Brains vs. Beauty

The Battle Between Two Asian Female Archetypes in Popular Media

I am a bit of a geek. Just going to put it out there, right from the beginning, so you know which of the two camps the writer of this piece leans towards, but that doesn’t mean I believe people can or will fit into these sort of predetermined boxes and possess all the stereotypical traits and characteristics that make up those “neat” little packages. No, while I feel I am mostly comprised of what popular culture might consider to be a little “nerdy” I also think I am beautiful at times, I am the major character in my life and a minor one in others, I can be dynamic and will change over time and I have a complex personality (even if I don’t like to show it to many others). These are just some things that real people are made of, and although we like to believe, even trust, the portrayals of ourselves we see in television and film, not everything we see on TV is real. While doing research for this essay, I’ve discovered that:

  1. Asians are largely lacking in mainstream media, Asian women even more so, and
  2. Of the Asian girls onscreen, many of them fall into two basic types which we’ll look at a bit more in this paper, the appealing “airhead” and the drab and/or “nerdy” girls.

Basically, educated Asian females are portrayed this way because more often than not, they are highly sexualised in mainstream media, reducing the women and characters who are deemed “less appealing” to roles that only glorify the former. This leaves the selection of role models for young girls severely lacking onscreen and further develops a skewed and/or distorted reality.

SkyeChloe Bennet’s character Skye in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a well-rounded character who is both pretty and intelligent.

One major misconception about young Asian ladies, and many other people, who believe education to be one of the most important things in their lives is that they are plain, lacklustre or not much to look at. While staying on top of their studies may more often than not take a higher precedence over looking “picture perfect” every single day, there is the idea that someone who is more or less considered “bookish” is also assumed to be physically unattractive. This is simply untrue, a false stereotype that unfortunately lives on in popular culture as stock characters used to shine a spotlight on qualities that are deemed undesirable. Take Elaine Tan’s character Lucy Chang in the British film Starter for 10, released in 20061.

Lucy“And my name is Lucy Chang from Minneapolis, reading medicine.”

The actress herself is quite attractive, but Lucy’s wardrobe and makeup were specifically chosen to play up her “studiousness”, having her sport big, geeky eyeglasses and an overly-conservative attire bordering on bland and uninspiring. Personally, I wouldn’t view myself as being “fashion-forward”, but I do take care to style my hair in a variety of fun and pleasing ways, play with makeup and mix up what I wear, whether it’s a pair of Guess chinos with shiny black pumps to the office or a flowy chiffon dress with champagne-coloured gladiator sandals in summer. Comparing myself and Lucy as people, I believe we are very similar inside, but through persistent use of equating intelligence with appearing plain and/or homely, audiences are continuously told that’s how smart Asian women should look.

There is also the impression that literate Asian females aren’t skilled at interacting with the opposite sex, that they are socially reserved and that they don’t have a life outside school or work, three things that aren’t necessarily true and do not apply solely to this characterisation. As an aside, I’m quite curious where these perceptions originally came from, although I have a suspicion it may have stemmed from the same stigma the nerdy male counterpart is also known for, that they are inexperienced at conversing with women, etc etc. By any means, this theory that geeky Asian girls like myself don’t possess any sort of social life is essentially fictitious, in spite of television writers still inserting it into their TV programmes when a scene calls for a particularly awkward group situation, usually where the Asian woman fails to understand what she is supposedly lacking.

Torchwood – Toshiko Sato “That Stick Up Your Arse”

In this episode from the first series of Torchwood2, a popular science-fiction show that aired on BBC Three in 2006, the team’s technical expert, Toshiko Sato (played by Naoko Mori), is affronted by her coworker, Owen Harper, for spoiling the mood between him and his current flirt, the new girl, Gwen Cooper. This is regardless of the fact that he had set her back days, weeks, who knows how long in her work because of his recklessness in the office. All in all, this scene was made to reinforce the idea that because of her background, she wasn’t proficient enough at dealing with the scenario at hand and therefore she is in the wrong. Honestly, should any stand-in character archetype, race and gender notwithstanding, have to carry this kind of ill repute? This is simply rude, and unlike how the roles are being written on the page for film and TV, I wouldn’t stand for that kind of treatment.

Apart from this, the idea that educated Asian women are incompetent at connecting romantically or intimately with others, I came across something not entirely related, but certainly falling in the same category, the concept that Asian girls “are continuously depicted as subservient sexual objects that are only present to satisfy the White male character’s sexual desire”. In Murali Balaji and Tina Worawongs’s study The New Suzie Wong: Normative Assumptions of White Male and Asian Female Relationships3, the authors examine romantic relationships between Asian females and white males in television ads, unearthing some thought-provoking concerns. What interested me the most was their conclusion that this subject and those related to it should be further examined, as information of this kind reveals that “multiculturalism in advertising might perpetuate hegemonic ideals presented as norms”. I never before even considered that the “subservient Oriental girl” that can be seen every once in awhile in various forms in mainstream media, could be a product or by-product of extended use of the character archetype, unquestioned over time and simply accepted as something that just “is”. I also happened to find a 2013 film directed by Debbie Lum entitled Seeking Asian Female, that follows an aging white man with a penchant for dating young Asian women, however, perhaps that rabbit hole should be saved for another time; for now we turn our attention back to the geeky gals, the intellectual Asians that are supposed to be a reflection of me and those like me onscreen.

Steven and Sandy, whose relationship is the basis for Seeking Asian Female.

Now, not to be completely negative, not everything on our screens misrepresents Asian women in this way, and I find it very interesting that sometimes our TV studios do get something right. Take for example, Sandra Oh’s character in Grey’s Anatomy, Cristina Yang, a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Cristina Yang Cristina Yang 2
From season 7 episode 17, “This is How We Do It”.

I’ve never seen the show, but from the clips I’ve seen while researching primary sources for this essay, it seems like this character is someone I can definitely relate to. Cristina is hardworking, intelligent, ambitious and — like the show she comes from — is deeply interconnected within all of the relationships she is an active part of. In one of my favourite scenes from season 5 (Grey’s Anatomy – 5×07 – Cristina’s Dad4), she is accused by the new surgical attending, Owen Hunt, of becoming a doctor just to be better than everyone else, but then she sits down with him and sets the story straight, exuding a toughness and confidence that some might even find captivating… You’d be hard pressed to label her as “brainy” and try to fit her in that box; she can’t be contained.

At any rate, it’s not easy to take these few examples we’ve been able to collect and pass judgement about whether or not the portrayals are completely accurate against all Asian girls who might identify themselves as erudite, but juxtaposing them against my own personal experiences I would have to say that popular culture more often than not misrepresents “me” in film and television. I feel like at my core, I am Lucy Chang and Toshiko Sato, but the audience can’t directly see that, and interpreting them only by how they look or associate with others in the media, therein lies a disconnect. Cristina Yang and I can relate much better overall, but I think characters like her are rare and rather uncommon in the sea of roles that are being written every day, passed over in favour of stand-ins and personalities that suit other, more superficial means and that’s a bit disappointing. In the future, I will continue to look out for other representations of the “brainy Asian girl” and hope that as time goes by, perhaps we as an audience begin to demand a little more realism, a little less instantaneous gratification, and maybe then we can start to see a little bit more of our true selves in the immediate culture we create and consume.


  • 1 Starter for 10. Perf. James McAvoy, Alice Eve, Elaine Tan. Icon Film Distribution, 2006. DVD.
  • 2 Torchwood. Perf. Eve Myles, Burn Gorman, Naoko Mori. BBC Worldwide, 2006. DVD.
  • 3 Balaji, Murali, and Tina Worawongs. “The New Suzie Wong: Normative Assumptions Of White Male And Asian Female Relationships.” Communication, Culture & Critique 3.2 (2010): 224-241. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
  • 4 Grey’s Anatomy. Perf. Sandra Oh, Kevin McKidd. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2008. Film.