Hollywood Asian Stereotypes
Unfair and pernicious portrayals of East Asians
Hollywood is unfair and pernicious in its portrayal of Asians, the research shows time and again. Stereotypical and often contradictory characteristics are imposed on Asians. There are clear indications that such media characterizations are reinforcing misperceptions that are manifesting in real life as everything from covert discrimination to unabashed racism.
Stereotypes have very real consequences for Asians living in the West in terms of day-to-day interaction, current events and governmental legislation. Upwardly mobile Asians find themselves hitting glass ceilings and earning far less than their white counterparts due to preconceived notions about their temperament, lack of trustworthiness, innovation and poor leadership abilities.
What was the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie you saw? Chances are, it was embedded with negative Asian stereotypes. Chances are, you didn't notice.
Racism against Asians is often “unawares”—a form of racism that flies under the radar due to its widespread acceptance as the norm. Its interactive dynamic resembles that of an unwritten social contract. Asians in the West are expected to accept patronizing remarks and racist taunts so demeaning that perpetrators would think twice before dishing them out with such unwavering consistency to any other minority group, such as Latinos or African Americans. Asians who object to such treatment are typically met with befuddlement and offense at their audacity to make an issue out of it. Adverse reactions are, after all, a far cry from traditional media depictions of Asians as kowtowing in the face of denigration, such as in the character of Charlie Chan.
Although stereotypes are virtually unavoidable in any form of storytelling, the crux of the problem is not that Asian stereotypes are used or that they frequently occur, but that negative Asian stereotypes are essentially the only Asian themes ever used in Hollywood and other media.
Asian Hollywood actors have revealed that they are, as a rule, funneled into narrowly defined subservient or subversive roles. They are usually cast as foreigners and not as acculturated Americans; as strange and unfathomable beings bound by old tradition and beset with bizarre superstitions and habits. They are portrayed as sidekicks and extras, and either occupy supporting roles to Caucasian protagonists, or play the antagonist to a Caucasian protagonist. Asian characters often serve as cannon fodder or comic relief and have overplayed accents (such as with Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles or Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
Ten almost exclusively used Asian stereotypes in Hollywood and the media:
An Asian face or accent is used as a shorthand symbol for everything antithetical to American or Western culture. No distinctions are made between Asian Americans who are acculturated US citizens with deep roots in the country and Asian nationals who may not have any loyalty to the US. The media insinuation is that Asians (including US citizens) do not belong to and cannot be from the US or the West.
Asian males are yet to be cast in a leading Hollywood role, unless it is inseparable from their status as a foreigner with martial arts skills. Asians are cast as extras in nonspeaking roles, as foreign tourists walking about with cameras. Asian Americans are personated as having thick accents and speaking in broken English. They are rarely portrayed as assimilated citizens, but as inherently foreign and non-American.
At best, Asian-American youth are portrayed as struggling with cultural identity issues, such as in the Lane Kim character of the television series, The Gilmore Girls and the various characters of the movie, The Joy Luck Club.
Pressure by the MANAA has resulted in a very small handful of TV shows (e.g. The Mentalist) abandoning perpetual-foreigner stereotypes in favor of placing Asian Americans in minor support roles, as fluent English speakers sans accents. However, the Asian as Perpetual Foreigner remains the predominant onscreen portrayal of all main characters who are Asian.
Although the Asian martial-artist stereotype was derived from Asian actors such as Bruce Lee, Jacky Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat, these actors are/were in fact niche actors. As foreign-born actors trained in martial arts, they are/were essentially playing themselves—a point that seems to be lost among script writers, who habitually assign the kungfu-foreigner role to Asians who aren't in fact foreigners nor martial arts experts. The implication is that all Asians are foreigners by default and inherently possess at least some degree of such fighting skills.
To add insult to injury, this stereotype is usually combined with stereotype 6: Inferior and subordinate to whites. Asian pugilists with immense fighting skills are shown as being ultimately inferior to whites (or blacks), who not only can beat them at their game, but are able to win knock-down-drag-out fights through sheer endurance—a quality that Asians are portrayed as lacking. Despite their sheer ferocity, Asians are ultimately presented as being spineless losers, squealing or pleading in the face of pain or death. Examples are Lethal Weapon 4, etc.
Historically, Asians in North America were granted a tentative form of citizenship. They were classed as fellow-immigrants alongside white settlers, but with far fewer rights. Legislation against Asian immigration severely restricted their numbers. High rents and special taxes were levied, and laws were enacted to bar them from property ownership and from giving testimony in court. Racial atrocities were committed against Asian Americans with impunity. With no legal recourse available, their survival depended on keeping a low profile. The media was only too happy to cooperate in this regard. Despite their immense sacrifices in helping to build vital infrastructure such as the Transcontinental Railway and agricultural irrigation systems in California, the media filtered them out from receiving any credit for their contributions. For further information, refer to Anti-Chinese USA—Racism & Discrimination from the Onset.
Hollywood reflects this long tradition of disempowerment by relegating Asians to unassuming roles in nonthreatening service professions, reinforcing the idea of faceless individuals best suited to carrying on with their lives quietly. Ethno-specific occupations stereotypically assigned to Asians include the doctor, lab assistant or restaurant worker, the Japanese businessman (usually appearing in a group at a corporate board meeting) and occasionally, the Chinese news anchorwoman reminiscent of Connie Chung. Stereotypes for older Asians include the owner of a laundry service or grocery store.
With the exception of rogue criminals who refuse to play by the rules (see Archvillain stereotype below), Asians are cast as unassertive conformists, sidekicks and assistants, but never as leaders or trendsetters. They are also often cast as being successful and prosperous due to their industriousness, or as neurotic overachievers with stunted emotional development (such as the Asian American classmate in the canceled TV sitcom, Pearl).
Asians are often portrayed as being highly proficient in math and science, embodied in the nerd, geek or scientist who is at the disposal of whites. This is epitomized in the role of a hardworking, lab assistant who dutifully goes about his/her task in serving the Caucasian protagonist in many a television series.
Asians are also portrayed as extremely uncool (to the point of bizarre, such as the street violinist in Spiderman II), as having very poor taste and the inability to grasp American culture and nuances (such as in the character Rajiv, in Big Bang Theory).
Can you name a movie in which an Asian male consummates a relationship with a Caucasian woman? Gendered racism is the intersection of both racism and sexism. It is based on the combination of gendered and racialised identities imposed on Asians. Hollywood is replete with images of the sexual Asian female and the asexual Asian male, and it promotes sanctioned racial coupling — Asian females may couple with Caucasians, while Asian males may not. Asian men are desexualized, while Asian women are fetchized.
In Hollywood, Asian women are sexually available. They are cast as exotic, feminine, sensual and portrayed either as a submissive China Doll or a seductive Dragon Lady vixen, as in the roles of Lucy Liu in Ally McBeal and Charlie’s Angels. In either stereotype of Asian female sexuality, she is sexually available to white (and occasionally black) men and an acceptable partner to white (and occasionally black) men, although she is often illegitimate and endangers the white man’s relationship with his legitimate partner. If an Asian female is cast in a relationship with an Asian male, the Asian male is, as a rule, an abusive or incapable husband who ultimately loses her to a more deserving Caucasian. Asian women are often portrayed as subservient, compliant, industrious and eager to please.
In the Madame Butterfly stereotype, the Asian woman is involved with a white man and chooses him over an Asian man, but ultimately has her heart broken by the White man (e.g. The World of Suzie Wong, where Chinese prostitute falls in love with a white man only to lose him).
Asian males cast as “unattractive.” The US media has a long history of presenting the Asian male as a Eunuch—it is a lingering representation that has made the transition to cinematic castration. Asian men are portrayed either as asexual, sexually inferior or effeminate according to western notions of sexuality — never sexually desirable to females. There may be no more than four instances in Hollywood's entire history, where an East Asian male has been allowed to consummate a relationship with a Caucasian woman. Asian men are almost never positively paired with women of any race. Asian males are often cast as being lonely and unattractive and resorting to deceit or to breaking social protocol in their attempt to get a Caucasian woman in bed (such as in Fargo).
Negative perceptions on the desirability of Asian men have real-life repercussions on relationships. Dating and marriage statistics indicate that in the US—considered the biggest melting pot in the world—Asian males are far less desirable than Asian females. Asian males are among the least-preferred partners of all other ethnicities in the US. 
In countless media depictions, Asians are shown as being inferior and subordinate to whites. They often require rescuing by a Westerner who has superior ideals of democracy and human rights, or a knight in shining armor who ultimately succeeds in convincing them to transcend their stifling culture.
Asians serve as sidekicks and extras in supporting roles to Caucasian protagonists, or play the antagonist who ultimately loses to a Caucasian protagonist. Asians are also shown as cowardly and impotent in the face of danger. In action movies, Asian characters serve as cannon fodder and are the first to die.
They often willingly sacrifice themselves so that the Caucasian protagonist may live, which is an insidious way of suggesting that Asian life is not as valuable as white life or, more cynically, of asserting that the only good Asian is a dead Asian.
In knock-down-drag-out fights they lose to whites (or blacks), who not only can do it better in terms of martial arts, but ultimately have the winning qualities that Asians supposedly lack: superior morals and endurance.
When Asians are cast as being “on the same team,” they are usually faceless, unassertive conformists—often assistants and analysts—never leaders or trendsetters.
Perhaps most malignant of all, are the countless movies in which Asians serve as mere backdrops to the “bigger” story at hand, where Asian contributions are swept aside to highlight the achievements of the “real heroes.” Pearl Habor tells the story of Doolittle's daring payback raid on Japan during WW2 and how the pilots deliberately crashlanded in China, assuming correctly that the populace would help them to safety. However, the quarter-of-a-million Chinese civilians who either unwittingly died or willingly scarificed themselves as a consequence of sheltering the few dozen American aircrews and bringing virtually all of them them to safety are not so much as given an honorable mention in the ending credits.
The Asian Mystic from the “mysterious Orient” is an oft-recurring theme, in which Asians are portrayed as otherworldly, mysterious and spiritual, and take the form of a mystical sage who possess ancient wisdom and mystical powers, such as Pai Mei in Kill Bill, The Golden Child Bulletproof Monk or the Chinese lady in What Women Want. However, Chinese “wisdom” is also reduced to fortune-cookie clichés.
“Asian” is often employed as a quick, convenient and exclusive explanation for the magical or supernatural. In various renditions of The Shadow, the hero’s special powers are said to originate from “the mysterious East”—no other explanation is necessary. In Alice, an elixir purchased from an Asian herbalist carries magical powers.
Asian characters are also cast as being mysterious to the point of inscrutable and devious (see Bizarre/Unfathomable stereotype), which ties in neatly with the Asian Archivillan stereotype (see below).
The Asian Mystic stereotype is also frequently combined with the Asian Archvillain stereotype. This is epitomized in Fu Manchu, who embodies both the archvillain and mystic, and portrays the evil Asian with supernatural powers. Recent usage of this underworld stereotype includes The Shadow, in which a Caucasian actor in yellowface embodies the anti-American archvillain who has hypnotic eyes and uses telepathy to control minds.
The Asian Archvillain is an extension of the Yellow Peril and Yellow Horde themes. Asians who are not characterized as benevolent or belongning to the faceless, conformist model minority, are paradoxically depicted as ruthless criminals, triad members and unscrupulous archvillains. Chinatowns are shown as breeding grounds of crime and underworld activity.
The Predator Asian remains a popular media theme. Asian immigrants are shown as taking from the country without giving anything back. In Falling Down, the white protagonist accuses a Korean grocer of draining American resources without bothering to fit into American society, which is subsequently used as justification for the destruction of the Korean’s grocery store. In Rising Sun, Japanese businessmen are shown as taking over American industry by murder and deceit.
The ultimate Asian “underworld” stereotype incorporates both meanings of the word: 1) organized crime and 2) the mythical abode of the dead. See above section on the Asian Mystic stereotype.
By the 1970s, the civil rights era had redefined how minorities should be portrayed on film. It was considered taboo for white actors to employ blackface to play the part of African savages (as in Tarzan). However, the same sensibilities were not applied to yellowface. A major precedent was set when Warner Brothers rejected Bruce Lee in favor of Caucasian actor, David Carradine, to play the lead character in the television series Kung Fu—a story about a Chinese orphan, which Lee himself had developed and presented to the producers.
Racialized casting of Asians as caricatures lingers on in the twenty-first century. Recent usage of yellowface by Caucasians to play the part of Asians includes Miss Swan in MADtv (2001), The Cat in the Hat (2003), Grindhouse (2007), Balls of Fury (2007), I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007), Bangkok Dangerous (2008), Crank: High Voltage (2009), Cloud Atlas (2012) and How I Met Your Mother (Season 9, aired in 2014).
Asians continue to be depicted as cone-hatted coolies scampering about in small steps in commercials and movies such as Down with Love (2003). They are also shown to be unfathomable, inscrutable and to subscribe to bizarre traditions and superstitions. Movies based on the concept of Asian otherness and outlandishness in stark contrast to all things sensible, wholesome and American or Western, include Lost In Translation (2003), in which the Japanese are never afforded a “shred of dignity” and the entire comedic content is derived from Westerners laughing at “small, yellow people and their funny ways.”
The Asian bufoon continues to be featured in sitcoms such as 2 Broke Girls, in which the character of Han Lee is a fairly agressive portrayal of the stereotypical Asian male: a tiny, greedy, sexless man-child with infantilized speech patterns, speaking broken English with a generic Asian accent, fulfilling basically every possible ching-chong stereotype.
In the movies, Asians are frequently subjected to open slurs and discrimination, and either potrayed as deserving of or highly tolerant towards such treatment. These scripts and scenes are often so completely inconsequential to the storyline that the only plausible explanation for their incorporation into the final edit is that it must be of great importance that Hollywood consistently remind audiences that it's perfectly acceptable to take a dig at Asians.
It could be argued that art imitates life or that life imitates art, but many an Asian born in and/or living in West will attest to the fact their real-life day-to-day interactions are really no different, thanks to Hollywood.
Asians in the West are expected to accept patronizing remarks and racist taunts so demeaning that perpetrators would think twice before dishing them out with such unwavering consistency to any other minority group, such as Latinos or African Americans. Asians who object to such treatment are typically met with befuddlement and offense at their audacity to make an issue out of it. Adverse reactions are, after all, a far cry from traditional media depictions of Asians as kowtowing in the face of denigration, such as in the character of Charlie Chan.
Examples of open denigration include Lethal Weapon IV , the current television sitcom, 2 Broke Girls, Crash , the current television series, Enlightened, Kicking It Old School , Revenge of the Nerds I & II [1984,1987], Seraphim Falls , Ted , Wanderlust and Year of the Dragon .
Asians constitute nearly 5% of the US population—one out of every twenty US citizens is of Asian descent, many of whom are fully acculturated “Americans.” Yet, “Asian” continues to be equated with “foreign,” and associated with a range of negative stereotypes.
Hollywood scripts continue to feature open discrimination against Asians. Yellowface and caricatured portrayals are on the increase in 2013, and increasing numbers of actors are receiving accolades and prestigious nominations and awards for these demeaning performances.
Open denigration and racial slurs continue to be shown as the norm and Asians are portrayed as being accepting of such treatment.
Hollywood is yet to cast an Asian male in a lead role that is not linked to his status as a foreigner or martial artist. Although Lucy Liu was cast in a leading role in Charlie's Angels, she was portrayed as having a Caucasian father, and she continued to fulfill all the sexual stereotypes assigned to Asian females.
Asian American actors are yet to be cast in a lead role that is not related to their ethnicity—a storyline that would work regardless of their ethnicity and which does not feature an explanation about their ethnicity—Asians should not be required to justify their presence in the West.
Although there has been a slight improvement in the trend in the past two years, Hollywood and the media have a long way to go toward being reasonable in their characterization of Asians—a complete overhaul would be in order. Hollywood and the media must assume responsibility for the real-life consequences of their collective negative portrayals of Asians.
Asians in Western media do not resemble Asians in real life. The immense popularity of PSY's Gangnam Style may in part be due to the widespread acceptance of a comedic Asian male who is “buffoonish, desexualized and emasculated” in a “pop-cultural milieu wherein Asian men are either kung-fu fighters, Confucius-quoting clairvoyants, or the biggest geeks in high school.”
© Zak Keith, 2013
Links for further reading:
A minor sampling of movies and TV shows that perpetuate discrimination and Asian stereotypes:
EXCERPT FROM My Life as a Squint-eyed Chink, by Zak Keith.
“And talking about Hollywood,” she added, “Chinese actors tend to serve as sidekicks and extras, as cannon fodder. African Americans broke barriers with the Cosby Show. They even had their sarcastic ‘revenge’ on old Hollywood stereotypes through blaxploitation movies. But the Chinese don’t get to have a voice of their own.”
Everyone at the table grinned knowingly. We all seemed to share the lifelong frustration of never being fully accepted in the West, of the stereotypical perceptions of who we are, due to the media.
Hollywood’s narrow portrayal of the Chinese as either as subservient or subversive, as traditionally strange, unfathomable, almost bizarre beings, perpetuated the notion that Asians are inherently foreign—immigrants, but never citizens.
Asian males are never cast in leading roles, unless it is one inseparable from their status as a foreigner or an immigrant with martial arts skills.
Asian females are always sexually available, while Chinese males are sexually inferior and never allowed to consummate a relationship with a Caucasian woman.
Not that it had ever stopped me. I had never thought of myself as Chinese to start with. Despite the occasional teasing as a child for looking “different,” somehow I just hadn’t really been aware of race. Patronizing, reductive depictions of the Chinese had never bothered me, because the shoe simply hadn’t fit. Neither did it bother me to watch the subservient Hop Sing in Bonanza or Inspector Clouseau’s treatment of his idiotic Chinese house servant, Cato, in The Pink Panther. Not only had I been unaware they were Chinese, I grew up laughing at Chinese jokes as much as I did Irish ones.
Somewhere along the line however, racial stereotyping eventually caught up with me and I lost my innocence. I realized that the misconceptions about who I was as a human being were borne of the steady diet of misinformation in the media at large and that Hollywood was to blame for most of it.
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