thought about it (yes, I know. my white girl is showing.) But it’s definitely a stereotype that needs to be kicked in the butt, hard. Honestly, I think Asian guys are very cute! I hope that the dialogue about this issue grows and that we see a change happen as other stereotypes in Hollywood, that self-proclaimed bastion of diversity, begin to shift. Frankly, I think race issues should be placed way ahead of gender issues. Like, really? Is there not enough sex in movies to please people?! I’m glad you posted this because it’s real food for thought and something that definitely isn’t really being talked about. Also for the record, I think like 90% of white male actors are incredible unattractive, if not just downright ugly. Not sure what that’s worth, but… yeah. In my little corner of the world, the Asian exchange students are pretty much guaranteed to be cuter and have better style than the white guys. At least IMHO.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Nina! I have to add that I think the problem might be less about “attractiveness,” since there are certainly no shortage of attractive Asian-American men. Rather the problem is in a deficit of stories about Asian-American men, whether they be classically “handsome” or not. If that Asian-American male is good-looking, that would just be the bonus! And I was given some good examples on my Facebook, which show some changing trends: https://www.facebook.com/pastorjspark/posts/1367471250034209

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    1. It probably makes you feel better about your own small dick consider that’s the only thing you can think of – dicks. I wonder how many dicks go through your head of every guy you see.

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  2. Bravo breaux on the post. I’m a whitey…and my wife is Japanese…so I’m cool and understanding (just kidding) Nah…profit and mediocrity….low-hanging fruit as you put it. Even classic Hollywood Movies that all sorts of fools (even one’s I mostly respect) are pantheonized….when they are tripe. There is not really that much difference between Casablanca and Air Bud 7 when it really comes down to it. Air Bud 7 has slightly better special effects. Casablanca does a bit better with mood…the black and white and all.

    Very well-written and your voice will not be widely heard…because it deserves to be heard. And right above my comment..you got some chucklehead fixating on small penises. Soon there will be some cyborg male enhancement procedure that only rich people can afford….they will all have mega penises. This will be your future Allie. Fuck the Jetsons…happy robots and floating cars zipping about….no, Allie….your future will be slavering over websites with rich people cybercocks. They’ll conduct metrics analysis….on appropriate and appealing vascularity….using a team of MIT, Stanford and Caltech, etc. grads…per the stereotype…many possibly Asian. You will be provided access to these websites during your many work breaks at a job in the fake economy….they will do away with cubicles because they want you to feel less lumpenprole….it increases your productivity as a consumer if you harbor delusions that you are just as sexy….or better yet…have the potential to become just as sexy as the people in the cyborg genital-enhancement gossip sites. panem et circenses…motherfucker.

    So I digress somewhat…but I did want to attempt to provide an answer to Allie. In a roundabout way, Comrade Allie….. I certainly hope I answered your question about small dick.

    But yeah….I dig your blog bro. I’m still seeking ways to use the technology They so Merrily Give Us….against them. and yeah…there is a They. Not a cabal of fat, chuckling white men in a board room caressing globes carved from lapis lazuli…necessarily….but….

    Thank you very much for the insightful and heart-felt piece. Very robust stuff.

    Valor,
    Robes

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  3. Incidentally Mr. Park…my apologies for the vulgarity. I consider myself a Christian..but I do tend to use a lot of profanity. It is not always the most effective means to communicate….but as far as the clinical anatomical stuff…I don’t consider that profane….just sad & clinical. But in any event….I don’t wish to really antagonize anybody with harsh language that does have purity of spirit. I was recently reminded that Omar in The Wire…did not use profanity. And if any recentish character was the epitome of a modern Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the temple…it is Omar.

    Valor and Fellowship,
    Robes

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