Imagine it’s your first day of class. You’re sitting next to an Asian student when your professor asks you to introduce yourself to the people around you. What are the thoughts going on in your mind? Do you expect this student to be a Pre-Med profession? Broken English? Have the last name Nguyen? Your answers to these questions will vary when compared to others’ answers. Why is that?
When it comes to the portrayals of Asian Americans in popular culture, there is not just one typical stereotype. The stereotypes for Asians range from bad drivers to being super good at math. How come there is not just one dominant known thing about Asian Americans?
Why it Matters
According to a study conducted by members of University of Southern California Annenberg’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative (2014) about inequality in popular films, Asian characters only make up 5.3% of the 100 top films of 2014. More than 40 of those 100 films have no Asian speaking characters. Only 17 out of the 100 top films observed featured a lead or co-lead actor that was not White.
The media is the main source for mass communication. Either it be the news, television show or memes on the internet, we pick up information from what is being spread throughout. Because there is such a low percentage of Asian American actors and even a lower percentage of Asian American celebrities, the audience of the media cannot get a true grip on who/what Asian Americans are. That is why Asian Americans are shown throughout the media to be so different and not just have one “typical” stereotype.
Asian American actors are usually side characters and are rarely ever given the lead roles. As mentioned above, only 5.3% of characters are Asian. This lack of Asian American characters in the media causes Asian Americans to be effortlessly represented in various ways, implying that portraying Asian Americans is not important.
To further explain how variously Asian Americans are represented in the media, we will dig into different “cultures” of the media: Meme, Television and Movie culture.
For those who don’t know, memes (rhymes with seem) are pictures that spread throughout the internet and are usually made for jokes. When it comes to Asians, the meme culture heavily puts the stereotype of intelligent Asians, strict parents and bad drivers into play.
The meme culture usually shows Asians in negative ways. I have yet to see a positive meme about Asian people. Memes are meant to be funny in some way; either by being super relevant, actually funny, or for being so dumb that they’re funny.
Think of a TV show that has Asian actors as the lead role. For most, the first show to pop up into their mind is Fresh Off the Boat.
Fresh Off the Boat is an ABC comedy sitcom about a Taiwanese family that have just recently come to America. Jessica Huang, played by Constance Wu, is the mother of the family who takes on the “hard working Asian” stereotype. In the episode called, “Sisters Without Subtext,” Jessica gets into an argument with her sister, Connie, because of her passion for painting. Jessica says that it’s selfish for Connie to go after what she’s passionate about instead of what will help keep her family together. According to Jessica, there is no such thing as “free time” or “hobbies.” Everything she does is for money, which helps her maintain her family.
Another stereotype that can be seen in Fresh Off the Boat is the “traditional Asian.” In the episode, “Manchurian Dinner Date,” Eddie Huang, played by Hudson Yang, is excited for his mother, Jessica, to meet his girlfriend, Alison, who is white. But knowing that his mom will only accept an Asian girl, Eddie brings home his fake girlfriend Aubrey, who is Chinese, instead. Audrey does the traditional Asian thing where she takes off her shoes before entering the Huang’s household. She even brings a gift of boxed oranges to present to Eddie’s parents.
So, we’ve already talked about one TV show with lead roles consisting of Asian actors. Now think of another one. Having a hard time? I did too.
The show Nikita stars a cold assassin whose mission is to take down the secret organization that trained and betrayed her. The main character who takes on the role of Nikita is Asian American actress, Maggie Q.
According to the USC study mentioned above, females are three times more likely to be shown in sexy attire, with some nudity, and referenced as physically attractive (2014). In this CW network television show, Maggie Q is shown as a sexy assassin who will sometimes even seduce her way through missions. So what stereotype is put upon Maggie Q’s character, Nikita?
Maggie Q being a mixture of Vietnamese and Polish-Irish while taking on the role of a sexy assassin, makes her Nikita character a target of “yellow fever.” The term yellow fever is used to describe men who like Asian women because they see them as sexual geishas or school girls. According to YouTuber Anna Akana, from Cate Matthew’s (2014) article, “Here’s What ‘Yellow Fever’ Really Means,” yellow fever is “the living embodiment of offensive stereotypes.” This “yellow fever” stereotype pretty much says that you’re automatically a sexual desire because of your skin color and/or race.
With the percentage of white actors being at 73.1% compared to the 5.3% of Asian actors (2014), it’s no surprise that Asian American actors rarely ever get the lead roles in movies.
In the movie Mean Girls, the lead actress is Lindsey Lohan who plays the role of Cady Heron. Cady is a teenager trying to fit in at a public school that is filled with laws of popularity that divides students into cliques. Cady points out two specific Asian cliques; the smart nerds and the cool Asians. Each clique shows Asians in different ways.
The smart nerds are given about two seconds of camera time and were not given any speaking lines. Those actors were irrelevant after the couple seconds. It would have been cool if the movie went a little deeper in detail with each clique. But who am I kidding. Mean Girls is a movie about a white girl who moves to a school and ends up being friends with three other white girls.
The cool Asians didn’t consist of smart members. Throughout this movie, the Vietnamese girls of the cool Asians’ clique were given very short appearances. Their clips consisted of them arguing with one another for being “boyfriend-stealers” and “scammers.” Usually, you would probably just expect Asian characters to play the smart nerd role. But in this movie, the preppy cool Asians can be seen fighting and calling each other “sluts.”
Why is there a lack in Asian American actors?
Notice that I questioned Asian American actors, not characters. The only actor to fulfill an Asian role should be someone who is Asian themselves, right? So why is Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi, the main protagonist in Masamune Shirow’s “Ghost in the Shell” anime and manga series, played by White actor Scarlett Johansson?
In Keith Chow’s (2016) New York Times article, Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors, Hollywood’s reasoning for not casting Asian American actors in films is because “ not any of them have a box office track record.” Hollywood says that it’s not about race. It’s about green (money). But Chow’s findings from a study done by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, goes against the sayings of Hollywood. The study found that films with diverse leads, such as Fast and Furious, resulted in not only higher box office numbers, but also a higher investment for studios and producers.
How does the lack of Asian American actors impact the representation of Asian American people?
As we can see, Asian Americans are represented in various ways. The positive is that not all Asian Americans are the same, so having numerous portrayals of Asian Americans helps show the many different ways Asian Americans are. The negative is why they are represented in so many ways. Asian Americans are represented so effortlessly, implying that popular culture does not think Asian Americans are important or good enough for big roles, or to even act as themselves. Mickey Rooney, a White male, played the role of Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese character in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). James D’Arcy, also a White male, was casted to play the Archivist, a Korean character, in the movie “Cloud Atlas” (2012). The lack of Asian American actors implies that Asian Americans are not good enough to be casted to play themselves, so White actors are casted for their part instead. The long history of whitewashing can be briefly summed up with this slideshow from the New York Times.
I expected this class to be about how certain things are portrayed in popular culture. I was partly right, but not in a way most would expect. I not only learned about how things were portrayed in the media, but also as to why.
In week 2, we read a journal from Diane Watt (2012) titled, “The Urgency of Visual Media Literacy in Our Post-9/11 world: Reading Images of Muslim Women in the Print News Media.” I learned that not everything you read is what it seems. The images that we see in the media don’t always correlate with the story that is given. “Images of women from one part of the world are routinely placed with a story from another. This means that a photo of a Shia’a Palestinian refugee in Southern Lebanon could accompany a story about the activities of Sunni males in Afghanistan – even though the religious, gender, class, cultural, historical, and political differences between two such groups may be vast” (34). From this journal, I realized that images are used to draw our attention to what the writer wants us to read, knowing that we won’t question what the truth is.
I also learned to question myself, “Why does this matter?” In week 6, we read articles about The News. What makes good or bad news and what makes news good or bad for you. In week 7, I learned to use the Newsworthy Criteria to answer my question of “Why does this matter?” which I will be applying to my everyday life.
M., Eddie. (2011). High Expectations Asian Father. Retrieved from: http://i1.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/facebook/000/157/381/9196237.jpg
Asian Crossover. Meme Generator. Retrieved from: https://cdn.meme.am/instances/400x/67495141.jpg
Driving Meme. Kappit. Retrieved from: http://www.kappit.com/img/pics/201503_2229_gedfc_sm.jpg
Dr. Carmen Lee, Katherine Pieper, Stacy L. Smith, & Dylan DeLuca, Marc Chouei, Traci Gillig. (2014). Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014. USC Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism. Retrieved from: http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media/MDSCI/Inequality%20in%20700%20Popular%20Films%208215%20Final%20for%20Posting.ashx
It’s a crisis Gif: https://media.giphy.com/media/l0HFjUCsgWTmmUMDK/giphy.gif
Mean girls Gif: https://media.giphy.com/media/umHYJnLapYbcY/giphy.gif
Matthews, Cate. (2014). Here’s What ‘Yellow Fever’ Really Means. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/29/anna-akana-asian-girls_n_5628201.html
Mean Girls Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBxxLCqQn2U
Fresh Off the Boat Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLD8L7rsu2M
Chow, Keith. (2016). Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/23/opinion/why-wont-hollywood-cast-asian-actors.html?_r=0
Whitewashing, a Long History slideshow. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2016/04/22/opinion/whitewashing-a-long-history/s/chow-ss-slide-HTTQ.html
Watt, Diane. (2012). The Urgency of Visual Media Literacy in Our Post-9/11 world: Reading Images of Muslim Women in the Print News Media. The Journal of Media Literacy Education. Retrieved from: http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1081&context=jmle