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Why didn’t Jet Li get Aaliyah? A criticism of western media's portrayal of the Asian man.

Aug. 4, 2018
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When Korean heartthrob Steven Yeun got nasty on The Walking Dead with a white girl, the Asian community collectively lost its mind. Men including L.A. artist David Choe dragged their mom to the TV to witness an ASIAN MAN roll around to Marvin Gaye with a WHITE WOMAN for the first time in all of TV history (possibly of all modern media). 

What’s even crazier is that this aired during the second season all the way back in 2012! And that was only six years ago—think about that. Obama was entering his second term as the first and only black American president, “Call Me Maybe” was securing a spot at every middle school dance, and the Asian community had not seen the pairing of a woman of the caucuses with a resident of the largest continent with the largest overall world population. So maybe I’m wrong and this has happened before, but the fact that Asian mothers were being dragged into the family room by their sons to watch a sex scene should tell you something. 

For a long time, the Asian male has not had the best stereotype in mass Western media. I mean, the fact of the matter is for a long time Asian people just didn’t get parts in Hollywood. Hollywood has had a long history of non-Asian actors saying lines written by non-Asian writers to represent Asian characters, which has certainly helped set preconceived ideas about Asian culture. A prime example is Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, a film which had Mickey Rooney playing an outrageously racist Japanese man. The nerdy, buck-toothed photographer played by a white man clumsily plows into literally everything in his path as he struggles to get out his broken English. What makes this even worse is the fact that the role, based off of a 1958 Truman Capote novella, contradicts the original book, which has the character as a culturally assimilated Californian-born Japanese-American. But for the time period, this was pretty common.

Yellowface has been around almost as long as film, starting in the 1919 silent film Broken Blossoms. A really good example is Apu from The Simpsons, based off the Peter Sellers character from The Party and voiced by the Jewish voice actor Hank Azaria, which is explained by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy doing an impression of my father.” 

However, eventually the push for more Asians (specifically, Asian males) on screen paid off. Kind of. Roles started to spring up for actual Asian people, but usually only in roles that continued to perpetuate negative stereotypes against their own people.

There’s the nerdy Asian, or Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe in Sixteen Candles, which many in the Asian community consider the most offensive portrayal of an Asian character, ever). This character is usually short, smart (but only in an academic setting), cheap, shy, weak, pervy, and completely oblivious to Western cultural norms. Examples include Han Lee, the super short Korean restaurant owner from Two Broke Girls, Rajesh Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory who takes two whole seasons just to be able to speak to women without drinking, and Senor Chang from Community who is just so whack all the time that him hooking up with Peggy, the black “mom” character of the show, is seen as humorous. 

Now you might be thinking, “But Hulu, you grew up in an area whose demographic is predominantly Asian—surely you can see where some of these stereotypes come from!” Sure, compared to the average American man, who averages 5’10’’, Asian men are short (ranging from 5’4’’ in Malaysia to 5’9’’ in Korea). I’ll concede that, but I also have Japanese friends that Tomahawk kids on the court. Yeah, Asian kids tend to test better than other demographics in America, but that comes from a cultural push more than anything else. Whether it be because you’re fleeing the Khmer Rouge, the Korean War, the Communist Revolution, the Vietnam War, or simply looking for a better life, you and your kids are going to bring your A-game, because second-tier chumps never get on the plane. People do whatever is necessary to provide a better life for them and their families, which can translate to Asian parents pushing their children more than parents of other cultures to be successful in school and also to be very conscious of money. When the struggle is so hard that people are literally committing murder over rotten rice, you make sure that you always have the means to afford food.

When it comes to the shy and weak thing, I believe that this is specific to each and every person. I mean, I do know kids who play League of Legends and have arms I can form an O around their forearm with my fingers. But I also know Chinese dudes who can bench three plates and can jack people into walls. I also know that Americans can be the rudest people on the planet and can refuse to take off their mud-encrusted shoes when they attempt to come into my apartment, uninvited, and expect me to feed them because they know a friend of a friend. I’m broke, I barely know you, and you better believe if you ruin this carpet I’m going to ruin your week.

This leads to the last part, the pervy, hentai-loving Asian man who is creeping on the girls in the bathroom. The roots of this stereotype go back to the early 20th century and Fu Manchu. The diabolical Asian villain that first came on screen in 1940 was part of a much larger anti-Asian campaign prevalent throughout the era. Played usually by white actors, the character helped strike fear in the Western world of the preying Asian man. In an attempt to further combat these strange Eastern devils, propaganda was devised to put Asians in their place. Focused on the Asian man’s obvious femininity—his smooth and relatively hairless body, long hair, and lithe physique—these supposed “men” were nothing but jokes. This type of propaganda was only fueled by the attack on Pearl Harbor, which catalyzed the sentiment of the primal Asian man who would prey on any white woman he came across. These ideals all helped perpetuate today’s stereotypes.

Even when these stereotypes aren’t depicted, the Asian man doesn't get the girl, especially the non-Asian girl. Jet Li in Romeo Must Die straight up fights all of Oakland, avenges Aaliyah’s brother’s death, saves her life, and has a jawline that puts Star Lord to shame, yet he still doesn’t get a kiss scene. Chris Tucker gets more action in Rush Hour 2 than Jackie Chan, who receives a kiss with plastic wrap on his mouth and a bomb between his teeth. Bruce Lee married Linda Lee Cadwell, a white woman, was rocking a six-pack till the day he died, was a master at dancing and by all accounts a smart and funny guy, yet played second fiddle in The Green Hornet and never got the girl in any of his American films. 

So while the Western screens have not been kind to me and my kin in the past, I know we’re turning things around.From Hawaii Five O’s Daniel Dae Kim winning sexiest man alive back in 2005, John Cho directly calling out anti-Asian stigma in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and getting the girl in the end, the upcoming film Crazy Rich Asians, or the new influx of attractive Asian male actors on Netflix (see: Mr. Sunshine, Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why), we’re starting to make some headway. Hopefully, in twenty years when the next Steven Yeun gets jiggy with it on AMC or HBO, my friend doesn’t have to drag his grandmother to the living room.