The recent Sadie Hawkins dance promoted a seemingly innocent theme: movie couples. Movie couples have been a staple of pop culture since the invention of the film, from Gregory Peck’s Joe Bradley and Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann from Roman Holiday to Shailene Woodley’s Hazel Grace Lancaster and Ansel Elgort’s Augustus Waters from the recent young adult sensation The Fault In Our Stars. “Pop culture”—short for popular culture—is so aptly named because of its wide-sweeping reach. Thus, the effect of popular culture on society and our thinking is unprecedented. Burgeoned by the American god Mass Media, the saturation of pop culture is an ineluctable reality in today’s age—and this is no surprise. Our social capitalist system demands it—it demands value in exchange for the production of value, and pop culture is naturally the neutral aftereffect of such motivation—it is extremely profitable.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the profitability and accessibility of pop culture—yet therein lies the problem: pop culture itself. Pop culture builds on our basest perceptions, and uses them to create monetary value—and such perceptions are often racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or even ableist, reinforcing the power of the white media. It is a vicious cycle—these perceptions predate the creation of mass media, yet these perceptions are part of the basis of pop culture, and so the popularity of such perpetuates the repetition and propagation of these cycles of microaggression and oppression.
And we call ourselves today progressive.
If society, and therefore its perceptions, were unspoiled and unbiased there would be no need for this writing. But it is common knowledge that this is far from the reality, perhaps even hopelessly far; yet I live, as a consumer of mass media, subject still to its voice. I speak not for the oppressions and grievances of everyone, yet I can speak of the condition of the Asian American in media today.
Where are we? Where am I?
In a particularly memorable sequence in the recent ABC Network show Fresh Off the Boat, set in mid-1990s Orlando, the protagonist’s father, Louis Huang (Randall Park), appears on a local show named Good Morning Orlando, in which he makes hilarious celebrity impressions. As soon as he returns, his wife Jessica (Constance Wu) berates him: “What have you done…we don’t get opportunities to be on TV! That’s why when we do, we need to present our best face! Not clown around…[you] reminded me of Long Duck Dong [from Sixteen Candles]! [Dong] became what everybody thought Chinese people were!” Louis later returns on the show, this time serious and confrontational, with no semblance of the funnyman Louis, but to no avail—“Now everyone thinks Chinese people have no sense of humor!” exclaims Jessica after his taping.
Fresh Off the Boat, while an important milestone for Asian American representation in the mass media, is not devoid of its own problems, admittedly, but this scene is a perfect social commentary on the Asian American situation. The aforementioned sketch captures perfectly the double bind of minority representation—we are relegated to the role of “Stock Asian Guy” in the media, or worse. Asians in mass media are relegated to one-dimensional roles, and the diverse narrative of Asian Americans are collapsed into the stereotypes that we know all too well: Men become the ascetic, elderly kung fu master. The computer nerd with no social skills. The math genius who goes to a gifted high school. Or perhaps we are all the media’s favorite Long Duck Dong, the socially awkward, broken-English speaking, emphatically foreign—or rather un-American—foreign exchange student. Women become the mystical China doll. Older women are the Tiger Mom. Our brothers and sisters are forced to become the metaphorical “Uncle Tom” and “do the accent” to appease the whitewashed media in the name of their career—in the name of survival. We say things like “Ching Chong Yang, Wah, Ah Soh,” an actual quip once targeted at Yao Ming from Shaquille O’Neal, who later clarified that he meant no offense, adding to an unending list of apologies offered by perpetrators of such racist microaggression. This is no survival.
Ironically, the inclusion of these stereotypes is seen as the attempt, albeit an insufficient one, of the mass media at diversity—the argument usually goes “But we included an Asian character, so we have diversity.” And however true these stereotypes may be for one Asian, the moment of generalization is emphatically the moment of racism. It is yet another repetition of the force of society, exacerbated by the racial complacency fostered by fakediversity.
The seeming solution would be to include more Asian voices—but this is once again inexplicably met with opposition from the mass media. Or perhaps this effect is not so inexplicable, because the inclusion of that singular, representative—and offensive—Asian voice feeds the machinic mass media as it devours what we consumers feed it with—our attention—and money. Aziz Ansari’s latest hit comedy show Master of None features an episode describing the situation of “Indians on TV”—an aptly named segment. While the Indian American narrative can in no way be applied to that of the Asian American, many minorities in modern America share this representational problem. Aziz Ansari as actor Dev Shah airs the complaint many of us minorities share: that there can only be one of us. Include two, and the show becomes an “Asian/Indian/Black/LGBT show.” And this is indeed true, because by this index every show is indeed a “White Show,” meaning that white perceptions are the grammar of media representation. It is normalcy. There is no “show” in a racial vacuum. We persons of color are one thing, and one thing only, and our attempts to do more are suppressed.
I do not identify as an Asian American woman, and so it is not my place to make commentary on that peculiar combination of misogyny and racism, as my oppression is that of the Asian American male, of which I can and shall speak. And the issue of Asian male media representation was brought once more to the forefront of my consciousness as I prepared for the Sadie Hawkins dance.
It is unbelievably difficult to find a multidimensional portrayal of an Asian American in movies, and exponentially more difficult to find an Asian male—White female movie couple. Even when this scope was expanded to all mass media, the task was still extremely difficult.
There is one documented case of such a couple in the mass media. For the purpose of this editorial, the scope of mass media is, reasonably, parameterized to major network shows, media that would have enough reach and impact to shape the “masses.” This one occurrence featured John Cho as Henry Higgins, on the show Selfie (2014), which had an one-season run before its untimely cancellation. Cho was hailed as the first Asian romantic lead on television in history—and perhaps this was, on a covert social level, part of the reason for the show’s cancellation. It is the suppression of the dominant power structure—and Sonia Saraiya, in her Salon editorial “Why ‘Selfie’s cancellation is a massive shame” corroborates this idea. Cho’s role threatened the organization “Hey TV, Not Everyone Is White, In Case You Haven’t Noticed,” Saraiya’s version of the idea of whitewashed mass media. And few today are openly racist, but the contemporary social ontology is one that is uncomfortable with this representation (Saraiya also links to an article about a recent public opinion poll on interracial relationships). And thus it is unprofitable, and thus devoid of value in the eyes of the media.
The Asian male has been desexualized in mass media portrayal since their inception into the American consciousness. E. Alex Jung, in his Vulture article An In-Depth Cultural Analysis of Asian Male TV Characters Getting Some Action, notes that Asian men have been “famously asexual,” and continues: “That we can even attempt a fairly comprehensive list of every Asian male to have had an onscreen kiss demonstrates that there is a serious problem of racial inequity here. Try doing it with white actors in one season and your brain will explode.” Yes, perhaps Long Duck Dong did, to use the colloquialism, “get some action” in his Sixteen Candles appearance, but sexuality—or lack thereof—as a punchline is hardly a healthy stereotype, and it is a stereotype that I refuse to embody. I am not a joke.
As for Sadie’s, I was left in a double bind. The first choice was to become the Asian everyone wants to see, the Asian that everyone presumes we are—but I staunchly refused to remain complicit in my own struggle. But the other choice was no better—I could become a white character for a night. I could assimilate into the mass whiteness of the media and forget the diversity that I aspired to represent. And so where most of the couples had an enumerable quantity of couples choices, I was left with very few options--one, to be exact, and we cannot all be Henry Higgins. For one day I may have chosen the latter option, but I dream, along with my kin, I am sure, of the day in which we may too have that privilege of choice and that privilege of representation that too many of us take for granted. I, too, aspire to witness the day in which my successors, the next generation, can find a media replete with positivity and inclusion, a media of true diversity.
I suppose there has been some progress. Another memorable Fresh Off the Boat episode recounts the two of the central Huang family children, Evan and Emery Huang, and their involvement in the school play. Set in the mid-90s, Jessica Huang’s objection to that—“there are no Asian faces on TV!” was indeed a rather accurate depiction of our rather deplorable predicament in the mass media, an Easter-egg style irony hearkening back to the contemporary media paradigm the show itself is inherently challenging. In 1995, the last “Asian show” before Fresh Off the Boat, All-American Girl, headlined by Margaret Cho as the Korean-American Margaret Kim, had just been canceled, beginning a drought in representation that would not recede until the appearance of Fresh Off the Boat—and even then, there is much work to be done before we break the normalized whiteness in favor of a new paradigm of inclusion.
This is the post-racial dream. It is in part seemingly futile because such diversity has no value in the system. So is a fool’s dream, perhaps, but it is my dream nevertheless, and so I am a fool, if only in the name of vain hope.
Disclaimer: The author’s omission of Asian American feminist issues is not a refusal to acknowledge their oppression. It is the author’s belief that speaking for the Other crowds out the narratives of that Other and that empathetic identification simply substitutes the body of the Other for the body of the non-Other speaker, the performance of which is inherently degrading to the Other. The author does not condone speaking by proxy.
Further reading (online edition only):