Jessica Suh Asian 390 Final Paper Abstract In this essay, I will examine the film industry’s portrayal of Asian Americans to analyze 1) the origin and establishment of negative Asian American sentiment; 2) female and male stereotypes in movies; 3) the significance of negative media portrayal of Asian Americans on the American mainstream; and, 4) in particularly, how my own Asian American identity has been affected by such stereotypes, along with my input on improving the misconceptions. America‟s past faults in racism and inequality first spurred the anti-Asian sentiment amongst the American public, and eventually became the foundation for today‟s Asian American stereotypes and misconception. The negative portrayal of Asians becomes a problem when audiences correlate the Asian typecasts in film to Asian American males and females in society. This association not only leads to distorted images of Asian Americans, but affects both the Asian Americans and the American public‟s perspective of Asian Americans. Nonetheless, I‟ve come to a new realization that I‟m also part of this Asian American identity, which inevitably categorizes me into the hazy Asian typecasts. Although there has been great improvement in the number of movies and types of characters available to Asian Americans, their disadvantaged representation in mainstream media should necessitate Asian Americans to mobilize awareness for this continuous problem and take action; hence, these misconceptions degrade the level of acceptance and quality of life for every Asian American individual.
I. The Foundation of Anti-Asian Sentiment Strong Anti-Asian sentiment among individuals and communities during the 19th century not only led to legal measures of discrimination against this minority, but fundamentally triggered the start of media‟s stereotyped Asian representations and today‟s establishment of negative mainstream portrayal of Asian Americans in film. Chinese laborers were the first Asians to migrate to America, but during a time of outright discrimination against all non-whites, Americans were reluctant to welcome the Chinese laborers with open arms. The Chinese were perceived as economically inferior for providing cheap labor, heavily discriminated for their different facial features, and monitored with great suspicions. Eventually, the American public‟s own bias and abomination against Chinese laborers played a major role in the ratification of immigration exclusion laws that first prohibited Chinese and then Japanese immigration. Consequently, anti-Chinese bias at the time soon transformed into anti-Asian bias, which ultimately extended into the film industry. In that case, it follows that the necessity to correspond to an audience‟s anti-Asian sentiment and pressures from federal laws that barred Asian immigration fueled the negative portrayal of Asian Americans in early media. In newspapers and magazines during the early 1900‟s, Asian men were depicted with slanted, chinky eyes, protruding buck teeth, and yellow skin. They entered the American mainstream media as coolies. This coolie stereotype dubbed Asian men as economically inferior, eunuchs with awkward accents, and untrustworthy individuals that put on a facade of superficial compliance. Their physical attire also supplemented
their coolie persona, for mainstream media came to identify them by their queues, coolie caps, and slippers and jackets lined with braiding or buttons (lecture 10/4/05‟). Chinese laborers were generally small in stature and undertook menial jobs such as cooking and cleaning. Hence, their menial labor in personal and household services became characterized in the media as an „Asian‟ occupation. Although the American public‟s negative bias against immigrating Chinese laborers instigated negative Asian biases, such as the coolie stereotype in early media, audiences also reciprocated to media‟s representation of the coolie persona by allowing for unfair representations of Asians to resonate and take firm root in today‟s entertainment industry. Today, outright discrimination against any minority is prohibited, but America‟s history of hatred and inequality to Asian minorities that began with early Chinese laborers has significantly spoiled the possibility for fair Asian representation in Hollywood.
II. Female & Male Stereotyping Hollywood‟s repetitive portrayal of the consistent typical stereotypes of Asian men and women is not only translated as a typecast for Asian-Americans, but emphasizes the Asian American inequalities present amongst race, gender, and class status (Zia 127). Asian men are frequently categorized to fulfill the role of the wicked Asian man, dumb fool, or as an undesirable male partner. In regards to the first stereotype that typecasts Asian American men as avaricious and evil gangsters, there were three major mainstream films during the late 1980‟s and early 90‟s,
such as Year of the Dragon(1985), China Girl (1987), and King of New York(1990), that illustrated Asian men as gangsters, murderers or drug traffickers. Particularly, in Year of the Dragon (1985), the White main character, Stanely White undergoes an investigation that entails gang shootings in a Chinese restaurant, drug trafficking from Southeast Asia, and a dangerous Chinese mafia. The movie also contains numerous racial slurs like “yellow nigger” and “chink.” Then, according to the portrayal of Year of the Dragon, Asian men, who are perceived by both the media and audience without any differentiation from Asian-American men, collaborate with the Italian mafia, have connections with Chinese Triads back in China, and run illegal drug trades. The second prominent stereotype in big screen films portrays Asian-American men as thick headed and foolish, especially compared to the characters played by Whites. In Lethal Weapon 4, Jet Li stars as the Asian villain that heads a drug trade, illegal workforce from China, and assassinations. Playing the character of an Asian villain not only categorizes Jet Li into the first Asian male stereotype as an evil gangster, but the portrayal of him and other Asian sidekicks‟ irrational and poor decisions insinuate their 1) stupidity in making poor strategic choices that failed to outsmart the two cops; 2) inferiority compared to the superior hero cops; and, 3) defeat and their killings as justified, since they‟re as seemingly irrational and inferior Asian men. Lastly, Asian men are either feminized or portrayed as abusive mates to drive home the point that they‟re unsuitable male partners. A well-known Blockbuster hit, The Joy Luck Club, exactly illustrates this stereotype (Zia 116). For instance, not only did the three out of the four daughters chose to marry White men over Asian men, but the one daughter that chose to marry an
Asian man endured daily stress and mental strain from a parsimonious, egotistical Asian husband that put no effort into their marriage. Even worse, the mothers of all four of those daughters are portrayed as having abusive and immoral Asian husbands. Nevertheless, Asian American women are commonly paired with White males, and depicted as a China Doll or Dragon Lady figures. Asian male actors are rarely paired with White females in movies, but Asian women are frequently portrayed falling in love with White men. In Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), James Bond (Perce Brosnan) is at first annoyed of the Asian female reporter (Michelle Yeoh) meddling with his mission, but the movie eventually ends in a victorious mission and a blossoming romance. This White male-Asian female duo deprecates the Asian female for easily falling in love with a man only because he‟s White, and reinforces the notion that Asian men are unsuitable partners. In addition, the typecasts that portray Asian women as China Doll or Dragon Lady figures affects the status of Asian-American women as well. According to the Asian female label of China Doll that the audiences associate with Asian American women, she is mysterious yet unthreatening, excessively feminine, and very eager to please (usually by sexual means). In Year of the Dragon, the Asian female reporter succumbs to the White police chief‟s sexual coercion, despite that she slaps him on the face prior to have sex. In Return to Paradise, three white American males sleep around with local Malaysian girls. Despite that these Malaysian girls are not American and only appear in the beginning of the movie, their vagrant portrayal suggests to the audience that Asian American women may also be sexually eager to please, especially if the
man is both rich and white. Furthermore, the term Dragon Lady applies to Asian women who put on a seductive and desirable façade usually with an ill-hearted, backstabbing motive. Although attractive and enticing, the Dragon Lady portrayal suggests to a wide audience that Asian American women are equally seductive with the power to hypnotize and quite untrustworthy. In both of the cases, the China Doll and Dragon Lady depictions of Asian women suggest that Asian American women will equally employ sexual favors to get what they want, whether that is for a rich White man or a means for another objective. Nevertheless, both the female and male stereotyping can be generally categorized into three categories: gooks, geeks, and geisha. The gook tag can be categorized into the Asian American male stereotypes of evil gangsters. The geek label embellishes the Asian American as an unmanly and passive nerd. The model minority stamped on to Southern Asians also stems from this geek staple that has resonated within the American public. The geisha aura came to be epitomized as the compliant and submissive sex object that all white women should follow. In fact, the geisha persona became Hollywood‟s focal logo of postwar reconciliation. Some versions of the Madame Butterfly story include: My Geisha with Yoko Tani, Sayonara (1957) starring Miiko Tara, and Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). These films all present the same plotline of the submissive Asian women and insinuate a comparison of the submissive Asian woman to the outspoken and less acquiescent White woman. Particularly in Sayonara (1957), Katsumi is deemed as the paradigm of female virtue for not only being presented as cheerfully performing her domestic tasks of cooking, serving guests, or bathing her husband, but because her dedication
and allegiance to her husband compels her to commit suicide with him (lecture 9/27/05‟). Hence, especially in the minds of American men and mainstream America, the submissive Asian woman, or the direct progeny of the geisha, became the ideal female icon. Overall, as suggested by Heleu Zia, these misconceptions makeup and contribute to the glass ceiling effect that hinders Asian Americans from achieving high profile managerial positions in the work industry (Zia 113).
III. The Significance of Negative Media Portrayal of Asian Americans Negative portrayal of Asian Americans in film has also negatively affected 1) the American public‟s perception of Asians; 2) the identity of Asian American themselves; and, 3) the possibility for fair and equal Asian representation in Hollywood at present and in the future. 1. Our history of anti-Asian sentiment suggests that the American public may have first triggered media to parallel their anti- Asian sentiment, but the audiences today with no first hand encounter or recollection of an era of coolie stereotypes or anti-Asian sentiments are being fed an array of new stereotypes—from the exotic, sex-deprived Asian woman to the hooligan, physically abusive characters of Asian men. Even so, large populations of Asian Americans generally live on the East and West coasts, such as California or New York. This means that a large share of Americans in almost all-White populated cities will never have direct physical encounters or meaningful relationships with Asian Americans, so they‟re depiction of Asian Americans will generally be distorted by the bias images and representations of Asian Americans that Hollywood portrays.
2. Figuring out how the identity of Asian Americans are affected by Hollywood‟s negative portrayals is not difficult, for go to any middle-class suburban high school and Asians Americans are most likely segregated from whites in their own Asian groups. Not to wholly advocate that the cause of Asian enclaves or social segregation in school settings are triggered by Hollywood‟s negative portrayals, but some correlation probably exists. The negative portrayals of Hollywood negatively affect the mainstream audiences, and this in return affects how Asian Americans and whites socially reciprocate, along with how Asian Americans assimilate into society. 3. For the first half of this century, the few movies with Asian leads were played by White actors. This practice of yellowface, or allowing audiences to experience exotic regions and new thrills without the presumable threat of real Asians themselves, became Hollywood‟s take on Orientalism and the onset to today‟s big screen trend of limiting Asian characters and roles. In addition, minor roles and characters were sometimes given to Asians—that is, only to be mocked or ridiculed. For example, the character of Rooney, as portrayed in Breakfast at Tiffany‟s, is feminized as a bumbling fool (lecture 9/27/05‟). There are several downfalls in the film industry that have both caused and led to further typecasting and Asian American biases. Beginning from portrayal of the first Chinese laborers, media has been reluctant to differentiate between Asians and Asian Americans, despite that the later are presumably loyal to their country and part of society. This failure to differentiate between these two insinuates that Asian Americans pledge loyalty to their mother county of racial
origin and hence, are untrustworthy. It also stimulates the discussion that Asian Americans are not only politically passive, but don‟t contribute to society either. Hollywood additionally failed to differentiate between the different types of Asian cultures, namely borrowing customs from Chinese, Japanese, or Korean cultures and grouping them together to portray one jumbo Asian race (Zia 117-119). In the 1950-70‟s, the American public reciprocated media‟s portrayal of lumping Asian cultures together by calling all Korean and Vietnamese women Mama-San, despite that the word originated from the Japanese culture. The scarcity of major roles and characters available in past major films has also extended into our present day, for Asian Americans don‟t have nearly the same number, variety of roles, or respect as present day African Americans or Hispanics—who have found a strong foothold in Hollywood. Namely, Hale Berry, Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith, etc. are undoubtedly successful and generally respected by the American public and media.
IV. My own Asian American Identity & View on Hollywood Typecasting In truth, I never considered myself to have an “Asian identity,” for I always understood and identified myself as solely Korean. On the other hand, after acquiring knowledge and insight on the unequal and unfair representations of Asian-Americans in film, I‟ve come to an epiphany and realization that my Korean identity extends to makeup the Asian identity as well, especially in the eyes of others that will coin me as Asian-American. Then, if other Caucasians categorize me as Asian-American, regardless of my Korean origin, and Hollywood is stereotyping Asians overall, then this must mean that I am thus, viewed in the gook, geek, and geisha lens that Hollywood provides.
Because Asians and even Asian American generally go to their Asian countries to achieve fame and celebrity status, they contribute to this continuous problem of Asian American misconceptions by not attempting to debut in Hollywood. Perhaps, Hong Kong and Korean actors and actresses especially strive to become top stars in their own countries and don‟t debut in Hollywood because they‟re 1) not confident that they could succeed in Hollywood; 2) the presumable insignificant demand for Asian actors by the mainstream audience and most importantly, by Asian-American audiences themselves; and, 3) the limitations and barriers that constrain the number and variety of Asian roles available. Unlike black and gay audiences that can support their type of movie genres, Asian Americans are seemingly hypocrites for incorporating themselves in Asian circles and enclaves, but show a lack of demand and support for all-Asian Hollywood films or independent Asian American films in the box office. Even worse, we worsen the continuation of our unfair representation by actually supporting Hollywood Blockbuster hits like Charlie‟s Angels or Jackie Chan action flicks that undermine Asian American identity. Hence, we need to pay up and spend some money on independently produced Asian American films and boycott others that misrepresent both Asians and Asian Americans, since these misconceptions ultimately impinge on our wellbeing and relationships with white Americans. Then again, if we don‟t support the big screens films with distorted Asian representations, such as the Jet Li or Jackie Chan movies, what foothold can Asians and Asian Americans have in Hollywood at all? On a positive note, I think there has been great improvement from the past, which used
White actors to play Asian roles like in the TV series “Kung Fu” that used David Carradine as a half Chinese-white Shaolin Monk. Today, there are several Asian American actors in Hollywood that have achieved some level of fame and eminence. For instance, Ken Watanabe received a bid for an Oscar for his performance in Last Samurai, despite that Brad Pitt played the lead role. Even though Lucy Liu emphasizes the Dragon Lady persona in her Charlie‟s Angel‟s series, she is well known throughout mainstream America. Kelly Hu, in her role as “Lady Deathstrike” in the second X-Men, is among one of the most successful Asian actresses in Hollywood as well. Even so, Jackie Chan is probably by far the most successful Asian actor in Hollywood. Chan has established himself as an A-list Hollywood actor with films like Shanghai Noon, Rush Hour, and its sequels. Yet, movies like Kill Bill only confirm that martial arts is an inseparable label characteristic to Asian American films. Then, it seems as though the Asian influence on mainstream American cinema is still confined within martial arts (for Asian men) or exotic sexuality (for Asian women). Perhaps, Asian Americans cannot take on roles and characters beyond the boundaries of their typecasts because in the competitive market of Hollywood, risk taking is fatal, and allowing Asians Americans to play different and new roles (other than karate chopping) would be going against what the audience has become conditioned to expect. Indeed, the notion of Asian action thrillers with drug trafficking and assignation plots crossed over to the American film industry because such type of movie plots were popular in Hong Kong. Then, why is it okay for Asians to portray their own race as evil, merciless killers, but it is not acceptable for Whites in Hollywood to portray the equivalent? The reason is that popular Asian films produced
in Asia don‟t reach the wide array of world-wide audiences that Hollywood can achieve, meaning that such films produced in Asian countries are not threatening to how White Americans distort Asian Americans. Nonetheless, Asian Americans are too segregated and overly involved inside their own Asian American culture and enclaves. Even though I grew up in a predominantly white middleupper class neighborhood, all my close friends were mostly Korean or at least Asian in high school. We—the Asians—were in our own little world at school. We not only spoke our own languages and exchanged our own inside jokes on Asian celebrities and music, but we successfully cut off every other person that wasn‟t Asian from our circle of friends by building a segregating wall around White people. Hence, by not allowing White Americans to better understand and befriend me in the past, I have also contributed to the problem of White Americans not having access to any other impression of Asian Americans, other than what Hollywood negatively portrays. Regardless of what triggers Asian Americans to join tight knit circles of their own race, I strongly believe that Asian Americans need to be more open and reach out to more diverse racial groups, since we‟re in America and not Asia. Also, Asian Americans need to be more aware of the negative stereotypes and limited roles given to Asian Americans in the media mainstream, for this negative typecast not only affects them as individuals in American society, but degrades the Asian American image as a whole to other countries that receive Hollywood Blockbuster hits satiated with Asian misconceptions. By voicing this opinion to my Korean and Asian friends, I will hopefully contribute to a better future for Asian American
representation and roles in Hollywood.
Bibliography Zia, Heleu. Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. Straus & Giroux: New York (2000).