The Portrayal of East Asian Americans in American Television

One of the greatest distributors of popular media in the United States would be television. With a 99% household ownership of television sets, including the majority of which own more than one, it’s not difficult to see the power that American television holds in distributing information to a large number of people.

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Today, it’s a common statement to hear about the lack of representation of all people of color in media. Here is a video series by actor and activist Dylan Marron, who edited popular Hollywood films to only feature words spoken by people of color and here is a study from the University of Southern Carolina which analyzed the portrayal of people of color, women, and the LGBT+ community in the greatest grossing films of Hollywood from 2007 to 2014, as well as the top grossing films of the industry. For me, watching and reading both of these together was an eye-opening moment to notice implicit and subliminal misrepresentation. It shows the importance of becoming aware and the combined impact of various mediums to further conclude a point. The use of various mediums can be beneficial in ensuring understanding among many people as it taps into a range of learning styles and techniques and provides a stronger sense of evidence and support for a claim. This skill can be used later in life to be efficiently informed, aware, and thoughtful of those situations in order to understand why they occur and how to work around it for improvement and progression.

 

I decided to focus on one of my identities of an East Asian American. I choose this particular one because I find race to be one of my master identities and one that plays into more of my life experiences than a few others; not to mention, is consistently one that is either not portrayed or lacking accurate portrayal in popular culture.

 

Looking into three American Broadcasting Company (ABC) television shows, I discuss the prevailing stereotypes of Eastern Asians, their impact on individuals who accept that identity, and what direction I believe representation should occur in further media.

 

 

The problematic: Samurai Girl

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Heaven Kogo, played by Jamie Chung, is a teenage girl who finds some unfortunate news in her corrupted adoptive family and vows to become a samurai to “follow her ancestors” and save her family after reading a prophecy.

 

Clearly, there are some problems here. The pilot begins with Heaven’s arranged marriage in an inaccurately portrayed traditional Korean wedding. From the start, Asian families are portrayed in a negative light with unreasonable control – which unreasonably controlling parents are a negative stereotype for Asian culture as it is an exaggeration of generational-based respect. Then, as Heaven begins her journey in merely becoming a samurai (also, questionably disrespectful to the Korean culture), he newfound American friends help here, who seem to know a lot about Korean culture.

 

Here, we see the obvious difference is cultural ideals: individualistic and collectivistic between her friends and her family. Again, this plays into the idea that as Heaven takes on more Western ideals, she is able to come closer to individualism and finding herself. This puts the idea that collectivistic cultures are negative and controlling in Western culture based on the fact that overlying ideas of loyalty and mentality of reaction is difference. But, that’s the thing: it’s just merely different. There is no wrong culture, but American television heavily emphasizes that eastern culture (collectivistic) culture is unappealing and problematic. Even if this can play into the idea of the ideologies and life of the “bad guys” or the antagonists are all bad, it goes to note that it is strongly based in a culture that is still prevalent in today’s society. It makes sense to play the antagonist is an all round bad person and so are the things he believe in, but there is no “other side” to Asian culture that shows any of the good aspects. In broader terms, it can show young Asian girls that their home life can be unhealthy and have them turn towards western or individualistic culture. This is interesting because both cultures have negatives and positives but the show, and many other popular media, show that there is only one way to live a purposeful and living life, and everything else is just plain wrong. This can be damaging to the audience, as its audience is teens (specifically female), because it brings up extremist ideals of picking either one culture or another.

 

As a first generation, Asian American, I have experienced the difficulties in balancing two drastically different cultures and have found a balance that I am comfortable with after 20 years, but that may not be the case of everyone. Some may lean one way or another, but this ideology implies that one is greater than the other. In addition, culture is mold-able and ever changing, so to imply that an individual needs to pick one now, it completely unreasonable and further drives a stick of confusion down on a learning young adult.

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More on her journey to becoming a samurai, Heaven is seamlessly effective and masterful of martial arts with no stated history of it, even as we see that she begins training in the show. It is noted that she is “girly clumsy” yet effortlessly nails all of the fighting down and agilely lands perfectly. The portrayal of the stereotype that all Asians are masters in martial arts is shown in a very exaggerated fashion, which further perpetuates the stereotype more negatively. This is a weird mash up of modern teen drama television and one of those older fantasy martial arts movies. It mocked Asian art and ancient handwritten scrolls in the cheesy prophecy – as well as the honor of samurais. This is revealing to see why people will ask if every Asian “knows karate” with the basic punches, kicks, and unnecessary flips since it shows that just any Asian will be inherently good at it and ignores years of training. Overall, this was disrespectful to east Asian culture and manipulates the perceptions that other people will have on east Asians shallowly and negatively.

 

Almost there: Fresh off the Boat

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The sitcom based during the 1990’s focuses on the family of the Huangs. The Taiwanese family recently moved to Orlando, Florida from Chinatown, Washington D.C. to open a western-style restaurant deriving from The American Dream concepts. As they have moved into a dominantly white neighborhood, whereas they came from a heavily Asian dense neighborhood before, the family has a hard time “fitting in.” Again, this treads lightly in the individualistic versus collectivistic culture battle, but take the battle in a different direction: in lessons of how “it’s okay to be different than your friends” kind of conversation among the family members, especially to the kids.

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The first episodes focused on “fitting in,” such as a problem with racism in the kids’ school, but the show gradually moves away from that and into more silly and mundane issues like, lying about doing the dishes or hiding a secret from your mom. This derives from the perception that people of color, only experience “ethnic experiences” such as battling with racism and not have “regular” experience, such as the mundane family problems that everyone else has. This could be compared to the shows, Modern Family or Malcolm in the Middle, both of which contain a dominantly white cast, that many find relatable and likable. Fresh off the Boat was one of the first successful American shows with a major Asian cast, bringing a new light and story to the screen. This is important to show the typicality of family life among a wider range of different family types and families of various races and beneficial to underrepresented individuals who are looking for confirmation of solidarity.

 

While I believe this is progressing in the right direction of how to provide representation in media, there are some problems with this show. There are plenty of stereotypes perpetuated such as: Asians and studying or excelling in school, strict parenting styles, little emotion or affection shown between Asian family members, upholding family values, and excelling in the multiple activities at a young age (instruments, sports, etc.). This is damaging to the perception of Asians from others, as well as self-esteem and self-identity within the Asian community. Stereotypes, repeated enough, show and provide a one sided, single story of an entire group of people.

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All the same, the show challenges other Asian stereotypes as well. It feeds into stereotypes, yet debunks others. I find this interesting because it seems like the show wants to progress away from the “ethnic experience” yet occasionally throws it in for comic relief or to remind the audience that this is still, indeed, ethnic. Although I do think it’s normal to laugh about seemingly “positive” stereotypes, this reveals which are acceptable to talk about and show as well as what is touchy and only shown sparingly. I was torn on the subject to understand whether to be offended by this or not, but instead, I see it as a stepping stone in the right direct. Some aspects to consider in the small progression would be the mere fact that an Asian American family is the major role for an entire series that lasted more than one season!

 

In the right direction: Grey’s Anatomy

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The popular medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, has been on air since 2005. It follows the personal and professional life of main character, Meredith Grey, and a group of surgeons and their interns at Seattle Grace Hospital. The only major character played by an Eastern Asian actress was executed by Sandra Oh as Dr. Cristina Yang.

 

Although some may argue that this plays into the “all Asians are smart” trope, I digress that some conforming into a stereotype or an identity can be appropriate if done correctly, such as becoming a doctor! (I would also heavily question why a doctor on screen was not represented as an expert or intelligent.) It’s important to differentiate between being intelligent and Asian to being intelligent because you’re Asian. Nowhere in the series was there an instance in the television show where Cristina Yang was addressed with blunt racial issues – besides the fact she might have a harder time progressing to the a higher level in the field due to her race or gender such as: getting the right internship, promotion, or another challenging opportunity to moving up – but this rather served as commentary on the current issues in the medical industry. This more so served as Cristina publicly displaying doubts about herself and her abilities.

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Although Cristina is one of the main cast and best friend to the main character, she still serves as a strong support. Cristina is confident, level-headed, and commonly referred to as a voice of reason is dramatic situations. This is not a bad role and I believe this type of representation is the direction that media should go with representation of East Asians and other people of color. However I am accustomed and favorable to the character Cristina Yang, I feel like her purpose in the series could have been played by any other woman, despite race. The role was not specifically made “Asian,” but rather filled perfectly in the shoes of someone from Asian descent.
Despite the progressive representation, one comment that I will say about the show is that there is a general lack of people of color in the main cast, which is apparently quite large as shown above. As previously discussed, the lack of people of color in movies and television shows are known film industry issues, it’s noted that this could also represent the diversity problem within the healthcare field – not that this warrants an excuse to continue this practice of excluding people of color for media.

 

 

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Similar to the Doltish Dad stereotype as shown in Hanna Rosin’s article, the representation of Eastern Asian Americans in American television needs to be questions about why we accept the misrepresentation and consider what significance accurate and inclusive portrayals can provide. Rosin suggests that when a father “could not see his image reflected on TV, which essentially meant he did not exist.” This was a learning moment in recognizing all aspects of representation, and the fact that progress can be slow, yet still significant. The prompt from this reading allowed me to analyze more in depth of reasoning why stereotypes can be hurtful to not only the people they misrepresent, but the perceptions of those who consume the media and take them as their only truths. I used this analytical technique in coming to the conclusion that the perceptions of Asian Americans use to heavily rely on flat stereotypes perpetuated in popular media, which striped Asian Americans from being well-rounded people and took a toll on the already present confusion in the conflicting self-identities and social grouping of young Asian Americans. Firstly, the slow progression to accurate representation of Asian Americans begins with being aware and acknowledging; then, open roles (thus, not racially specific roles) that allow the actor or actress to fill with their own unique experience and represent their people as themselves.

 

 

 

References:

Chan, R. (n.d). Asian American Portrayals in Mainstream Media. The Hyphen Project: Asian Americans and Alternative Media. [WordPress Blog Post]

Fong, T. P. (2008). The contemporary Asian American experience : beyond the model minority (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Prentice Hall.

Shah, H. (2003). ‘Asian Culture’ and Asian American Identities in the Television and Film Industries of the United States. (3 ed.). Simile: Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education.

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