“A Girl Worth Fighting For”: The Issues of Asian Misrepresentation in American TV and FilmBY Christine Lim
Starry-eyed and mouth agape, I stared fixedly at the bright screen, my attention as completely engaged as a five-year-old’s could be. I was watching the movie Mulan for the umpteenth time, the details of which, even today, remain vivid in my mind: the steel in Mulan’s eyes as she chops off her hair, the sweat on her brow as she reaches for Shang’s arrow. And, while all the other Disney princesses possessed admirable qualities as well, everything I watched Mulan do was memorable and inspiring because she is Asian, and so am I. Our shared race was what allowed me to see myself in her and to imagine myself becoming more like her. For a long time I was content to look up to Mulan, but as time passed and my focus broadened, I began to see that Mulan was essentially the only Asian role model I could identify on-screen. My childhood expectations of inspiring and thoughtful characters were disappointedly met with flat, often degrading, depictions of Asians in movies and television. From the classic example of Breakfast at Tiffany’s Mr. Yunioshi shown barking in broken English to more contemporary cases like Pitch Perfect’s Lilly Onakuramara personating the standard sheepish Asian girl, countless instances of these types of misrepresentation exist in Hollywood. As such, stereotypical portrayals of Asians throughout the history of American TV and film are a systemic issue critical to address because they foster damaging representations that bear real-world effects on popular perceptions.
One of the most common forms of erroneous Asian portrayals are the cheapening of Asian identity to outer appearance. That is, Asians are dehumanized into mere farcical caricatures whose skin color, eye shape, and accent take precedence over individuality and personality. This kind of misrepresentation dates back to the earliest days of Hollywood with the use of yellowface (voxdotcom). Yellowface is the practice by which non-East Asian performers, typically white actors, use makeup, prosthetics, and accessories to look and play the role of East Asians (“Definition of ‘Yellowface’”). An infamous example of yellowface is actor Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Rooney’s pseudo-Asian get-up, consisting of taped-back slanted eyes, a fake tan, and dyed black hair, exemplifies the wrongful notion that all it takes to be Asian is to adopt the trademark physical characteristics. ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu pointedly sums up the issue when she remarks, “Our ethnicity and our culture are so much deeper than how we friggin’ look” (Cheng). While this practice seems relatively outdated, the conventions of Yellowface persist today in subtler ways. One case is the episode “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra” of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. In this episode, the all-white cast is clothed in silk robes and black wigs, combined with the sound of cliché gongs and chimes between frames, and what was intended to be a playful tribute to the Kung Fu movie genre instead epitomized Hollywood’s stubborn misunderstanding of race (Ma). The Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, an active organization that exposes such misrepresentations on-screen and in other media puts the issue into perspective by comparing it to blackface. Although society has progressed far enough to reject white actors dressing up like black people, somehow it is still acceptable for white actors to dress up like Asians (Brooks). The shallow portrayal of Asians via Caucasians donning stereotypical physical features is alarming because it reinforces a reductive outlook that belittles Asian identity and humanity.
In addition to retaining primitive illustrations of Asian appearances, Hollywood has a long history of equating the Asian race with corruption and manipulation. Cases of such depictions originate in part from some of the earliest motion pictures of the 1920s, a time when anti-Asian sentiments were high due to financial competition between Chinese immigrants and American-born Caucasians. Embodying traits ascribed to the ‘Yellow Peril,’ or the economic threat of Asians to whites, Asian characters were depicted on-screen as “wily, mysterious, sneaky, and inscrutable” (Mok 188). A classic example of this stereotype is English novelist Sax Rohmer’s fictional character Dr. Fu Manchu, a diabolical criminal genius whose ultimate goal is the total destruction of Western democracy. His decades-long portrayal in television and film contributes to the static, flat view that Asians are “foreigners bent on economic and political domination of the world” (Mok 190). A more familiar example is the Siamese cats in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. Mischievous, sly, and conniving, Si and Am relish in wreaking havoc on their apartment’s furniture and manipulate their owner Aunt Sarah into thinking the heroine, Lady, is to blame (Hunter). Moreover, the duo dons the characteristically ‘Asian’ features of slanted eyes, buck teeth, and thick accents, creating a clear association between Asians and evil. Hence, as a result of historical racial tension, generations of TV series and movies have reinforced the misguided, generalized perception that Asians are wicked and deceitful.
The reason why the pervasiveness of negatively-connoted Asian stereotypes in film is so detrimental is because they help produce a widespread anti-Asian mentality. A study conducted in 2010 by Dr. Qin Zhang, Associate Professor of Communication at Fairfield University, strongly suggests media images and stereotypes affect perceptions of Asian Americans. This study utilized “cultivation theory,” which postulates that continual exposure to media messages results in enduring, cumulative effects on audiences (Ramasubramanian 6). While cultivation theory does not provide direct causal relationship between media representations and racial-ethnic perceptions, it offers a useful theoretical framework by proposing that repeatedly observing the same stereotypes can lead to their acceptance as social realities. This is because “mainstreaming, heavy consumption of the media contributes to a more homogenized, centralized, and standardized ideology and worldview” (Zhang 22). In other words, since people are continually bombarded by images in the media, over time they subconsciously adopt these ideas as their own. Although this theory was originally used to study the effects of violent television programming, it has since been applied to a number of topics across various media contexts. Specifically, when extended to media priming and stereotypes, this model intimates that “media content activates stereotypes about social groups, affects the development of schemata about selves and others, and influences perceptions about the stereotyped groups” (Zhang 22). This means that, physiologically, the human brain is hardwired to conjure up and eventually believe in default images; therefore, the more the media exposes people to stereotypes, the more quickly they come to mind and the more easily they become accepted as truths. Given the similarity and consistency in the portrayal of racial-ethnic stereotypes across media platforms, these stereotypes may be incorporated automatically in the opinions that people form about targeted groups in later judgments. Applying these principles, Zhang’s study examines whether people’s perceptions of Asian Americans parallel the media’s stereotypes, as well as if those stereotypes influence people’s interactions with Asian Americans. After surveying about 200 participants, the results demonstrate that both are true: people’s judgments of Asian Americans generally match stereotypical media representations and consequently impact how people later interact with Asian Americans (Zhang 20). Hence, evidence supports that the unchanging, shallow, and degrading depiction of Asian Americans in film and TV has cultivated, and continues to cultivate, a widespread, negative understanding of Asians in America.
Naturally, prejudiced stereotypes do not only exist for Asians but for every other minority group in America. For example, black communities are painted as violent, aggressive criminals while Latinos are portrayed as uneducated, low-status service workers (Zhang 22). Even so, while employing cultivation theory is appropriate for any stereotyped group, it may be particularly applicable to studying Asian Americans due to their small population and uneven distribution around the country. Asian Americans, making up just 5.7% of the U.S. population in the 2016 census, are heavily concentrated in few geographical regions (e.g., California, New York, and Hawaii) and sparse among the vast remainder of states (“QuickFacts”). The estrangement of Asians is illustrated by one experimental study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, which examines who is perceived as “American.” The results show that Asian faces were rated as the least American (Zhang 26). Following them in order of increasingly “more American” were Hispanic, black, and white faces. Because people from most regions have few opportunities for direct personal interactions with Asian Americans, their perceptions of Asians are largely dependent on the impressions created by the media (Ramasubramanian 5-6). As such, the stereotyped portrayals of Asian Americans on TV and in movies is especially threatening because of their heavy hand in distorting common beliefs about Asians around the country.
The ostracization of Asian Americans in real life and on-screen is specifically evident in the perception of Asian Americans as the “the perpetual foreigner” (Zhang 26). Namely, it is a popular belief that Asians do not count as real Americans: they are outsiders that lack the capacity to assimilate. This is due to the fact that Asians are seldom depicted as full-fledged Americans in the mainstream media; instead, they are habitually treated as though they do not belong in this country. This stereotype manifests itself in a range of ways. In its extreme form, Asians are seen as “perfidious foreigners […,] evil and untrustworthy,” just like the aforementioned Dr. Fu Manchu (Zhang 26). As consistent with cultivation theory, the perpetuation of this damaging image translates into adverse social interactions with Asian Americans. These include social exclusion, rejection, xenophobia, reduced career opportunities, and even hate crimes. In a subtler way, the foreigner stereotype becomes embodied in the commonly reoccurring questions posed to Asian Americans during initial encounters. Inquiries like “Do you speak English?” and “Where are you really from?” deny American identity and suggest Asian Americans are outsiders. Everyday interactions like these plainly demonstrate the insidious effects of deleterious Asian stereotypes, such as “the perpetual foreigner,” in real life.
In contrast with the abundance of negative portrayals of Asians in TV and film, many may argue that there are positive ones as well. For instance, the “model minority” image holds Asian Americans up as the gold standard ethnic group, possessing qualities such as humility, self-discipline, and scholarship. Further, the “model minority” portrayal depicts Asians as having “quietly ‘made it’” in U.S. society and being “worthy of emulation” (Mok 192). One example of this depiction in American cinema is the classic 1930s and 1940s character Charlie Chan, a Hawaiian detective recognized for being quick-witted, reserved, and diligent. However, as admirable as this portrayal appears, the reality is that the model minority is equally destructive as other, more explicitly offensive Asian stereotypes. To argue that Asians are more successful compared to other minorities “denigrates other racial groups and downgrades them (Asians) as ‘problem minorities’” (Zhang 25). Put more simply, flattering Asian stereotypes suggest that other ethnicities in America are inferior as well as delegitimize Asian Americans’ own demands for social justice. Furthermore, the model minority stereotype exacerbates other blatantly reductive Asian American portrayals that draw from similarly-related misconceptions; these include Asians as the quiet, nerdy, and socially awkward types, examples that are abundant in Hollywood. Lilly Onakuramara from the Pitch Perfect movie series is a timid and eccentric Japanese girl trademarked by her barely audible voice and muttered remarks. Bruce from the 2008 film production of Get Smart is a geeky graduate from MIT who helps serve as the brains behind “CONTROL,” a top-secret intelligence agency. Rajesh Koothrapalli from the CBS comedy television show The Big Bang Theory is a bumbling astrophysicist emasculated by his inability to talk to women. As such, the model minority standard is a burden, not a blessing, to how Asians are perceived by the America population.
Just as with the examples of yellowface, the yellow peril, and the perpetual foreigner stereotype, the model minority representation in film and TV affects Asian Americans in real time. On the community level, it produces a palpable tension among minority races. Manifestations of this underlying conflict include racial harassment, discrimination, bullying, peer rejection, and even violence (Zhaang 25). The perpetuation of tropes stemming from this stereotype is also critical to Asian Americans on the individual level, specifically to mental well-being. To elaborate, research shows that the pressure placed on Asians to exceed academically has tremendous psychological and social costs. These include harder and longer hours of studying, forgone social life, loneliness, alienation, depression, and stress. Furthermore, because the standard of achievement is so high, these problems are generally overlooked, and Asian American students receive minimal institutional support to cope. It is not to say that all of these social issues are a direct consequence of the unfavorable portrayals of Asian Americans in film and TV. Rather, as outlined by the cultivation theory, the endurance and reach of these misrepresentations heavily contribute to a reduced view of Asian Americans, which consequently translates into negative interactions with them.
While Hollywood’s degradation and generalization of Asian Americans conveys a variety of harmful messages, underscoring them all is the mindset that Western/white people are the superior race. This common thread can be seen in all of the aforementioned examples. Expanding on the model minority concept, Asians like Charlie Chan receive praise for their success in education and work. But underlying this conception is the idea that Asians have best adopted American culture and, therefore, as “honorary whites,” are the most acceptable minority group (Zhang 24). Character tropes and stock characters such as Lilly and Raj contribute to the dominance of white men over Asians in romantic relationships. Quiet Asian girls appear dainty, submissive, and complementary to the U.S. media images of “the masculine hero” (Mok 195). Meanwhile, awkward Asian men lack the social swagger emphasized by American ideals and therefore do not pose the threat of competition. Finally, returning once more to the case of yellowface, caricatures like Mr. Yunioshi make a mockery of Asian looks to boast those of Caucasians. Donning grossly-exaggerated features like thick glasses and buck teeth, Yunioshi’s repulsive depiction sets up an unfavorable comparison to white beauty standards like blond hair and blue eyes. These examples clearly show that “filmmakers […] employ Asian American characters to assist in the maintenance of the White hegemonic social order, whether intended or not” (Foster 117). That is, by perpetuating distorted views of Asians, Hollywood reinforces ideologies promoting white supremacy and consequently breeds racism in American film and TV.
Not only is this bias against Asians evident by what misrepresentations on-screen suggest ideologically, but rather, it is apparent in the actual casting decisions for American films as well. While Hollywood directors regularly save primary roles for white performers, Asians are allotted secondary roles and reduced to what they can provide ethnically, often “little more than props to broaden a film’s appeal to a more racially diverse audience” (Foster 116). A recent example is actress Karen Fukuhara’s role as Katana in the DC Comics 2016 film Suicide Squad (Min). Rather than an actual superheroine of the titular suicide squad, Katana serves as the sidekick to leading character Colonel Rick Flag, who is, notably, a white man. With her minimal remarks and lack of character development, Katana is tokenized for her race, and serves merely as “background color,” or a simple accessory to the white film (Mok 186). Even so, what is worse than preventing Asians the opportunity to play lead roles is that Hollywood directors are casting white people to play roles that are originally Asian (these including Asian characters, plotlines, and settings). This practice, known as “whitewashing,” is evidenced by Scarlet Johansson’s role in the 2017 live-action film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. Assuming a black, bobbed haircut and the abridged name “Major,” Johansson plays the protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi from the original Japanese manga series and significantly digresses from its Asian influences (Hess). Producers, screenwriters, and directors for movies guilty of whitewashing justify their decisions to cast Caucasians over Asians as business moves meant to draw in audiences with recognized celebrities. They suggest that there are no Asian actors or actresses that have the same worldwide appeal as white ones. And yet, their reasoning is backwards because the failure to hire Asian Americans in films results in Asians never making it as big-name stars in the first place (BuzzFeedYellow). Ultimately, directors and oblivious audiences miss the significance to Asian invisibility in American film. Since the majority of Hollywood restricts major roles to white performers, Asian actors and actresses are deprived of the opportunity to put out newer, more nuanced, and more accurate representations of Asian Americans in the media. This, in turn, perpetuates the abundance of preexisting Asian misrepresentations, which continue to damage popular perception of and social interaction with Asians in America.
Deeply-rooted in the historical racism towards Asian immigrants from the dawn of American film, the inaccurate portrayal of Asian Americans in Hollywood movies and TV has been a problem met with little resolution throughout the entirety of the twentieth century and into today. These misrepresentations take shape in a variety of different forms including Caucasians adopting Asian appearances, movie characters depicting adverse Asian stereotypes, and Hollywood directors failing to diversify major films. These practices preserve superficial and disparaging generalizations of Asian Americans, the accumulated effect of which plays an integral part in shaping the nation’s judgment of Asian culture. Consequently, people’s exposure to these misrepresentations negatively affects how they interact with Asians at the social level. Essentially, the reduction, overgeneralization, and Westernization of Asian identities on-screen maintains a racialized social order in which white people are superior and Asians are inferior. However, all is not lost.
With the new generation of movies and television shows led by Asian performers like ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and Hulu’s The Mindy Project, Asians in the mainstream media are increasingly working to dismantle entrenched stereotypes for positive, more progressive representations. Just one example is Filipino actor Vincent Rodriguez III’s role as the male lead in The CW’s hit comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. “Handsome, athletic, and socially adept,” Rodriguez’s character Josh Chan challenges the widely-held image of the emasculated Asian male love interest for a character who is both attractive and realistic (Yuan). Furthermore, Asian celebrities are gaining “just enough star power and job security to speak more freely about Hollywood’s larger failures” (Hess). That is, Asian American actors and actresses are utilizing their heightened profiles and social media fanbases toward changing Hollywood’s monotone vision of the world. Whether it is by starting up their own production companies, like “3AD” to share the stories of those underrepresented, or trending the hashtag campaign “#whitewashedOUT,” there are rising numbers of activists giving voice to this issue, and people are beginning to get the message (Hess). However, the fight does not stop there: this is where we all come in. While progress is occurring on-screen, it has been overdue for decades, and it will continue to move at a snail’s pace unless people like ourselves join into the conversation. Only by gathering awareness and greater advocacy will positive change come. At the national level, we should all feel responsibility toward this issue, as campaigning for Asian representation equates to promoting social justice. Even so, consider its significance at the individual level. Just think of a little girl sitting in front of a bright television and how having someone to relate to on the screen would mean the entire world to her. To take a lyric from my favorite Disney movie, I say to you “Hey! Think of instead, a girl worth fighting for.”
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