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.

Character Casting

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.

Arden Cho as Kira Yukimura
Arden Cho as Kira Yukimura

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.

Stereotypes

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.

An image the MSG network used for a piece about Jeremy Lin
An image the MSG network used for a piece about Jeremy Lin

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.

Racist Speech

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.

The racist tweet sent by the official Stephen Colbert Report's Twitter account.
The racist tweet sent by the official Stephen Colbert Report’s Twitter account.

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.

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27 Comments

  1. There is of course a very powerful tool which can be utilised to influence the networks to change. Don’t watch. Low ratings and the shows will be gone, and gone for good. With that being said, content like comedies has used stereotypes for as long as I can remember. That does not make it right though. It just means change will be difficult. I agree though, it must happen.

  2. TV writers need to get past the “easy” jokes and tropes and start writing shows that don’t only play off of old stereotypes. I also loved that you pointed out the Korean-American actors and actresses playing Japanese characters; it’s as if the casting directors assume everything is interchangeable.

    • Roxanne

      You took my thoughts right out of my head with your “easy” jokes comment. There is way more to comedy than stereotypical jokes, and solely relying on is a bit lazy. There’s a reason why the better portrayals of minority characters in television have been from shows acclaimed for their writing.

    • Worse than that is Modern Family and their hypocrisy. In one episode, Cameron is offended by white voice actors mocking a Japanese accent for a commercial in which baby Lily is cast, and he says that not all Asians are the same. Currently the show is employing Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, an actress of half Korean, half white descent, to play a character that’s supposed to be Vietnamese. This isn’t the only occasion–the character Manny complains that people make him represent Mexico while he is Colombian, when in fact he is portrayed by Rico Rodriguez, a Mexican American. This hypocrisy burns in my opinion and just enforces that we are all interchangeable when supposedly speaking out against being treated as such.

  3. Violette Tellez
    0

    I am an Asian Studies minor and I’m fascinated and appreciative of their literature, culture and contributions to the world. Some individuals are unaware of the tragedies that Asians and Asian Americans have suffered throughout the years.

  4. Until the early 1940s, American actors played the role of Asian characters in Hollywood films. In order to make themselves look like Asians, the American actors put on fake mustaches, squinted their eyes, and behaved awkwardly, which often made the American audience laugh. Although the Asian-American roles in mass media have been gradually breaking the predictable and stereotypical characteristics, they are still being used as tools to create humor. Sometimes the existence of Asian characters in TV shows, for example Vince Matsuka in the Dexter, only function as entertainers for the white American audience. Such impression that Asian-American characters make on TV media as an entertainer has a big impact on people; they may find Asian-Americans as an easy topic of comedy.

  5. Austin

    Great article. You should give “Oppression” by Frye a read, and I’m sure it’ll change how you look at the situation of Asian-Americans, though. Being Asian-American myself, I can completely relate to what your saying, but some of the things you say, particularly towards the end, just sounds trite and a bit shallow. The paper might allow you to expand to grounds you might not have thought about exploring before.

  6. Justin Wu

    Call me being whitewashed, but I actually found the piece pretty funny to watch, and didn’t expect the internet to react like that after the episode was aired.

  7. I believe that the problem the United States is having with the Asian-American community is we forget about the influences of the past and the present their culture has had within the United States, especially modern media. For example, now that the show “Game of Thrones” is about to catch up to the books, anime fans are comparing this problem to that anime has when it catches up to the manga. At the same time, our society does NOT do their research before writing something into a television show. The show “Modern Family” has a Vietnamese-American actor playing the adopted daughter. The problem is that in real life, only married couples can adopt children from Vietnam, and the parents (Mitchell and Cameron are gay) were not married at the time. The writers made a major error within the pilot episode. The issue of stereotypes includes both the little things and the big things.

  8. In all seriousness, we’re talking about fictional entertainment; only an idiot would get that confused with reality. Shamefully, there are many idiots around.

  9. Dennis Fulton

    I don’t know, yes Asian-Americans are not treated with the respect they deserve, but god damn do they have it better than black people. The stereotypes that black people face (criminals, violent thugs, drug addicts) are actively hurting them as a race. People are actually formulating their feelings around these stereotypes because these stereotypes actually have truth. Blacks are overwhelmingly arrested on both violent and drug charges, but these arrests all stem from profiling and discrimination that was created by people who think blacks are more likely to be criminals due to the stereotypes that have been raised on, and these stereotypes full their discriminatory actions. It is the most vicious of vicious circles. The stereotypes that Asians face don’t actually harm them, only disrespects and humiliates them. People aren’t scared of Asians or discriminate against them because of a “math genius” stereotype, and Asians are one of the most respected ethnicity in the country, with them earning more than any other ethnicity and holding a number of respectable positions. Then again, I’m white, so my insight on damaging stereotypes is exactly zero. I hope this post didn’t offend anyone.

  10. Dani Nieto
    0

    Not to say that the stereotypes aren’t offensive, but it is just that almost every comedy show/act/ movie, etc. is one huge punchline of a number of stereotypes. Sometimes I wonder if it is worth the time and energy to get all worked up over it.

    • Chie S.
      0

      Sometimes I wonder whether it is worth my time to get worked up about it too, but every time someone questions my allegiance to this country or says something racist, I have to remember that pop culture can be a source for that.

  11. Great article! Keep speaking truth!

  12. Liz Watkins

    I agree that The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun is exceptional in portraying a positive Asian-American character. Kudos to Robert Kirkman for writing him that way in the comics as well. I love that the show also used Daryl to show overcoming racial stereotyping. In a reunion scene with his brother, Merle, Daryl stands up for Glenn when Merle refers to him as “that Chinese kid”. Daryl”s response: “He Korean”. He’s not a caricature of race to Daryl anymore, based on how he was raised, but a true friend who happens to be Korean and based on the person he has shown to be.

  13. Jane Harkness

    Great article! I love that you explore the dangers of satire going too far: I enjoy reading satire and feel that it’s a powerful tool in starting important conversations, but those who consider themselves satirists must be aware of the effect that their words can have, even if they see it as “just joking.”

  14. Jemarc Axinto

    This is one of the most important articles I’ve read thus far. As an aspiring Asian-American Actor (Pacific-Islander American as well because I’m Filipino) I am worried that the substantial types of roles I want to perform in will not be available strictly because of type-casting and being placed into these types of tropes.

  15. jeremymyers86

    I agree with your article’s content. It was presented in a well defined an clear cut manner. My only gripe is you seemed to have some kind of biased-chip on your shoulder. In your opening paragraph, you expressed the concern of Asians being cast in roles outside their nationality. For example would it matter if a Nigerian was cast to play a Ugandan? In my opinion, No it wouldn’t. The audience just wants them to be African. The same goes for casting an American to play Brit. Or a Mexican for an El Salvadoran. The list goes on and on. I think that maybe you failed to realize that. Hollywood and the mainstream media is generally racist. This is a primarily white country and white people are what this country wants to see. Diversity is great and everything, but, when its called for. Just give them someone who is the right color, Black, Brown, Yellow and not necessarily from the correct country. Good article, either way though.

  16. As a son of an Japanese immigrant, I’m happy you wrote this article.

    Back in my “Popular Culture in Modern Europe” course last year we discussed the concept of “ethnic elasticity,” which is media using one race to portray another, unrelated race. For example, the Broadway actress Josephine Baker, who was an African American expatriate in Paris, portrayed a Tunisian local as well as a Indian princess.

    Given the examples you included (James Kyson Lee in Heroes, Arden Cho in Teen Wolf) and the argument you presented, it seems that Asian-American actors are consciously using this same concept. Though, the striking difference to me is that in American society Asians are seen as the model minority—a concept lacking in your article that would strengthen your segment on stereotypes.

    This article makes it apparent that Asian-Americans, as portrayed through media, are economically enfranchised, but not socially integrated. We are still seen as the exotic Other.

    This Slate article puts the feminization and Othering of Asians portrayed through media succinctly (“Still, it [concept of Asian-American masculinity] continues to imply a lack of sexuality. Rarely does the Asian-American guy go home with the girl—and the injustice is doubled when his female counterparts are pathologically fetishized.”):

    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2013/03/eddie_huang_s_fresh_off_the_boat_reviewed.html

    Sidenote: Does anyone know of the Asian-American comic artist Adrian Tomine? He regularly sketches the covers to The New Yorker, and he depicts the identity and issues of being an Asian-American with eloquent precision.

  17. Overall, the sensitivity that we as Asian Americans have when it comes to who gets to portray whom in these stories boils down to comments we usually got in our youth from non-Asians: “What does it matter? You Asians all look alike.” The problem with that is, as a demographic (and one that is quickly growing in this country) we can easily read the subtleties in each other to tell ourselves apart, EVEN when we possess the same color hair.

    Then again in Asia, people have a hard time telling Caucasians apart because (for instance) their hair coloring varies so much, there’s no chance for them to hone in on the subtle differences in Caucasians’ faces when all they see is their hair color — and following pic after pic of blondes, redheads, brunettes and grey hairs all mashed up together in their minds, more often than not they’re also concluding: “What does it matter? You Caucasians (or Africans or Latinos or Middle Easterners or Native Americans) all look alike!”

    So generalities like that are what bring on the stereotypes. Generalities and (unfortunately) lazy writing.

  18. Yayoi Uno Everett

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article! As you mention in the last paragraph, I also remain hopeful that the media’s stereotyping of Asian-Americans is shifting toward a new positive prototype, as exhibited by Lucy Liu’s portrayal of Joan Watson in Elementary. Also films like Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) presents a more realistic narrative, which shows that allegiances can be formed across ethnic lines by focusing on Kowalski’s friendship with the young Vietnamese boy.

  19. Jonny12
    0

    Why is this going on in this day and age? This social injustice towards Asian Americans is an outrage and unacceptable. Asian Americans are up against years of racism from media and must push harder for equality. Its just not good enough.

    Many people are sick of hearing about racism that racial prejudice doesn’t exist or they choose to ignore it. It’s the attitude of: Why is it even still up for discussion?

    Equality (be it gender, race or whatever), like democracy is not an end state but a process to which the bar should always be set higher. It concerns everyone because we all have race and ethnicity on our minds whether we like it or not, even when we don’t realise, that is, what we are thinking about. Of course, many people state they don’t think much about race, but that’s just the problem, because every single person has a tendency to naturally follow mental scripts/beliefs.

    AM are poorly represented in media. These weak representations based on cheap stereotypes for entertainment is not only damaging towards the individuality of Asian Americansbut to Asian American children. Not to mention the self-fulfilling prophecy that many Asian Americans would be vulnerable (e.g. In school, a child who is automatically thought to excel at math will not receive the right attention etc)

    Portrayal of AM’s are one-dimensional and one-way traffic compared to for example African Americans who are better represented by Hollywood (change is possible). Asian Americans have a long way to go before we reach that point, but they must push harder for it and make it be known.

    Of course, in an ideal world, it shouldn’t matter, but the fact is that most people (intelligent or not) obtain most mental scripts or beliefs unconsciously/consciously from media. While AM’s are desexualised the females are hyper sexualised. AM actors play villians are portrayed as cruel, weak, unromantic, foreigners, math genius, not athletic and wouldn’t be able to get a joke if it came with the manual. All this translates into the real world.

    Hollywood writers have a duty to represent all races fairly/equally and no way is it down to a lack of talent and bankable leading Asian actors. Attractive talented AM actors are consistently typecast.

    The social injustice towards Asian Americans today would make Bruce Lee turn in his grave. He was an advocate for equality in film and pushed for change. I’d bet he would give xenophobic Hollywood a piece of his mind if he were with us today. What a joke!

    We must try to see everyone as an individual, be open-minded, and not succumb to implicit bias and cheap stereotypes perpetuated by media. We all need to call out stereotypes and narrow-mindedness of writers/directors who holds such erroneous beliefs (subconsciously or not) in order to challenge the status quo.

  20. Ann Doria
    0

    Here’s a great video about why it’s important for Asian Americans to become actors, writers, and producers. http://youtu.be/qOwBGPkY0ZU

  21. Great article. Highlights many important issues of racism in the media. When these people make tasteless jokes it only shows their ignorance and lack of knowledge of minority groups cultures.

  22. An article of good intent, but there is a factual inaccuracy as well as some overlooked factors for unaligning ethnic representation. The character of Kira Yukimura is half Japanese half Korean, so Arden Cho is not that far off from being the exact same ethnicity. This is pretty near the “perfect solution”, especially since you have to keep in mind that the criteria for casting is high already-the actor has to be attractive, be able to learn using a katana within days, and of course, be able to ACT. Add that on top of needing specifically half Japanese, half Korean and you’ve got yourself a major casting roadblock. Even if there is a girl who is exactly half Japanese, half Korean auditioning for the role, she may not be able to deliver the lines as well as someone else who is fully Japanese, or fully Korean. I am aware that this still doesn’t make the unaligning ethnic representation 100% justifiable, but you’ve also got to be realistic. There are so little roles written for Asians in TV shows right now, no Asian American actor can pick and choose. Of course everyone would rather represent their own race, but that’s not an option currently available. If we really want to solve this, then we have to start in small steps. If more Asians manage to get roles on television, then the rest of the filming industry will be influenced to create more ethnically diverse, non-stereotyped roles as well. And when that finally happens, Asian American actors will be able to pick and choose their own ethnic backgrounds for roles.

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