On-Screen Representation: Beyond Zero-Sum Thinking

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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.