The Asian-American Conversation that TV Networks Should be Having
While Asian-Americans have been a part of television for several decades, their roles have greatly been limited and restricted to stereotypes and tropes. Unfortunately, in the same path as many minority groups, Asian-American roles have largely been secondary and less complex. Among the most common stereotypes are nerdy students, ninja/ kung fu masters, computer whizzes and shows like Glee and Two Broke Girls have been among the most recent offenders to cater to these stereotypes. While there are some Asian and Asian-American actors who have become hallmarks in television like George Takei as Sulu, or Lucy Liu in her many roles, most remain relatively unknown. Perhaps the Asian-American media conversation, though existent for a while grew to a greater extent beginning with the news coverage of Jeremy Lin’s rise to basketball stardom in 2011. Since then the media coverage of Asian-Americans has been pushed into the spotlight and faced criticism and controversy. In the years since Lin’s debut, however, not much has changed as far as Asian-American representation. While Steven Yeun’s Glenn Rhee from The Walking Dead has broken many stereotypes, most media seems to lag. In light of The Colbert Report‘s recent twitter scandal, I’m using this post to address the problems of mainstream media in covering and portraying Asian and Asian-Americans.
Chinese-Americans are different from Korean-Americans, who are different from Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodia-Americans, yet somehow being of Asian descent enables casting directors to cross actors and actresses between ethnicities. Recently, Korean-American Arden Cho was cast as Kira Yukimura, a Japanese character, on Teen Wolf. The precedent of casting people of different Asian and Asian-American ethnicities has been set. In Heroes, Korean-American James Kyson Lee played Japanese character Ando Masahashi.
The problem with this is both a lack of discernment between the different cultures and a substitutability of different ethnicities. This, of course is not unique to Asians and Asian-Americans as white-washing and race substitution that afflicts a larger part of Hollywood. The grouping of Asian-Americans subordinates the unique, individual cultures and melds them in one homogeneous ethnicity, which is unfair and untrue.
During the short-lived career of Jeremy Lin as a member of the New York Knicks, the media’s coverage ranged from the relative benign name puns that occur with people of all races and nationalities to the more caustic racially based headlines like the infamous “Chink in the Armor” headline.
While Jeremy Lin was not the first Asian-American in basketball, he was the first Taiwanese-American and one of the first to receive as much notoriety in the spotlight. Images of Lin were often joined with images of Asian-associated objects. There was Jeremy Lin with a fortune cookie, Jeremy Lin with a Chinese Takeout container, etc. Though the Asian-American community does have a cultural association, these are not the defining qualities of the community. The media’s portrayal perpetuates the stereotypical images, limits the knowledge that disseminates.
Even among fictional characters, Asian stereotypes are perpetuated. Glee‘s Mike Chang and his family rehash the notion of Chinese-American families pressuring their children to be doctors or lawyers, while his parents eventually support his career path of pursuing dance, the “tiger mom” storyline is used and abused throughout television tropes.
Glenn Rhee is a refreshing change to the Asian archetypes that have greatly limited the Asian-American roles. As the social stratification of race and ethnic hierarchies decays in the post-apocalyptic world, Glenn’s heroism and personality transcends the socially defined concept of race and ethnicity because in the chaos of the zombie apocalypse, there is no functional society to define them.
In the last week, The Colbert Report has received controversy for the tweet that was posted on its official twitter page. Though the tweet was sent without context, the post was written after Colbert’s critique on Dan Synder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Though Colbert, himself, did not write the post and it should be noted that it came from a corporate account, The Colbert Report did face backlash over the quip. Assuming that this was meant as a parody of Dan Snyder’s organization, the manner with which the tweet was sent was ambiguous and appeared racist. The language “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” particularly incited the Asian American community because of the severity of the ethnic slur. Similar to other ethnic slurs that are inappropriate, this Chinese-American one was particularly seen as racist because of the lack of context. Though the tweet was later deleted and apologized for, it incited a national response urging for the cancellation of The Colbert Report.
Another comedian who recently incensed the Asian-American community was Jimmy Kimmel who aired a segment “Kids’ Table” where he discussed US-Chinese debt with a number of children. One child, in particular, responded that the debt problem could be solved by “killing everyone in China.” After airing the segment, Kimmel, too, apologized for showing the clip. The problem derives from when satire goes too far. There is a difference between satire and racism. When the comedian is white and in the position of power, the racism that underlies these jokes is even more apparent. Since minority groups are continually oppressed and the target of racism, the jokes carry a greater weight to them than jokes made about white Americans. The difference between satire and racism lies between the target of the comment. While satire generally critiques attitudes and events, racism directly targets the minority groups. There is an argument to be made for The Colbert Report straddling the line between the two due to the obscure nature with which the tweet was sent, but in Kimmel’s case, it was a blatant attack on the Asian-American community.
A lesson to be learned from these shows is that instead of apologizing retrospectively, the media should take care to not be insensitive and racially discriminatory. Though the media has had a long history of inappropriateness and racial discrimination with other minority groups, there have been strides made in the removal of the majority of hate speech and ethnic slurs. Before the widespread micro-aggressions are discussed, a basic cultural sensitivity and awareness of the Asian-American community needs to be attained. Of course, the Asian-American community is not the only one underrepresented and stereotyped in media, but the awareness of one minority group enables the conversation of equality to be broadened to all minority and oppressed people.
The good news is there is hope. While many Asian and Asian-American characters are still secondary, there are signs that it will change in the future. Shows have highlighted minority groups in the past setting precedence for the inexcusability of not casting minority groups. Characters like Glenn Rhee (The Walking Dead), Christina Yang (Grey’s Anatomy), and Joan Watson (Elementary) are all examples of complex Asian-American roles and show signs of the gradually shifting attitudes networks have towards Asian-Americans.
What do you think? Leave a comment.