On-Screen Representation: Beyond Zero-Sum Thinking

Sessue Hayakawa and Fannie Ward in The Cheat (1915)

Aditi Natasha Kini has recently written an article in Jezebel about the recent Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan film The Big Sick that caught my attention. She alleges that by depicting an Asian man who pursues a white woman while giving poor representation to Asian female, The Big Sick perpetuates a trend of “casting Asian men opposite white women [that] inevitably erases interracial relationships between people of color”. Indeed, she claims, “Hollywood’s depictions of brown men amount to an erasure of brown women”. Upon reading this article, I was disappointed because, while Kini airs some very legitimate grievances about the way women of color are represented in popular media, she couches these worries in misgivings about relationships between Asian men and white women that are wrongheaded. The problem with this argument is that it turns upon the suppressed premise that on-screen representation is a zero-sum game, a notion of which I think we ought to be very wary. Moreover, Kini criticizes interracial relationships between white females and Asian males on grounds that extend beyond the silver screen, arguing that they are objectionable in general, a sentiment which I find odious, given I myself am a product of miscegenation, with a Japanese-American father and a white mother.

Before launching into these critical points: I think that it is important that minorities and women are depicted as fully fleshed out agents on-screen due to the unfortunate fact that television and Hollywood cinema remain the drip bag of the American unconscious. For example, psychological research has delivered fairly robust evidence that negative and stereotypical portrayals of minorities in media often influence the behavior of viewers for the worse (1, 2). Thus the fact that, as Kind writes, “brown women are portrayed alternately as caricatures, stereotypes, inconsequential, and/or the butts of a joke” in The Big Sick is obviously cause for concern.

Unfortunately, Kini attempts to bolster her argument that films depicting relationships Asian men and white women are “eras[ing] interracial relationships between people of color” by claiming that “[o]nscreen Asian men have been depicted coveting or romancing white women through the ages”, suggesting that there exists a torrent of such films. Her evidence is an IMDB list of films featuring romances between Asian males and white females that consists in a whopping 45 movies, out of over 44,000 Hollywood films (9). One of these films is Romeo Must Die, which notoriously replaced an ending scene of Jet Li and Aaliyah kissing with one of them hugging because the original scene was received poorly by test audiences. Even more ironically, Kini explicitly cites the 1915 film The Cheat as an example of such a film, in which Sessue Hayakawa plays a Japanese-American magnate who attempts to rape and brand white women, a role which was blatantly designed to tap in the sexual insecurities of white men and reinforce the conception of Asian men as wolfish and predatory. Kini claims to be sick of seeing Asian men and white women together on-screen, but her own examples prove that it’s only recently that Asian men have begun to be represented in a complex and human way in the mainstream media.

Moreover, Kini’s contention that on-screen relationships between white women and Asian men necessarily equate to the effacing of Asian women and Asian-Asian relationships doesn’t make sense unless one first assumes that a gain for Asian men in terms of film and TV representation is equivalent to a loss for Asian women, that is, unless one assumes that on-screen representation is a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, a gain for one party is a loss for another, as in Texas hold ’em, football, and cake-cutting. But diversity in the media is not a zero-sum game – there’s no reason why TV shows and movies can’t both depict realistic interracial marriages and realistic same-race marriages. Indeed, in light of the way in which the recent flood of streaming services have upset established models of content production and distribution, it’s easier than ever for audiences to enjoy The Big Sick and The Mindy Project.

Seeing on-screen representation as a zero-sum game isn’t just patently wrong – it’s also detrimental to efforts to eradicate racism. When we act as though gains for one minority group must come at another group’s expense, we pit ourselves against one another and undermine our own common goals of confronting and erasing inequality, racial or otherwise. To be clear, this isn’t to say that we should dismiss Kini’s dissatisfaction with the frequency and manner with which Asian women and Asian-Asian relationships are portrayed, only that we shouldn’t needlessly view these portrayals as existing within a zero-sum framework.

Moreover, misguided zero-sum thinking plays into an extremely pernicious pattern. For example, zero-sum thinking is the reason why a large contingent of white Americans believe that “actions taken to improve the welfare of minority groups must come at their expense” and that decreases in anti-black bias have come at the expense of increased anti-white bias (3). Similarly, zero-sum thinking motivates opposition to immigration, (4), hinders the rendering of public health aid (5), and impedes efforts to stymie global warming (6). Overall, seeing zero-sum situations where there are none only creates unnecessary acrimony and hinders projects toward the common good.

Kini also makes a number of troubling claims in her piece regarding relationships between white women and Asian men. Additionally, rather than qualifying these claims by restricting them to the relationship depicted in The Big Sick, she universalizes them, suggesting that they apply to all relationships between Asian men and white women on- and off-screen. She claims that Asian men pursue white women in order to seek “revenge” against society and, quoting bell hooks, that in so doing they exoticize themselves through a “commodification of [their] Otherness”. I’m sure that there exist Asian men who date white women to spite disapproving bigots and who exploit their alterity to attract women, but on the whole this is a gross mischaracterization that is as one-dimensional and hackneyed as the depictions of Asian women that Kini seeks to criticize. Kini also insinuates that Asian men who date white women are somehow self-hating because, in not choosing women of their own ethnic background, they reject “their cultural baggage because women are the bearers of culture”. Glossing over the farcical assumption that women have a monopoly on culture, this line of argument parallels the insidious idea that black women who date outside their race are “less black” (7, 8), as when Serena Williams was the subject of rancor when she announced her engagement to the white cofounder of Reddit.

I’d like to give Kini the benefit of the doubt and assume that she’s not actually against miscegenation in practice; however, based on her arguments it’s difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that she opposes relationships between white females and Asian males not just on screen but in real life as well. Assuming that this isn’t the case, I think that she ought to concede that since representation isn’t a zero-sum game, we don’t need to reverse progress on this in order to work toward more realistic, multifaceted depictions of Asian women. We’ll know we’ve made real progress when we have both.

Asian-American Masculinity in Contemporary America

(This piece was originally published in Mouth, Dartmouth College’s literary journal, in 2014)

Jeff Wall, Mimic (1982)

This fall marks the debut of a network sitcom entitled Selfie that reimagines George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion in the age of social media celebrity. The show stars John Cho, of Star Trek and Harold and Kumar, and Karen Gillian, of Doctor Who. The lead casting of Cho, a Korean-American, struck me given the dearth of Asian-American leads in TV and cinema.

In this light, let’s consider Jet Li’s breakout role in 2000’s Romeo Must Die. In the spirit of the original play, Li and lead actress, Aaliyah, meet as the offspring of rival families (in this case Asian and black gangs in Oakland), put aside their differences to solve a mystery, and fall in love. But instead of sharing a kiss at the end of the film, Aaliyah only hugs Li as the credits roll.

The original final scene did have them kissing, but it was replaced after test audiences reacted negatively to “an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light.” [1] Apparently, Asian-American men can be martial arts masters, but not sexual agents. Clearly this is a bizarre, at best ignorant situation, but it has to be examined in the broader context of how Asian masculinity has historically been constructed in this country.

During the first major wave of Asian immigration to the United States in the second half of the 19th century, many Chinese arrived in California seeking work as gold miners and laborers. As the gold boom came to an end and jobs became scarce, many whites blamed the Chinese for taking jobs from Americans by working for lower wages, with one noted labor leader stating: “The father of a family is met by them at every turn. Would he get work for himself? Ah! A stout Chinaman does it cheaper.” [2]

Sinophobia was institutionalized under the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese laborers from emigrating to the United States or becoming naturalized citizens. Other laws, such as the Anti-Coolie Act of 1862 and the Geary Act of 1892, imposed restrictions and levied special taxes on immigrants by requiring them to carry resident permits at all times. The cultural backlash of these policies popularized stereotypes of Chinese-American men as effeminate, portraying them as only fit for jobs doing ‘women’s work’ such as childcare and laundry, making employers less likely to hire them for jobs in agriculture or manufacturing. [3]

Starting at the end of the 19th century, numerous “scientific” works were published that argued Western civilization was being threatened by the people of the Orient. In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan discusses a book called “The Rise of the Colored Empires” by Goddard, which Fitzgerald based on a real book by the eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard. Fear of the “Yellow Peril” invading the Western world inevitably translated into a fear that Asian men would steal white women, sparking the passage of numerous anti-miscegenation laws and inspiring the storylines for numerous novels and films such as the Fu Manchu series.

My main point in reviewing this brief history is to demonstrate that the struggle of Asian Americans to assimilate into American society is inextricably linked to the historical depiction of Asian-American men as an emasculated sexual other. For Asian-American men who seek to reclaim a masculine identity, the solution might seem to be to assimilate into a Western paradigm of masculinity. We might consider the case of one young Asian-American man who recalled:

I am half White, half Asian, and this made me different from the normal fully-white kids that I was trying to fit in with. I envied the cool kids, and I wanted to be one of them. I was a bit frustrated at my parents for not shaping me into one of these kids in the past. They never made an effort to dress me in stylish clothing or get me a good-looking haircut. I had to make every effort to rectify this. I had to adapt. 

The above quote is taken from a memoir written by Elliot Rodger, who killed six and wounded thirteen in a May massacre in Isla Vista, California. For Rodger, masculinity was defined by being sexually successful with numerous women, the more attractive the better. In his memoir, Rodger writes at length about his desire for a “beautiful blonde girlfriend” and complains that women don’t see him as attractive due to his Asian heritage. In the final video on his YouTube channel, he expresses his belief that as a “gentleman”, he is entitled to sex: “For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection, and sex and love to other men but never to me.”

Rodger is obviously an extreme example of an Asian-American man attempting to recoup a masculine self-image. Nonetheless, his ideal of masculinity as being measured by sexual success is one which many Asian-American men have adopted. Take “pick-up artist” JT Tran, who hosts dating bootcamps meant to help Asian men “repair deflated self-confidence and inadequate social skills”. Well-known street artist David Choe was criticized earlier this year after he talked about forcing a masseuse to perform oral sex on him to prove that Asian men aren’t all shy and unattractive. [4]

To lay claim to an American conception of manhood, Asian-American men need to critically assess exactly what masculinity entails. All too often, it seems as though we must either embody a white patriarchal model of male sexuality or risk being erased as sexual subjects entirely. Two adjustments are needed to avoid such a false dichotomy: a better representation of Asian-American men in the media coupled with an enhanced discourse about how we can construct “male-ness” in a way that is more compatible with feminist ideals.

In terms of this first goal, we might look to examples like Selfie which represent Asian-American men as robust characters, rather than as foils for white lead actors or familiar one-dimensional stereotypes such as the martial arts master and the computer hacker. More radically, we can consider mediums which portray Asian-American men as sexual agents in a more direct manner, such as “Skin on Skin”, a pornographic film by UC Davis Professor of Asian American Studies Darrell Hamamoto featuring all Asian-American actors and actresses, and “On a Bed of Rice,” a collection of erotic poetry and literature by Asian-American authors.

Discourse on the subject of Asian-American masculinity, in keeping with the theme of this issue, should begin with questions of exclusion and difference. On one hand, why do Asian-American men continue to define their own masculinity by the exclusion of traditionally feminine traits and practices? On the other, why are Asian-American men, regardless of the extent to which they display masculine traits, afforded less recognition as male subjects than white men who display the same traits?