Thien Kim Duong
Popular Culture: Looking in the Mirror Essay
November 14th, 2014
Asian American people haven’t always been shown or portrayed that much in the popular culture. It’s still uncommon to see Asian people represented in the media. But when they are portrayed, they tend to get stereotyped as the super smart nerd or that they all know Kung Fu or some other martial arts. Asian women specifically are barely ever represented in the media. Most of the roles they portray usually end up being the nerds or the dumb pretty Asians which are actually incorrectly represented. Asian female women’s intelligence in the media are never actually depicted correctly compared to reality, if anything they’re sort of negative representations. Some of the stereotypical representations of Asian female intelligence in the media are: Asian females are pretty but very dumb, or Asian females are extremely smart nerds; and if they are represented they’re usually biracial, rarely portrayed as full Asians.
One common representation of Asian female intelligence in popular culture is that they’re pretty but extremely dumb. One of the terms they call this is “Asian airhead” which is pretty much the Asian version of the dumb blond. Being that they’re really pretty and well-liked by others however they’re extremely lacking in the intellectual area. One example that exactly portrays this trope of Asian female intelligence is London Tipton from the TV show series The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, played by Brenda Song. In this role London Tipton is portrayed as an heiress whom is pretty but dumb and tends to make a lot of mistakes. London is of mixed race whom is half Asian and half Caucasian. This representation of Asian female intelligence is lacking and negative because it depicts Asian females as being extremely dumb compared to others. Which is ironically opposite from another trope of Asian, that they’re extremely smart nerds. “Instead of relying on the stereotype of the cerebral and hardworking Asian, Song’s character is constructed in such a way as to destabilize that image: she is wealthy, spoiled, and vacuous, concerned only with her clothing and shopping” (Nilsen, Sarah, and Sarah E. Turner. The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-racial America). Though London Tipton is given the role as a dumb person however occasionally she does display moments of high intellectual. For example, she is incredibly good at playing chess and writing calligraphy. During the episode, “Smart & Smarterer”, London is seen playing chess with another costar and ends up wining every single match, showcasing how talent and smart she is at playing chess. Which is unusually compared to her normal portrayal of being dumb, which might indicate that the creators tried to give her a little bit of intellectual compared to her normal intelligence. However this is still a very incorrect and negative representation of Asian female intelligence since it extremely downplays an Asian female intelligence as being dumb when in reality, Asian females aren’t that dumb. Though I’m not speaking for every Asian female individual, but I personally don’t think Asian females are as dumb as the Asian airhead trope depicts us as. I think Asian females do have intelligence and intellectual, though the level of intelligence varies to one person to another but it’s incorrect to showcase all Asians females as dumb.
Another representation of Asian female intelligence directly opposite to the earlier trope is about how Asian females are depicted as being smart nerds, who gets perfect A’s in all of their classes. One example is Evelyn Kwong played by Michelle Kim in the TV series, Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide. In this TV series, Evelyn is portrayed as a super competitive and the smartest person in her entire school. Evelyn is the epitome of the Asian stereotype of being a nerd. She is shown as an unattractive nerd dressed in all plaid sweaters and khakis whom is exceedingly smart but isn’t so good at interacting with other socially. Evelyn is also characterized as being so smart she’s a bit crazy and tends to belittle and mock others whom are dumber than her. This representation of female Asians is negative because it makes it seems like every Asian is exceedingly smart compared to everyone else to the point that all we care about is our grades and wanting to be smarter than everyone else. Another reason it is negative is because it makes Asians seem like they’re socially awkward with others. These are false portrayals of female Asians, because not all female Asians are smart to that extreme and not everyone is always socially awkward. Every individual Asian female have their own amount of intelligence and personality, some being smarter than others naturally, or being more likeable. It’s unfair to depict all Asians as the same. Just because a large majority of Asians are shown as naturally smart doesn’t mean that everyone is, some people are just really hardworking and strive to do their best in academics while there are others whom are a little bit lacking than others. By depicting all Asians as being outstanding smart nerds, it creates a lot of pressure for Asian females to live up to. It makes it seem as if Asian females have to be super smart in order to fit in with others and live up to this stereotype.
Another illustration of this trope of being a smart Asian female but in a more positive light is through the role of Alex Munday from the movie Charlie’s Angels played by Lucy Liu. In this role, Alex is an undercover investigator spy whom uses their intellect and martial arts ability to fulfill and succeed in missions; while also maintaining her other jobs too like being a neuro surgeon, working for NASA and other top intellectual jobs. Alex is a half Asian and half Caucasian female whom is extremely smart but has a very good social life and is well liked by others. The reason Alex is a better and more positive portrayal of Asian female intelligence is because even though she is still depicted as being a super smart Asian, however she is given a more positive and lively persona that isn’t focused solely on academics. Instead they changed and diverted the focus onto making her role seem more positive and “kick ass”. They made her seem like a really cool and social person that uses her intellect for good reasons, like saving others. The creators were able to make Alex into a really positive role model for young Asian females in which you don’t have to fit in with the stereotype of being socially awkward nerd. Instead you can be a strong, smart and astonishing female who embodies her intellectual and puts utilizes it for greater purposes. This was the role model I personally looked towards while I was growing up. Of the three examples listed, I was able to relate to this female representation the most while growing up, because it was a positive portrayal of Asian females that actually help to persuade and encourage me into realizing my intellect and what I could use it for. This role help morph my ideas of Asian female intelligence and helped me grow up to who I am today, a stronger and smart Asian female that is proud and confident of the amount of intelligence I have.
Even though Lucy Liu’s role as Alex Munday is a positive portrayal of Asian female intelligence however there is still one detail that sort of twists her role a little bit, this is about how she isn’t actually portrayed as fully Asian in the movies; rather half Asian and half Caucasian. In the movies, during the second installment, it was revealed that Alex’s father was actually Caucasian while there was nothing revealed in regards to what Asian race her mother was. This caused an uproar in the Asian community because Alex’s role was supposed to be a positive portrayal for all Asian races, but when it was revealed she was half, people were shocked about it and didn’t understand why the creators would change her identity. In Yvonne Wong’s article, she writes about “Alex Munday in the first Charlie’s Angels film was celebrated as an attempt to show the non-stereotypical side of Asian Americans. Alex Munday was portrayed as an Asian American woman with vigor and confidence, an exceptional rendering that wasn’t constantly epitomizing cheap Oriental clichés. But the implication that Liu’s character is biracial — half Asian and half white — has the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, an organization dedicated to monitoring the media and advocating balanced and sensitive portrayals of Asian Americans, steaming” (Wong, Yvonne. “Charlie’s Angels Sequel Angers Asian Americans”). Wong continues on talking about how the Asian community was surprised at the fact that they created Alex into a biracial person when in the first installment she was clearly full Asian. People were upset at the fact that they chose to turn her into a biracial instead of keeping her as a full Asian. Wong further analyzes the fact that perhaps the creators manipulated Alex’s character into being biracial in order to make it more acceptable to the public, like how the accepted Asian couples in the media are mostly white male/Asian female. Similarity, London Tipton’s character in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody was also portrayed as a biracial character too, being born to a Caucasian father and Asian mother. I think Wong’s view on the biracial Asian character is very true and makes sense. Perhaps popular culture isn’t ready to full accept Asian roles in the media yet. Even though both actresses in each media example are actually fully Asian in reality but are subject to playing biracial roles. I think there’s a very large chance that the creators of both medias made the actresses play biracial roles in order to make them seem more acceptable and recognizable.
Overall the media usually depicts Asian female intelligence as being two different ends of the intellectual spectrum, either really dumb or super smart. There are rarely any roles that showcase Asian females having intelligence that falls in between. Of most of the roles Asian females play in the media, these roles tend to showcase Asian females as being a dumb airhead or really smart, both of which aren’t correct representations to Asian female intelligence. It’s unfair to categorize all female intelligence as being either or, there are many people whom aren’t that dumb or super smart. Each person is their own individual and carry their own level of intellect. I personally wish the media could portray Asian female intelligence a bit more thoughtfully or expand it in a way that is more relatable, by showing the Asian female role in a way that the intellects are spread out amongst many level of intelligence besides the two opposite ideas of dumb/smart. And also try to make some of the Asian female roles be more role model like, in which they bring a stronger more encouraging image to the public to those who learn and watch those media outputs.
Charlie’s Angels. American action comedy film. Dir. by McG. Produced by Leonard Goldberg, Drew
Barrymore, and Nancy Juvonen. Perf. Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, Bill Murray, Sam Rockwell, Kelly Lynch, Crispin Glover, and Tim Curry. Columbia Pictures. Based on Charlie’s Angels written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. 2000. Film.
Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide. Nickelodeon. Created by Scott Fellows. Produced by Scott
Fellows, Bill O’Dowd and Jorg Westerkamp. Perf. Devon Werkheiser, Lindsey Shaw, Daniel Curtis Lee, Jim J. Bullock, Daran Norris. 2004. Television.
Nilsen, Sarah, and Sarah E. Turner. The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-racial America. N.p.: NYU, 04 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
“Smart & Smarterer.” The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Disney Channel. USA. 10 October. 2005. Television
The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Disney Channel. Created by Danny Kallis and Jim Geoghan. Produced by Pamela Eellis O’Connell, Jim Geoghan and Irene Dreayer. Perf. Cole Sprouse, Dylan Sprouse, Brenda Song, Ashley Tisdale, Phill Lewis, and Kim Rhodes. 2005. Television. Sequel was The Suite Life on Deck.
Wong, Yvonne. “Charlie’s Angels Sequel Angers Asian Americans.” Modelminority. N.p., 30 June 2003. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.modelminority.com/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=473:charlies-angels-sequel-angers-asian-americans-&catid=44:media&Itemid=56>.