Photography by Michelle Yan
This piece was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue
Not to fuss over crumbs, but a funny thing happens in the comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: The white female protagonist runs into her bro-y old flame from ten years ago and finds out he’s moving back to California. This encounter revives her obsession with him, so she hauls herself across the U.S. to be near him.
By the way, he’s not into her. Oh, and the man in question is Asian.
American pop culture regularly emasculates and degrades Asian men. A sampling of Asian typecasting: The kung fu master, the Crazy Asian, the one thirsting after the pretty white girl, the pervy reclusive dork who, despite his sexual appetite, never gets any. What these roles have in common is how they depict Asian men as sexually repulsive and subservient, if not the entertaining monkey who’s too FOB-y to be taken seriously. These representations create a complex interaction between racism and misogyny as commentary on what constitutes not just a real man, but a real person.
You’re not supposed to love these Asian men because they’re sexual naked mole rats. Not desire them, not want to feel their skin run hot under your hands, not think they offer anything besides being the self-hating object of punchlines about small dicks.
In the beloved Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mickey Rooney put on his best yellowface as Mr. Yunioshi: He smushed his eyes into slits, donned Hirohito glasses, and sputtered through his buckteeth. The legacy of Mr. Yunioshi lives on in foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong in the Molly Ringwald classic Sixteen Candles and 2 Broke Girls’ Han Lee. Dong’s love interest is Debbie Pollack, an extremely tall woman. In one scene, he sits on her lap as she peddles a bike. This subverts the dimorphism common onscreen, where male characters’ larger proportions highlight female characters’ tininess, to cast him as the submissive and mock his masculinity.
Han Lee, as Grantland’s Andrew Ti dubs him, is the Long Duk Dong no one asked for. 2 Broke Girls follows two girls working at a diner, with Lee as their Korean manager. He’s a short baby man who speaks in infantile broken English and is heavily implied to be a virgin. When he goes to the women’s bathroom, he bows on his way in. The show’s dialogue depends on blatantly racist Asian jokes.
These kinds of storylines quash the thought these men would make good, fulfilling partners. They’re not deep or complex. Unlike their white counterparts, they don’t get storylines that let them prove their courage or worthiness. You’re not supposed to love these Asian men because they’re sexual naked mole rats. Not desire them, not want to feel their skin run hot under your hands, not think they offer anything besides being the self-hating object of punchlines about small dicks.
To make the disparity less depressing, people tallying scenes in which Asian characters get any are forced to include kissing scenes. This helps pad the count, considering the numerous trysts enjoyed by their white male counterparts.
These stereotypes waste the few roles that Asian actors get. When Asian men do get to speak (in TV or film), they tend to star as sidekicks whose every fiber ooze with sexual desperation. Asian males are also the least likely to be depicted in a romantic relationship. Movie and TV audiences can love plenty of unconventionally attractive male leads — even mediocre, whiny ones— but not if he’s got chink eyes.
Depicting Asian men in this way leverages a powerful, alluring support of white masculinity. After all, the sniveling Chinaman caricature throws the sex appeal of white men into sharp relief. And if we do love them, it’s because of their proximity to whiteness. Good accentless English, check. Can flex heteronormativity like the other guys, doesn’t smell like the food he grew up with, so close to white you forget he’s Asian, check, check, check.
Ken Jeong, former poster boy of the Crazy Asian stereotype with his breakout role in The Hangover, also built his career taking these kinds of roles, and yet he’s flourishing. Asian American actors (Han Lee and Dong are also played by Asian actors) accepting these storylines exemplify the trade-off of wanting to succeed in an industry that excludes people of color.
Emasculating Asian men also leverages a contempt for women. Comedy about goofy, effeminate Asian men is really comedy about men who failed to be “real men” and instead turned out to be like women. That same disdain gets internalized and perpetuated by critics offended by this form of typecasting. As evidence, they point to mannerisms associated with femininity, when effeminate men are not the fundamental problem.
There are a few bright spots. Avan Jogia, who is Canadian and Gujarati, smoldered on the short-lived Twisted as a falsely accused killer who takes the fall for his dad, and as kind-hearted heartthrob Beck on Victorious. Then there was Glenn Rhee, The Walking Dead’s beloved Korean American ex-pizza delivery boy. Bright, loyal, and miraculously a main character, Glenn kissed Maggie to a round of high-fives around the world. He proves himself a sensitive, tender lover, husband, and expecting father, defying death to provide for his unborn child. When the gruesome season six finale left us with (spoiler) the dumpster zombie horde feasting on what appeared to be Glenn, the fan uproar made it clear: Glenn is endgame.
But the dialogue around representation of Asian men tends to fixate on heteronormative flavors of masculinity and machismo, both as a way of dehumanizing Asian men and as its solution. The instinct is to want Asian men who are conventionally masculine, who fit the idea of the real man that Hollywood teaches us to want. But compensating for the dearth of meaningful roles for in this way only welcomes them into the fold of toxic masculinity, not defeat it.
Yellow Fever Pitch
The world of ethnic porn remains slimy as ever, with disconcerting cliches to match
Asian ethnic porn serves up Asian fetishists’ fantasies, from the straightforward to the eerily specific. Porn revolves around power, and nowhere is this more clear than in how it distills Asian female sexuality to stereotype. Here’s a quick survey of the genre, in four cliches:
Me Love You Long Time
Kawaii submissive Asian lady inexplicably wants to be dominated by pasty American man with garbage sense of rhythm. She wears pigtails that bounce as she giggles and gives blow jobs — because it’s her favorite activity. Most likely doesn’t speak English and/or is squealing in Japanese.
The Age of Consent is Asian
Similar to the “Me Love You Long Time,” except more explicit in its underage imagery. Features actresses with tiny, prepubescent bodies often playing prostitutes plucked off the street by groups of grown white men. They always want it, and they’re always down to get it.
Can’t Keep My Hands to Myself
When they’re not teenage prostitutes, Asian women star as masseuses. A whole subgenre called “tugging” centers around this cliche: An oblivious white man gets a massage, and his Asian masseuse wordlessly segues into giving him a handjob (hence “tugging”), if not riding him outright. This cliche, like the others, originates from the plight of Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War.
Exotic Meets Exotic
Another popular subgenre features tiny Asian women getting it from tall, muscular black men with stereotypically large penises. The actors’ respective exoticness play off each other, with the delicate Oriental flower being brutalized by the oft-feared black male. Takeaway: Porn expresses cultural anxieties as much as any other medium.
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