|Negative Stereotyping of Asian Americans|
By Farah Mahdzan and Norlinda Ziegler
Gender, race and class stereotypes of Asian Americans in the media, especially those depicted in popular movies, give the impression of what Asian Americans are really like to other Americans as well as to Asian Americans themselves. From the exaggerated depictions of exotic, sex-hungry Asian women to the gangster-involved, sexually abusive characteristics of Asian men, movie producers perpetuate the gender, race and class inequalities of Asian Americans by allowing these demonizing Asian characteristics to appear over and over in their box office movies. Examples of such characters appear in popular Asian-American movies such as The Year of the Dragon (1985), The Joy Luck Club (1993), Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), and Return to Paradise (1998).
Method of analyzing
This research paper plans to analyze the stereotypical characters of Asian American men and women in popular movies as well as their appearance in daily television broadcast. Depictions of Asian Americans in the movies have not changed much over the years. The appearance of the evil-scheming Fu Manchu in movies like The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu from the early 1900s portrayed the Asian man as cold and ruthless, "all brain but no heart" (Cao). We are still able to find this negative Asian male character in some action-packed movies such as Fury of the Dragon (1976) and The Year of the Dragon (1985).
Despite the fact that Asian Americans have lived and flourished in the United States over the past century, Asian Americans are commonly portrayed as newly arrived immigrants who speak fortune cookie (broken) English and cannot assimilate with other members of the American society. Other negative depictions include greedy Asian bandits out to destroy white civilization and defy its man-made laws, and Asian women who are weak, passive and allow themselves to be sexually and emotionally abused by men.
Eager to test out these myths of Asian American media depictions, we rented some current popular American movies with Asian American male and female actors. We also observed several hours of television each day for Asian American appearances and to see how they appear on these broadcasts. To make our analysis easier to digest, we have divided our observations according to the stereotypical Asian American male and female categories.
The Typical Asian American Male
Evil Asian Men
More often than not, Asian men have always played the role of the evil and greedy gangster in popular adventure movies such as Lethal Weapon 4, Rush Hour and The Year of the Dragon. The myth that Asian American communities such as Chinatown breeding with illegal activities like drug dealing, prostitution and gangster movements all get their emphasis in movies such as the ones mentioned.
For example, in Lethal Weapon 4, Jet Li plays an Asian villain character who is in charge of smuggling illegal labor force from China, drug dealings and assigned killings, among other things. When his Chinatown-based operation is discovered by two Los Angeles police officers, played by a Caucasian and a Black actor, the chase is on to capture the villain. The end results favored the good guys, of course. Often have other movie producers used this stereotypical movie plot to increase the suspense and sensationalism of the movie. Asian men are seen as violent, inhuman, property destroyers, and kill mercilessly. This Asian-male-gangster image glorifies male aggression beyond the point of rational.
Lack of Intelligence
Another interesting observation we gathered about Asian men in the movies we saw depicted the Asian man as being less than intelligent when compared to their white counterparts in the movie. Using the example of Lethal Weapon 4 again, the Asian villains were constantly making the wrong moves in combating their enemies. Asian sidekicks were making tactical decisions that cost them their lives, making the heroes look superior and the killings of the Asian American men justified.
In another popular adventure movie, Rambo (1987), the leading actor and hero, a white male (Sylvester Stallone), single handedly defeated a villageful of Vietnamese soldiers in his quest to destroy communism. Such a feat could not be possible in reality.
Undesirable Male Partners
Asian men are depicted as men who do not have the capability of being ideal partners to women of their own racial groups. This is emphasized when movie producers start pairing Asian women off with white men instead of men of their own races. These women supposedly prefer to be with white men.
In the family-oriented movie based on Amy Tan's book, the Joy Luck Club portrayed Asian men as undesirable male partners. Joy Luck Club was a story of the relationships of first generation Asian American mothers and their grown-up daughters. Out of the four daughters that appeared in the movie, only one married another Asian man while the rest of the daughters married white men. Even at that, the Asian man turned out to be a stingy, selfish man with little regard for his wife. On top of that, the husbands of the mothers in this story were abusive and promiscuous Asian men. In other words, Asian men were seen as irresponsible and do not value their families.
"Yellow Uncle Tom"
Asian men are portrayed as passive, old and speak broken English. The term "Yellow Uncle Tom" was coined to describe Asian men of this type. The Karate Kid (1984) was a movie we saw that depicted the Asian actor as such a man. In Karate Kid, Pat Morita plays Mr. Miyagi, an old Japanese American World War II veteran who calmly trains an enthusiastic white teenage male the Japanese martial arts of karate. Despite the fact that Mr. Miyagi was an American WWII veteran, he was still portrayed speaking English with a foreign accent (Wong).
The myth that all Asian men know some form of martial arts was also stressed in this movie when Mr. Miyagi surprises Daniel (the white male leading actor) with his karate moves after appearing passive and bashful during the first portions of the film. It reminds people to be aware of Asian men in general because passivity may not appear to be what it seems.
The Female Asian American Stereotype
In Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) starring Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh, the plot centered on James Bond, a white secret detective, who initially had an Asian female reporter interfering with his duties. Tension builds between them until they start cooperating in their operations and predictably fall in love in the end. It has been a common sight seeing a white man paired off with an Asian woman in the movie scene, but seldom do we see an Asian man paired off with a white woman. Asian women are often depicted as easily falling in love with white men, sometimes even at just first sight. This scene has been termed the "unmotivated white-Asian romance" because the woman easily falls in love with a man because he is white (MANAA).
We have also seen news broadcasts on television where the news anchors consist of an Asian female and a white male. An example of an Asian female news anchor that we observed on television paired off with a white male news partner was Juju Chang for ABC news. Anchor team for CBS news, Connie Chung and Dan Rather was also a popular pair on the news broadcast several years ago. We have yet to see an Asian man paired off with a white woman on the news. The only times we observed Asian men in news broadcasts made them appear solo, e.g., the weatherman on the Weather Channel or as Asia-based correspondents on CNN (Interracial).
The Asian woman is supposedly sexually active, exotic, overly feminine and eager to please. This character is termed "China Doll," and appears countless times in popular movies. Examples include Return to Paradise. The movie sets itself in Malaysia where three white male Americans spend their time laying on the beach, sniffing cheap cocaine and sleeping with the local girls. Even though the Asian female actors in this movie were not Asian American and only appeared for a few minutes in the beginning portion of the movie, nevertheless it still conveyed the message that Asian women take pride in sexually serving white men because the men are white and rich. When Asians are constantly depicted as one way in movies, it predominantly effects the way people see Asian Americans.
What Hollywood may have failed to portray about these Asian women is that these Asian women are prostitutes merely trying to support their families by offering sexual services to men whom they see rich. Because they come from poor families and lack education, some Asian women earn their living by these means, and preferring to sleep with a man due to his skin color has nothing to do with it: money talks.
Another example of the China Doll character appeared in The Year of the Dragon. The leading actor, a white police chief who is deemed racist towards Chinese in this movie, tries beyond his best to eliminate violence in New York's Chinatown. He befriends an Asian American female news anchor to get his crack-down-on-Chinatown-violence stories on TV broadcast. The police officer is depicted as arrogant and selfish man, and the Asian American woman dislikes him immensely because he makes derogatory remarks about her being Chinese. She refuses to air his story. However, when the police officer swings by the woman's house, he coerces her into having sex with him, and she submits to him, despite giving him rejection slaps on the face prior to engaging in sexual intercourse. This movie not only showed that Asian American women were passive and indecisive, but it also stressed that Asian American women do want to have sex with white men, even if she says no initially.
"Dragon Lady" refers to an Asian woman who is perceived as seductive, desirable but at the time she is untrustworthy. Movies from the early century have been successful in portraying this stereotypical version of the Asian woman. "Daughter of Fu Manchu" is one of them. Scheming, treacherous and dangerous, the Dragon Lady is the female version of the Asian bad guy, only with a slightly different approach to defeat her enemies. She has the power to hypnotize her male rivals, gains trust by seducing them, and when they least expect it, she rids of them through sabotage or backstabbing (Espiritu).
These stereotypes of Asians in the American media have been socially constructed by the powerful institution we call Hollywood. Hollywood movies have long been promoting white dominance in its films. It upholds the belief that being white and male and heterosexual is state of being privileged, though many White heterosexual men would not realize this until it is pointed out.
For example, a white man is able to have a sexual relationship with an Asian woman, but an Asian man cannot be seen having an intimate relationship with a white woman. White guys always win the battle against the Asians. White men are always portrayed stronger and more intelligent than Asian men are.
We then asked ourselves, what are the purposes of these negative stereotypes of Asians in popular media in general and how do they reflect the social hierarchy that we are accustomed with here in the United States?
Self implies Other
In an article entitled "Portrait of White Racism" by David Wellman and Howard Pinderburghes, they mention that the creation of self requires the social construction of another. "Self implies other; without Other, there can be can be no Self." To put this assertion in congruence with our findings, without the appearance of malicious Asians in these popular movies, white appearances have no identity, no power and no privilege. The Asian male character is portrayed as being less adequate than the White male leading actor to emphasize that there is discrepancy between the two characters, and for the White man to uphold his position in the American society, the Asian character must lose the battle against his White rival.
As shown in our analysis, Asian men are constantly being depicted as evil because being evil is unfavorable, socially unacceptable and deserves to either be isolated from the rest of society or just die out of existence.
The Asian man must also display no competition to the White man in terms of courtship with women, especially Asian women. Out of irony, the Asian man is not allowed to have an intimate relationship with a white woman because the white woman cannot be subjected to the Asian patriarchal system, which is seen as inferior and potentially degrading. Asian men are portrayed as weak and less masculine to emphasize that they do not have the ability to attract women into entering companionship, unlike the white men who always successfully grab the attention of the Asian women.
From a feminist perspective, the portrayal of Asian women in most of these popular flicks heavily support the theory of white male dominance. In her article entitled "Night to His Day," Judith Lorber says that "one gender is usually the touchstone, the normal, the dominant, and the other is indifferent, deviant and subordinate." In whatever circumstances, when confronted with the male gender, the Asian woman is almost always the subordinate, whether she is the abused spouse of the Asian man, or the loyal puppy-eyed lover of the White man. If it's not about her Asian spouse abusing her thus gaining her sympathy from the audience (China Doll character), she is boo-ed at by viewers when she successfully seduces the White male characters into self-destruction (Dragon Lady character).
Asian women also supposedly set the hegemonic female standards that attract a man. "Implicitly, these films warn white women to embrace the socially constructed passive Asian beauty as the feminine ideal if they want to attract and keep a man" (Espiritu). The social construction of Asian women in movies is also intended to not just socially construct the Asian American women, but also white women who might feel in competition with their Asian American counterparts in getting a man.
Class discrepancy appears when race and gender discrepancies are present. By showing that there are racial and gender differences between the leading white actor and the supporting Asian actors, it implies that the Asian characters come from an economically disadvantaged class because they are racially and gender-wise inferior. A lot of the Asian American characters in the movies that we saw have been depicted as poor social deviants.
Although our findings overwhelmingly display Asian Americans as negative characters in movies, it must be emphasized that these findings were a result of viewing popular movies over the last two decades. We cannot deny, however, that Asians have played some positive roles in some movies and television programs. For example, TV program Martial Law features two Asian police officers helping Los Angeles Police Department get rid of its criminals. Movies starring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan also often feature them as the heroes who save the day when they single handedly defeat villains.
However, Asian characters in popular American movies continue to portray negative stereotypes. Considering what make these movies popular are the consumers themselves, boycotting these movies and educating the American public about these unfounded stereotypical Asian American characters would be two steps that we as a community could take to decrease the number of movies that glorify Asian American misconceptions. Many web sites on the Internet such as "A Memo from MANNA to Hollywood: Asian Stereotypes" [and DemocracyWeb's Media Portrayal Project--Ed.] are dedicated to educate people about these issues that we have presented.
We hope that many will be able to see our points of view after reading our research paper and watch these Asian American movies with a different and enlightened frame of mind.Quote this article on your site