Asian-American Females in American Pop Culture

As a Korean female growing up in America, I’ve consumed a lot of American media/pop culture. One thing I couldn’t help but notice was the underrepresentation of Asian-American roles, especially females. Something that was troublesome for me growing up was being labeled with pre-conceived notions from people who did not know anything about Asians. The only knowledge that they had were from seeing roles played by famous actors portraying Asian stereotypes which only supported and further solidified their pre-conceived notions. Being that one of my biggest identifiers is ‘Asian-American female’, I decided to research and analyze different forms of media in order to find out whether or not more recent forms of media have changed in their representation of Asian females or if they still only portrayed stereotypes. I found a mixture of both stereotypical and more realistic/accurate representations, however, in comparison to the underrepresentation seen as a young child, I think that there’s slowly been a shift towards more accurate representations which definitely takes down many boundaries and lessens stereotyping.

13 Reasons Why- Courtney Crimson

13 Reasons Why, in short, is a Netflix series based on the book written by Jay Asher. It follows a high school boy by the name Clay Jensen who’s on a mission to uncover the horrifying truth behind his classmate/crush, Hannah Baker’s, suicide. The series is broken down into 7 tapes for a total of 13 reasons on her decision to end her life. Each side of the tape describes one individual and their wrongdoings to Hannah; Courtney is Hannah’s reason #5.

The character, Courtney Crimson, is played by an Asian female, Michele Selene Ang, as the ex-best friend of Hannah Baker. On the outside, she is a “nice girl”, intelligent, caring, friendly and generally liked by her peers. On the inside, she’s manipulative, selfish, uncaring, cowardly, and unconcerned about others. The only thing she cares about is her reputation. She uses Hannah only when she wants something such as a ride to a party or when she wants an adventure. Courtney is adopted by two gay fathers and she suppresses the fact that she’s attracted to females.

Courtney is Hannah’s fifth reason for committing suicide. At the winter formal, she rats out Hannah to another classmate and denies the fact that Hannah and Courtney kissed. This was due to the fact that she cares so much about her reputation and doesn’t want people to point fingers to her fathers for the reason that she is also gay. This makes Hannah hate Courtney as false rumors start to circulate throughout the school.

One thing that I noticed specifically with this film was that all of Courtney’s characteristics did not follow ‘traditional’ Asian stereotypes. For example, she was adopted by 2 American gay dads, is a lesbian, lies, and only cares about herself. It was interesting to see that these were not qualities normally portrayed in American media in relations to Asian culture. These are rather more widely seen in America where there is less shame connected to sexuality. In addition, the role of Courtney could have easily been replaced by a different actress and it would have played out the same way. There was no connection to her being Asian that would have changed the story or timeline of this show. I really liked that about this show in particular as it did not have any stereotypes that I could point out which was really different from other movies/shows that often correlate Asian roles to fulfill certain stereotypes.

Grey’s Anatomy- Cristina Yang

Grey’s Anatomy is an American medical drama television series on ABC that has a total of 13 seasons and has recently been renewed for season 14. The series consists of fictional lives of medical tragedies and the lives of physicians, surgeons, and interns.

Cristina Yang is a character played by Sandra Oh first as a graduate from Smith College and a fellow surgical intern to Meredith Grey, Izzie Stevens, George O’Malley, and Alex Karev. She becomes best friends with Meredith Grey, and later becomes a cardiothoracic surgeon at Seattle Grace. She is married to Owen Hunt, the head of trauma surgery. In addition, she is a “double doctor” as she holds an MD from Stanford University and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley.

Cristina had on and off sexual encounters with the chief of cardiothoracic surgery, Preston Burke, during her internship years which led to an accidental pregnancy. She was set to marry Burke who abruptly called off the wedding and moved hospitals. She later meets Owen Hunt, an army trauma surgeon, who fixes her up after being stabbed by a falling icicle and the two hit it off well.

After some research, I came to find that the role that Sandra Oh played was not supposed to be of Asian descent, which I found interesting. This led me to think why? Who was supposed to play the role? What type of character did the writer have in mind? Something else that I found out was that she held an MD/Ph.D. which makes her a double doctor and in a sense you can say that this is a stereotype in that “Asians become doctors” but in this show, where all the characters are doctors, I don’t think that it can be portrayed as a stereotype. But rather it was refreshing to see the differences in characteristics and diversity of the various doctors and characters that played these roles. I think that it definitely allowed the show to have a wider range of audiences and fans of the show.

I love that the show went into depth where you could really go to see the type of person Cristina was and really get to feel her personality play out even though she wasn’t the ‘main’ character. She was a frequently seen supporting role to her best friend Meredith Grey. Her personality consists of sass, sarcasm, confidence, hard work, straightforwardness, and she was extremely good at her job. However, you also got to see the more vulnerable side to her as well through her love life. She had a strong vibe to her but when she was with Owen, you could tell that all she wanted was love and to be loved. Through her complicated relationships, it made her a more interesting character; something that is not seen quite often in Asian-American roles. Again, a trend with Cristina Yang’s character was that there weren’t stereotypes that were portrayed with her character and the part would have held the same storyline with a white actress.

Counterargument: Harry Potter- Cho Chang

To shed some light on how Asian females can be portrayed in a stereotypical way, I chose to use Cho Chang as a prime example.

In Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, the 5th installment of the movie series, an Asian female character by the name Cho Chang is seen. The character is an Asian female played by Katie Leung who fulfills the role of Harry’s first crush. After this introduction, Cho is only seen in scenes where Harry is associated with her; for example, when Harry asks her out to the dance, or when exchanging awkward hellos across the halls.

In the fifth installment, Cho returns and joins Dumbledore’s Army club against her parent’s wishes’ to train in actual magic and spells against Umbridge who would rather they didn’t learn magic at all. Within this year, Cho and Harry established a relationship that didn’t go so well. In one of the scenes, Cho’s previous boyfriend, Cedric, recently passed and she wanted to open up and grieve about him to Harry. However, Harry briefly gives acknowledgment, then kisses Cho.

It was interesting to see that Cho Chang was used as a token character, merely a placeholder in the movie with little character development. Mainly she is used to help the main character develop. As seen earlier, her main role is first being seen as Cedric Diggory’s love interest and then after his death, seen as Harry Potter’s love interest with a brief relationship. For example, after the death of her boyfriend, Cedric, she goes to Harry to talk and grieve about her loss. However, Harry did not console her very long before going straight in for a kiss. Regardless of any other characteristics or skills that she has, she is looked as a girl with a pretty face that is Harry’s love interest.

On the contrary, I thought it was strange that the movie did not really go in depth or elaborate on Cho Chang’s other abilities. She is very intelligent, part of Ravenclaw, and she has great skills as she is part of the Quidditch team as the seeker. An important part of the movie’s storyline that is merely skimmed over is that fact that she helps Harry find the Ravenclaw’s diadem which is a Horcrux containing Voldemort’s soul. Even though it was a big part of how the movie would progress, her part was not emphasized or given much credit.

Same name, different image…Grace Lee as Asian America: A Film Review of The Grace Lee Project (2005)

The film director, Grace Lee, addresses the question of “What’s in a name?” She noticed that she had a very common name among Asian-Americans which led to a sort of identity and stereotype formed around that name of “good Asian girl, quiet, well-behaved.” However, in the review it states that “Overwhelmingly, Grace Lee was a good girl, obedient, and quiet, often a devout Christian who played a musical instrument like the violin, and almost always an overachiever in school. It quickly became apparent that a monolithic Grace Lee identity had formed, inculcating many of the most common stereotypes associated with Asian-Americans” (Lee, 2006). In order to analyze and see if the identity and stereotype around the name really held any water, Grace Lee decides to embark on a journey and travel the country to interview other women that share the same name. Grace is able to meet many women and while some certainly did share and fit the image, others did not (ie. goth artist).

I think that this film review really captures a side of Asian-American identity that I wasn’t able to put into words. I certainly feel as though there is definitely a “stereotype” that society commonly puts on Asian women as “good, well-behaved, overachiever, etc.” that puts a lot of pressure onto individuals and have experienced first-hand as well as witnessed many young females that have a hard time finding their true identity because they feel conflicted due to all the labels they feel obligated to uphold.

Asians in America: A Demographic Overview

It’s frustrating to meet people who have pre-conceived notions of you before they get to know you. Or to speak to someone over the phone, then meet them for the first time in person to hear, “Oh wow, I didn’t expect you to speak such good English,” “Your pronunciation is so good.” It always catches me off guard because as someone that’s lived in America all my life, it’s not something I think about. Here are some interesting demographics from the American Immigration Council (2012).

  • Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States and now comprise one out of every 20 people.
  • Two-thirds of all Asians are immigrants, the majority of whom have put down firm roots in this country.
  • Nearly three-fifths of foreign-born Asians are naturalized U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote, and over half speak English “very well” or better.
  • Nearly half (48.1%) of employed Asians age 16 and over worked in management, business, science, and arts occupations in 2010.
  • Asian businesses and consumers sustain millions of jobs and add hundreds of billions of dollars in value to the U.S. economy.

This is important because as we see more diversity with a growing Asian population, it’s valuable to not restrict people to stereotypes that may be seen commonly in the media. Not only will breaking these boundaries help build a stronger community, it’ll help share ideas for a more innovative future.

To sum it up…

From the examples that I chose, I was surprised to find out that ⅔ of the characters took on a more regularly seen ‘main’ role and not just a minor, supporting role. I was also pleased to find that in these more recent films, there were very few Asian stereotypes that were seen such as speaking little English, being a “goody two-shoes,” “straight-A student,” bad driver, quiet good girl, exotic, etc., that were many of the characteristics seen in the brief moments played by a token Asian female character in many older films.

Another surprising and interesting pattern that I noticed was the fact that any of the Asian characters played by these actresses could have been replaced by any other ethnicity actress. All the characteristics portrayed by these characters that might have ‘not fit the Asian stereotype’ would not have been seen if they were replaced by a white female actress.

Overall, I think that there has been a shift in Asian-American female portrayal in the media which definitely takes down many boundaries and lessens stereotyping. Although there are not nearly as many Asian or other actresses of color as there are white actresses, as America and the media diversifies, I see a potential for growth in the types of roles and number of roles Asian and actresses of color will be able to take on.

Learning Moments

Prior to the extensive research that was done over the course of this class, I had only thought about how the media used Asian characters to portray stereotypes. I saw lots of comedic Asian characters that would play these roles just to “fill” the spot which only solidified these nonsensical stereotypes. Taking a different approach, I was able to search, find, and analyze more recent films that not only did not follow the traditions but rather made it a point to not make it any different from the role being played by a white actress. This was something that I had never realized and allowed me to have great appreciation for these films.

A big wake up call was during week 3 where we analyzed“A Brand by Any Other Name” by Douglas Rushkoff. I was surprised to find out how much background analysis is being done in advertising and marketing certain brands to target children. It’s interesting to think about the many changes that have resulted from only being able to consume media to being able to interact with it. The Pokemon example that Rushkoff uses illustrates the fandom perfectly in the way that it started off merely as a tv show that kids would watch for entertainment. Then, with the rollout of the video game, the storyline consists of adventures that were portrayed on the tv show (collect monsters). Finally, when Pokemon cards were invented, it created a tug on kids as they needed to collect (by buying more cards) in order to be a “better player.” “Pokemon teaches them how to want things that they can’t or won’t actually play with. In fact, it teaches them how to buy things they don’t even want. While a child might want one particular card, he needs to purchase them in packages whose contents are not revealed. He must buy blind and repeatedly until he gets the object of his desire.” When I read this, it led me to see how much of a vicious cycle of advertisement Pokemon had been the entire time. It’s really taught me to take a step back when getting sucked into convincing advertisements and ask myself whether or not it’s something that I really want or if I want it for the brand.

Finally, one of the most helpful assignments was the annotated bibliography where we had to find good, reliable secondary sources. By taking the time to figure out how to sort through many articles and navigate to find a reliable source through using specific keywords, I have learned to efficiently find scholarly articles that I will use for the entirety of my college and professional career.

Works Cited

  1. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Dir. David Yates. Perf. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2007. Film.
  2. 13 Reasons Why. By Brian Yorkey. Dir. Jay Asher. Perf. Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette. A Netflix Original. Netflix, 2017. Web.
  3. Grey’s Anatomy: Season 1-10. Dir. Chandra Wilson and Kevin McKidd. By Shonda Rhimes. Perf. Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey, and Sandra Oh. American Broadcasting Company, 2005. TV show.
  4. “Asians in America: A Demographic Overview.” American Immigration Council. 26 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 May 2017.
  5. Lee, Grace. “Grace Lee as Asian America: A Film Review of The Grace Lee Project (2005).” Ed. David Lee. 15 (2006): 63-66. Academic Search Premier [EBSCO]. Web. 12 May 2017.
This entry was posted in Spring 2017 by Eileen Noh. Bookmark the permalink.

About Eileen Noh

Hi my name is Eileen and I'm from Alaska. I enjoy traveling, going to concerts, skiing, and spending time with my family and friends. I have a toy poodle named Drake and a winter white dwarf hamster named Ice Cube :)

7 thoughts on “Asian-American Females in American Pop Culture

  1. Hi Eileen,
    Your essay was really interesting to read! I did not know that Asian are the most growing group in America right now. I liked your examples from Harry Potter and Grey’s Anatomy. Those are two characters I think of when thinking about Asians in pop culture!

  2. Hi Eileen,

    WOW What a great job!! You showed references to recent pop culture mediums, stated and supported exactly what you wanted, and even showed a comparison to your points. I understand completely what your argument was and even related to what you were saying. Asian women in particular, in pop culture have a stigma of being book smart and stuck up; in the artifacts you showed to contrast where prime examples of badass asian women.

    The statistics shown in the end was a real eye opener, “Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States and now comprise one out of every 20 people.” Wonderful!

    -Isabella Marenco

  3. Hey Eileen,
    I really liked your post. It keep me captivated from beginning to end, it had a nice flow. I was surprise to find that your primary artifacts display contra-sterotype characters. The characteristic of Courtney and Cristina really defy the traditional asian stereotype. It is good to see that portrayals of Asian female are shifting, but another question that I have is how does it compare to reality. It would be interesting to see if the public still think Asians are in this “boxed” stereotype, or they think that we have changed and became more “Americanized”.

  4. Hi Eileen,
    Your post was really interesting and informative. I have seen some of the shows you have mentioned and some I have not, but even though I have seen some of the show you have mentioned you have touched the roles of the characters that I had not notice and most others as well wouldn’t have either. Also, you summarized well what I was thinking after reading three examples you had mention,” Another surprising and interesting pattern that I noticed was the fact that any of the Asian characters played by these actresses could have been replaced by any other ethnicity actress. All the characteristics portrayed by these characters that might have ‘not fit the Asian stereotype’ would not have been seen if they were replaced by a white female actress”. I couldn’t agree more, these characters aren’t the typical type of Asian ways that are often seen in Asian media and what society thinks of Asian as well.

  5. Hi Eileen,
    This post was very informative and I really enjoyed reading it! You did a very good job on researching and writing. One of my favorite movies to watch is Harry Potter, and the only thing I don’t like about it is how little Cho Chang is seen because she’s only showed up a few times. A lot of the movies I’ve seen that do have Asian characters are usually supporting roles like Cho Chang where they only show up in a few scenes. I haven’t watched any of the other shows and movies you brought up, but it seems to me that they aren’t the traditional Asian you would see which makes me glad.

  6. Hi Eileen,
    I enjoyed reading your post, it’s very interesting and informative. Your topic is very close to my, I wrote about Portrayals of Asian male in Hollywood films. I like how you said about “13 Reasons Why- Courtney Crimson” ,and this character seem like can be easily replace with “different actress and it would have played out the same way”. Personally I didn’t watch the much of the show, but my wife dose, and she told me Courtney did not have any stereotyping on her role. Great post!

  7. Hey, I really enjoyed reading your blog post. You analyzed the female Asian characters I had seen on Grey’s Anatomy and 13 Reasons Why in ways I never thought before.

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