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Stephanie Drenka


Burdens of the Past: Asian American Representation in the Media

Burdens of the Past: Asian American Representation in the Media

The recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy has been weighing heavily on my heart. I could re-post any number of articles written on the subject, but wondered if it might be therapeutic to share some of my own thoughts instead.


It seems like another lifetime that I was president of the Asian Cultural Exchange at DePaul, championing diversity, and marching in front of the White House for social justice. My Asian American Studies and Women’s Studies minors have become minor details on my resume. But every so often… some current event catches on my heart strings, quickens my pulse in anger, or causes a disheartened tear to well up in my eye.

Another past life that I discuss only as a light-hearted anecdote, or with my closet friends, is the one where I had dreams of being a famous Broadway actress. Choir and Theater were the two most important aspects of my life as a teenager. Music saved me. In a school where I felt constantly singled out for being different, the stage was the place where I could forget any ostracization and finally belong. But as senior year approached, and my other classmates began scheduling auditions for performing arts colleges, I took a long, hard look at my potential future. These were the days before Glee or Hamilton. Asians were (are) still the Invisible Minority and Perpetual Foreigners. I wondered if I was ready to devote my life to a career of being a chorus girl (unless someone decided to revive Miss Saigon, The King and I, or Flower Drum Song).

#OscarsSoWhite is not just a black problem. It’s not even just an Oscars problem. Underrepresentation is the problem. Growing up watching television and not seeing your race portrayed positively or accurately is a problem. Young Asian American women, lacking role models or strong characters with whom to relate, subjugating themselves to the stereotype of a voiceless China Doll because the media has infantilized and sexualized their race/gender in movies and television is a problem. And people in our country dismissing this blatant underrepresentation or accepting it as an inevitability or standard is the biggest problem.

Thank you to all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard, and for so long, that stories about anyone else seem kind of fresh and original. (Alan Yang, 2016 Critics’ Choice Awards)

Author George Orwell once said that “the people will believe what the media tells them they believe.” Perhaps this school of thought could be used to explain why, despite the integral part that Asians and Asian Americans have played in the United States, they still remain under or misrepresented in the media and the social realms of politics, higher education, businesses, and the like. Past refusals of the controllers of media to portray Asians in any honorable or accurate manner mirrored the unwarranted hostility towards Asian immigrants at the time and paved the way for future perversions of Asian Americans through the eyes of the media.

In 2006, Rosie O’Donnell shared a terrible “Ching-chong” joke on “The View” which should have warranted severe repercussions, but because Asians historically have not stood up against such offenses, she felt that it was appropriate to defend herself by saying that Asians could not take a joke. Jokes targeted at Asians have become so acceptable that even Asian American actress Lucy Liu spoke out in defense of O’Donnell, unfortunately misrepresenting the general sentiment of the hurt Asian American community.

Racism against Asians in America is not a recent occurrence, and dates back as far as the first Chinese immigrants in the 1800’s. With emergence of Coolie labor in the 1870’s and escalating fears of labor competition, the level of villainy infused in portrayals of Chinese increased. Music has always been an integral part of American culture. Before the invention of television or movie theaters, song was a primary form of storytelling and satire. The history of the early Chinese immigration was laced with pidgin filled lyrics from the early songs about Chinese people which emphasized the foreignness of the “John Chinaman” and mocked their different physical characteristics as well as their accents and culture. Humorous songs and poems quickly accelerated into cartoons of the evil “Other.” The cartoons of John Chinaman shown in class pitted the negative, evil Chinese against the virtuous and ideal American. Or, in order to remove the fear of Chinese power, the evil Chinese were portrayed as childlike and weak as opposed to the strong, successful Americans.

Stuart Hall, in The Spectacle of the Other, addresses the complicated concept of “the Other” and the necessity and consequences of differences. While not blatantly hateful, these early forms of stereotyping were harmful in that they branded Chinese immigrants as perpetual foreigners, setting a precedent of caricaturizing the features of Asians for humor. It is why even in this 21st century, a radio station called Hot 97 found it humorous to play a song mocking Asian Tsunami victims with lyrics, though modernized, that were reminiscent of the folk songs of the 19th century with words such as “Chinaman” and “Chink” interlaced with jokes about drowning Asians screaming for help.

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Media is inextricably intertwined with power. Illustrations such as the ones produced in this time period were a form of reclaiming the power that they feared Chinese were targeting for themselves by dehumanizing and thereby weakening them. Even though years later technologies have changed, the use of cartoonish representations of Asians versus Americans has not.

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The film “Team America” used puppets to mock different global figures, namely now-deceased North Korean president, Kim Jong-Il. The character spoke with a distinctive accent with “R’s instead of L’s” and was the opposition of “Team America.”

Competition for labor was not the only issue that arose from Chinese immigration. White men feared for more than the loss of their jobs; they worried about the loss of their women. The governmental restraints on Chinese immigrants banning them from becoming naturalized citizens or bringing Chinese women to settle and start families in America left few options to Chinese men that wished to marry or have a family. Thus, the threat to the idea of the American family was in jeopardy. In order to condemn the union of Chinese men and White women, the media was used to emasculate and desexualize Chinese men. Characters such as Ah Toy in the 1936 film Frisco Doll were developed to demonstrate the consequences of going against the social norms, especially for the Chinese men who dared express feelings of affection towards White women.

Examples of films such as Broken Blossoms and The Cheat showed Asian male characters with sexual interest in White female characters. The films presented examples of two different types of Asian men. In The Cheat, the Asian male was seen as an attempted racist who, lacking sexual power, used money instead. Broken Blossom was more “sympathetic” to its Asian male, portraying him as a caregiver to the female character, but there was still an air of inappropriate affection or “dirty old man” syndrome.

It is no surprise, then, that today there are so few romantic male leads played by Asian actors. The stigma attached to Asian men as being feminine or non-sexual has followed them for years. Even in subtle ways such as the lack of Asian news anchors being paired with White female anchors shows that the idea of the miscegenation of Asian males and White females is unacceptable.

Unlike their male counterparts, however, Asian females found a different struggle in terms of media representation. Unions between Asian females and White males were not forbidden or taboo, but were almost even encouraged and promoted by the media. Characters such as Suzie Wong from The World of Suzie Wong and Linda Lo of Flower Drum Song gave men a new ideal about which to fantasize.

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While some may argue that this is a positive stereotype and it encourages integration and assimilation…even acceptance of Asian culture, these media depictions are equally if not more damaging to Asian Americans than other stereotypes. Asian women then and still today are objectified as exotic submissive women waiting to wait on White men hand and foot. (Who among us hasn’t had “Me Love You Long Time” quoted to us as if it were a romantic pick-up line?)

Asian women are exotic and silent, seen more as an exhibit or spectacle, meant to adorn the arms of the men with which they keep company. With the images presented in the media of what an Asian woman is expected to be, issues of self-esteem and self-worth come into play especially regarding teenage Asian females who are still trying to find their place in society.

Asian women also suffer from a different stereotypical image: the “Dragon Lady.” Slaying the Dragon showed early films with Asian females as the evil villains, preying on the White men. This contributed to the Yellow Peril epidemic and was reminiscent of the early portrayals of the Chinese evil Coolies out to steal jobs. Women were not the only victims of villainous portrayals.

The epitome of the evil Asian man was personified by the character Dr. Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu set the standard for Asian malevolence. His long, thin mustache set a precedent for other Asian villains that followed. According to Screening Asian Americans, Dr. Fu Manchu reflected the anti-Chinese sentiments of the time and brought to light the American concerns about the presence of Chinatowns that were developing throughout the country.

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A glimmer of hope shines in new shows such as Fresh Off the Boat and The Mindy Project. But then Oscar season rolls around and reminds us that we still don’t belong. The Martian, which received 6 Oscar nominations, has been scrutinized for the white-washing of Asian-American roles. Sorry, Matt Damon… While the rest of country is glued to their TV sets watching the Oscars, I will be binging on episodes of Master of None hoping that someday #OscarsSoWhite will be a faint memory of a distant, discriminatory past.

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