Reflecting Asian-American History through films

In my research, I’ve identified a pattern of how Asians and Asian Americans have been portrayed over years in American media and pop culture. In this pattern, I have detected two main problems regarding how Asian Americans are represented in popular culture. To start off, Asians are severely underrepresented in the media and are rarely seen on screen. Unfortunately, even when Asian do appear, they are usually portrayed in a few stereotypical ways. When was the last time you saw an Asian as a leading role in a movie or a show? I bet the first Asian character people tried to think of was Mr. Chow from the Hangover series.

There are reasons why producers and directors use specific images to relay certain messages to the mass public. It’s either because they’re influenced by something, or because they want to influence someone, or both. This is why Film analysis is a useful tool for studying history. I’ve seen few films made during different periods, within which some sort of Asian-American was represented. I focused watching the films from time periods in American history which would start eras of increasing difficulty for Asian-Americans. One such era followed when America was brought into World War Two with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 (US, History). The other was the times during and following the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975, a conflict which had lasting impacts toward Asian-Americans due to it being thought of by many as the first time the American war machine did not win a decisive victory(Vietnam, History). These conditions contributed to negative stereotypes that would follow Asian-Americans for years to follow.

 

Papillon Soo portrays a Vietnamese prostitute in Full Metal Jacket

Papillon Soo portrays a Vietnamese prostitute in Full Metal Jacket

 

 

In Stanley Kubrick’s film, Full Metal Jacket, Which follows the American soldiers in the Vietnam War, reflects how Asian-Americans were represented through the media in the era of the Vietnam War, and the time following it even up til now. In one of well known scenes, a Vietnamese prostitute, portrayed by Papillon Soo, who is actually of British-Chinese heritage, is shown with few American soldiers. Her character has memorized a few English phrases to help attract a new demographic of customer. In order to please the Americans, the character repeats the only things she has memorized; “Me sucky sucky,” “me love you long time,” “me so horny,” demonstrating to us that she clearly does not

speak much English. The character has no further development and appears in only the one scene. Like this, many films contribute to a pattern where Asian females are “over-sexualized”, and shown as if they’re “exotic’ all while emasculating Asian males. Few films who can be used as example are Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Sixteen Candles. Such characters as Long Duk Dong and Mr. Yunioshi respectively were shown in films as typical “Asian male who can’t get girls.”

Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles

Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles

 

Many other films of the same periods have portrayed Asian characters as the villains. This can be seen as a form of Yellow Peril, which is a propaganda that the”Yellows” or Asians will take over the western world(Nepstad). The most well-known example I could find was Fu-Manchu, a character created by author Sax Rohmer which have been adapted into many different media outlets such as cinema, tv shows, radio, comics, etc. This character could be labeled as embodiment of bad Asian stereotypes, to a point where he can be seen as personification of Yellow Peril.

Fu Manchu movie poster

Fu Manchu movie poster

Like Fu-Manchu, and many other Asian characters in this time were portrayed this ways for reasons. The media scapegoats minorities like Asians for society’s ills, and movie stereotypes like Fu-Manchu are an expression of that scapegoating. Asians were portrayed in overly ill ways in order to exacerbate the public’s fear in times during and after World War Two and the Vietnam War to the end of supporting the war effort, and  lend justification for what much of the public saw at minimum as mistreatment of the Japanese Americans during World War Two as well as general mistreatment of Asian-Americans following these events. This pattern have re-emerged at other points in American history. Such as increased stereotyping of Arabs after 9/11 and Latino- Americans and Muslim-Americans with the case of Donald Trump. This will continue to happen with different minorities in order to distract the minds of the public as well as reform it in a way that it is easier to control.

 

 

 

Fortunately there has been significant progress, especially in 21st century, in how Asians are portrayed in the media of popular culture. Asians are being cast in roles beyond the stereotypical ones of a doctor, an exotic prostitute, a computer tech, a sexually awkward virgin, or the karate master. A good example of this progress can be seen in The Walking Dead, everyone’s favorite zombie show. Glenn Rhee, is a Korean survivor who was first shown as the typical “techy” Asian dude who developed into one of the leader figures of the story.

Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee in The Walking Dead

Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee in The Walking Dead

Oh, and just look at how sexy this man looks. Psh, who says Asians aren’t sexy? He developed into a character that broke many of Asian stereotypes- such as the emasculated Asian male. Glenn is a character that is different from me in many ways, and that is a most important point. Just because he is Asian doesn’t mean he needs to  have to same traits that I have. Yes, we are both Asians, but he is a zombie fighter, and I am a student at PSU. This is important to realize in order to mitigate the harmful effects of negative stereotypes, whether Asian, or not.

 

How would you react if I told you there was a sitcom on CBS about an Asian immigrant family living in America? The show is called Fresh Off The Boat. Even the name of the show seems to scream immigrant stereotyping. You might think it is going to be disastrous by presenting Asian stereotypes yet again with exaggerated accents and through horrible jokes about small penises, or worse. Well, That’s what I thought, too, but, I was wrong. Through watching a few episodes, I can tell that the show is about breaking Asian stereotypes rather than reinforcing or perpetuating them. Surprisingly, the character are portrayed as individuals. All characters are unique. Which is how it ought to be. As an Asian immigrant living in US, I can relate to this show very well.

Even though the trend away from negative Asian stereotypes has been on a good track, there still appear counterexamples of this progress. One such example is Raj from The Big Bang Theory, whose writers do a poor job at creating a character that doesn’t predictably follow Asian stereotypes. This is lazy character writing trying to get comedic value using Asian stereotypes. It is clear that work still needs to be done. Media is in dire need of more truthful representation. Not just by promoting positive images of Asian-Americans, but of all people.

 

Works Cited

Breakfast at Tiffanys. Dir. Blake Edwards. By Truman Capote. Perf. Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck. Jurow-Shephard, 1953. DVD.

Darabont, Frank, prod. “The Walking Dead.” The Walking Dead. AMC. 31 Oct. 2001. Television.

Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. By Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford. Perf. Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Lee Ermey. Warner Bros., 1987. DVD.

Nepstad, Peter. “Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril.” The Illuminated Lantern. N.p., 1 Nov. 2000. Web. 25 May 2016.

Sixteen Candles. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Justin Henry. Universal Pictures, 1984. DVD.

“US Entry and Alliance.” HISTORY. N.p., 03 Apr. 2014. Web. 01 June 2016.

“Vietnam War.” History. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 01 June 2016.

 

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2 thoughts on “Reflecting Asian-American History through films

  1. Hey! Great post, I remember reading your first draft and am glad to see the changes and improvements made. What I enjoyed was the timeline you take your reader with this topic, from the stereotypical molds Asian-Americans were represented as to breaking free in more diverse roles. Hopefully they continue to be casted as roles that are more than their ethnicity. Also you had good choice for examples that illustrated your points.

    All the best.
    -Christina

  2. Hello,

    I thought you had a great post! I liked how you mentioned Glen from the Walking Dead. I agree that there is a negative persona for Asian males. Asian males are normally thought of as nerdy, unattractive, and weird in general. This may also be because Asian guys generally hangout with strictly other Asian males. Many of the stereotypical ideas that are associated with Asians are taken from the Asians who have migrated here. I think that is important to recognize Asians as being normal and more importantly as being AMERICAN. I was born here in Portland, Oregon and have grown up in an Americanized fashion. To my friends which coincidentally aren’t Asian, I am no different and just as American as them. But to other people I am sure I am seen as the typical unamericanized Asian. Overall I thought you hit a lot of great points about the common misconception and have addressed the issue in an appropriate manner. I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you.

    -Anthony

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