Asian Americans are depicted in Hollywood movies, books, and T.
V. as the silent and submissive foreigners. Even if those depictions were to be true, they are still stereotypes that remain present in today’s media. There are 12 million Asian Americans in America (U.S. Census 2000), and most of us live only on the west and east coast of the United States. Therefore, Americans living in central parts of this country have not really been exposed to many Asian Americans.
Because of this, it is safe to assume that most Americans get their exposure to the Asian American cultures only through media. Asian Americans have been unable to have acquire and maintain a voice and leave impact in the American culture because of having been degraded in popular media. While Asian representation in the media was already something that’s always in my mind, seeing Scarlett Johansson play the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi in the anime adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” ignited frustration within me. Whitewashing, or casting white actors in the roles of non-white people, for Asian roles isn’t really new or surprising at all. Asians have long been underrepresented and misrepresented in the media. Asian representation in media can make it difficult for me and my fellow Asian Americans to find our identity when we are not fairly represented.
When colorblind racism was discussed in class, it very much reminded me of M. Night Shyamalan’s statement about whitewashing in the adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” At an interview for a Gawker Media blog in 2010, he proudly stated that in terms of casting, he “didn’t take race into consideration—we just cast the best person for the role” (iO9.com 2010).
Not taking race into consideration, in my opinion, is colorblind racism at its best. Although Shyamalan did not let racial stereotypes affect his decision on who to cast for the movie, the fact that he refused to acknowledge that the movie is whitewashed and believes he doesn’t see color makes this situation very problematic. It erases the histories and cultures of Asians by claiming “colorblind casting” instead of just “casting.” Asian Americans could only either be underrepresented or misrepresented in media. The model minority persona is an example of the many misrepresentations of Asians that we see today. Asian Americans are believed to have astounding achievements in education, rising occupational statuses, increasing income, and crime-free.
The illusion of the minority’s success is used in racial solidarity as proof that the American dream of equal opportunity is available to those who conform and who are willing to work hard. This has become an excuse for people of color, such as African Americans and Latinxs, to be blamed for their own systemic oppression “because of their non-marrying, school-skipping, and generally lazy and irresponsible behavior, which government handouts only encourage.” (Asian American – Lecture 11/26) Therefore, this model minority persona is really just a way to control minority groups in society, and to validate and reinforce Western values. Another commonly distorted representation of Asian Americans portrayed in media, especially in Hollywood movies, is a martial arts master who speaks broken English. This kind of martial artist persona is a deceiving concept, though, since it is disguised as a “masculine” character fighting against the villains. However, counter-intuitively, most of these characters are demasculinized by being desexualized.
Bruce Lee was among the first to embody this persona through his action movies in the 70s. Lee, as a small but extremely masculine Asian man, played several heroic roles, beating villains and opponents of other races. Lee promptly became sensational and loved by a wide range of Americans regardless of their age, sex, or ethnicity.
His fast, agile, charismatic, and philosophical characteristics put him in a respectable light. Yet, the problem from this phenomenon is that Lee was still portrayed as a foreigner, alienated from American culture with his thick accent. Another problematic aspect of Bruce Lee’s sensation is that he was a desexualized Kung Fu master lacking romantic or sensual scenes with female characters. This has been maintained by his modern “successors” like Jackie Chan. His character from the movie “Rush Hour” is arguably the most memorable Asian character for many Americans.
Even though the movie was a big hit which was exceptional for a movie with an Asian protagonist, the conventional Asian Kung Fu persona somewhat turned even more distorted by Chan’s character’s comically choreographed action scenes, broken English, and slapstick scenes as the subject of ridicule. It has become apparent that the blueprint for Asian Americans to be recognized in media is if Asians play to the role of the stereotypes that exist in this country. When I first saw Hong Kong-born UC Berkeley engineering student William Hung in “American Idol” in 2004, I got secondhand embarrassment from it. He is an accented Asian American who can’t sing, but America still loved him. I respected what he was doing, but I knew I certainly wouldn’t see the judges of American Idol glorify an African American man who couldn’t sing, nor would they prop up a clumsy, tone-deaf white person. Regular “American Idol” viewers know the fact that a lot of talented singers have been rejected and abused by the show’s Simon Cowell, but the difference here is Hung is an Asian American. The accented-foreigner gag is still considered acceptable in modern day entertainment, especially when it comes to Asian Americans. If Hung didn’t play into the distorted image of Asians that is grotesquely exaggerated for comic relief, I don’t think he would be as successful.
In Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory, race is defined as an organizing principle of social relationships that shapes identities at the individual and small group level, thereby affecting social life. Because of how we’re represented in media, Asian Americans are often not taken seriously among our non-Asian peers. Most Asian Americans I have met tell me that they have experienced unprovoked name-calling, which I myself have experienced countlessly. The most striking fact in the name-calling towards Asians is that it’s primarily based on the stereotypical media representation.
It’s easy to say “it’s just a movie, it’s just TV, don’t take it too seriously,” but so much of art imitates life. Being a big movie fan myself, the fact that my identity is presented with the same stereotypes over and over, whether for Asians or any other race, makes it easy to believe those stereotypes must be true. Representations of Asians and Asian Americans go beyond the stereotype. These representations are strategies used by the media, sometimes arbitrarily, to characterize Asians, and they have effects that are real, immediate, and deferred. While they register on the senses and in the mind, the collective and often repeated images and narratives become part of history.There are almost no positive figures accurately representing Asian Americans, which could perhaps be a key in overcoming the defamatory stereotypes that Asian Americans go through today. If Asian Americans are unable to find a resolution in the current state of popular culture and social order, the only way we can stop being misrepresented is to breakthrough onto a new platform that not only gives us the independence to control our own representation, but a platform that will also make it in popular culture.
The absence of Asian Americans in media has compelled the Asian American youth to adapt the personas of every other culture besides their own in their desire for social and cultural belongingness. Whether it’s whitewashing, colorblind casting, the model minority myth, or the Asian blueprint– Asian Americans, having been degraded in the realm of popular media, have been unable to obtain a voice or leave a trace in the American culture. In order to change this, we need to be represented in the media in a way that acknowledges our own complexities and uniqueness, so that all Asian Americans can grow up confident in their racial identity and non-Asians can know there is more to us than our accents, Kung Fu, and chopsticks.