“There are no Asian movie stars” – Aaron Sorkin
We absorb poisonous images from the fiction we consume.
Hollywood’s brand of fiction is especially toxic, and one of the most perennially problematic images in Hollywood is that of the Asian male. At a basic level, the problem is a simple lack of representation: there are very few roles for Asian American actors, and lead roles are almost nonexistent. When an Asian male actor is actually cast in a speaking role, his character is often either an emasculated, inarticulate, socially inept chump like Long Duck Dong (Gedde Watanabe) from John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles or else an asexual, stoic, martial arts warrior like Bruce Lee (in any Bruce Lee movie).
This issue is often dismissed as affecting only the small number of Asian American actors trying to make a living in Hollywood, for whom the highest levels of the profession may remain unattainable. However, a lack of diversity in fiction has been linked to children’s lowered self-esteem and increased racial biases. Our consumption of the characters and dramas of our own creation feeds the way in which we view ourselves. A lack of realistic portrayals of Asian American men onscreen can therefore affect the way young boys see themselves, and how we as a society see them.
The history of film is punctuated with exceptions to the rule about once every fifty years. American cinema began on a high note with the career of Sessue Hayakawa, described in a biography by Daisuke Miyao as the first male sex symbol of the industry, years ahead of Rudolph Valentino. Hayakawa’s most famous early work was Cecil DeMille’s 1915 silent film The Cheat, a disturbingly violent rape fantasy, in which Hayakawa portrays villain Haka Arakau, an ivory dealer with sinister designs towards white female acquaintance Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward), to whom he offers a loan of $10,000 with her sexuality as interest. During a violent confrontation, there is an implied onscreen (forced) kiss scene, during which the audience is privy only to the back of Arakau’s head, and Arakau physically brands Hardy as his property with a hot seal. Despite often being typecast in what today strikes us as obviously problematic roles, Hayakawa was nevertheless quite popular with female audiences of the time.
One of the first films to attempt a heroic portrayal of an Asian American male was Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959), a B-movie starring the late great James Shigeta as Joe Kojaku, who like his Caucasian roommate and partner in the police force Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) is American-born and speaks with normal American speech patterns. The two detectives have the same career, similar interests, and love the same woman (Victoria Shaw), who is the key witness in the murder case they are investigating. Unlike the dark villain roles to which Hayakawa was mostly restricted, Kojaku’s story is that of an upstanding member of the Japanese American community who ends his story with a classic Hollywood kiss. The film remains problematic in its catharsis, which dismisses racism as a fantasy of a lovelorn mind. But the film still looks progressive compared to current representations of Asian American males.
Since 1959, Hollywood’s portrayal of Asian male sexuality has stagnated. Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die (2000) infamously cut a kiss scene between Jet Li and Aaliyah’s characters when the scene didn’t test well with audiences. Even Disney’s groundbreaking animated film Mulan (1998) failed to put more then a dent in the cemented American concept of the asexual Asian male. Leaving aside Eddie Murphy (as travel-size dragon Mushu), the cast is comprised of prominent Asian American actors, including James Shigeta (as the General) and Ming-na Wen (as Mulan). Captain Li Shang (BD Wong), Mulan’s commanding officer and presumed love interest, is a developed, dynamic character. His sexuality is not ignored, but even gently highlighted in an endearing scene in which Shang disrobes and Mulan’s interest is clearly peaked. It is heartbreaking to find fault in a film that is appropriately cast, sensitively animated, and manages to highlight both Asian male and even female sexuality. But it is not difficult to identify that fault. The confident, masculine, and merciful Shang is suddenly inept and nearly mute when confronted with the sexuality of the woman he has in fact been in close contact with the entire film. He awaits the suggestion of his emperor to pursue her. The most suggestive line (“Would you like to stay forever?”) is given to Mulan’s grandmother (June Foray). Asian male sexuality is implied, never explicit. To this day, Mulan is the only Disney “princess movie” without a kiss.
These are, of course, all decades-old examples, and yet little enough has changed that Aaron Sorkin felt compelled, in an email leaked in the recent Sony hack, to point to a lack of Asian movie stars as a fatal weakness for a potential film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys. There are of course exceptions to Sorkin’s assertion, but most of these, such as Keanu Reeves and The Rock, are actors of safely ambiguous ethnicity. This is not to suggest that these men are any less Asian American actors, but if the goal is to end Hollywood’s tendency to fuel stereotypes attached to specific aesthetic (read: racial) qualities, then the unambiguous are those who matter. And there are very few – John Cho (J.J. Abram’s Star Trek, Danny Leiner’s Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle) is one of the few modern examples, occasionally supported by other actors like Sung Kang (Justin Lin’s Fast Five), and the unfortunately lesser-known Daniel Henney (Disney’s Big Hero 6). Modern Hollywood films featuring an Asian male, let alone an Asian male with an actual sexuality, are difficult to find and generally show up in the forgotten corners of Hollywood: in the low-brow, low-impact films like Fast Five and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. Like The Crimson Kimono, these are the artistic B-movies of today.
Thus is born the movement to see more depictions of Asian men, including their sexuality, onscreen. As the white female half of an AMWF relationship and a fiction diversity advocate, I am an unapologetic member. However, there is currently a troubling emphasis on the need for the Asian male to simply “get the girl” onscreen.
This approach is visible in Hollywood even when a “progressive” role is actually attempted today. The best example is Justin Lin’s Fast Five, a film which succeeds in depicting an Asian male character kissing a woman on screen, but which fails to present the kiss as anything other than misogynistic sexual conquest. The film operates on a superficially-feminist level: these women can handle a gun and drive a racecar. They’re badass, ergo, the film is feminist, and men are thus free to objectify. But these characteristics simply add to the qualifications necessary for a woman to be considered desirable. Having demonstrated themselves appropriately collectible, all three women, in a series of flash-forwards, are shown at the end of the film as safely arrived under the protection of domestic patriarchy: one is literally pregnant and barefoot at home with her husband; a second is fetishized in a upwards tilt as she kisses a man while sitting on his lap as he speeds down the autobahn; and the third, who as a cop who has fought against the team of protagonist bandits the entire movie, also reappears on the arm of the bandits’ leader.
We have reduced the issue to that of the onscreen kiss, when in reality the problem is much greater than that. We do not need to see an Asian male character kiss a woman onscreen; we need to see an Asian male character as a genuine object of desire. I should note here that being the object of desire should not be confused with objectification. Objectification reduces a person to an object desired only for consideration, collection, and consumption. As the object of desire, however, the fullness of the humanity of the person need not be compromised, as others recognize the attractive qualities of the whole person and desire to be in relationship with him/her. A film like Fast Five in which an Asian male is sexually successful is not progressive unless the relationship itself can be portrayed believably.
The problem with the representation of the Asian male in Hollywood is not that he fails to “get the girl”, but rather that he fails as a viable object of desire by another believably whole character. This is what was so revolutionary about John Cho’s role in the recently cancelled ABC sitcom Selfie (as usual, television proceeds when Hollywood hesitates). Cho never kisses his partner onscreen. But he succeeds in presenting an attractive, funny, thoughtful, and appealing male persona, desirable not only to the primary female lead, but to all viewers of the show as well.
Without a holistic representation of the humanity of the Asian male onscreen, we make no progress even when an Asian lead character is romantically opposite another. At worse, we revert to the Hayakawa’s portrayal in The Cheat – the Asian male who is reduced to the most bestial form of his sexuality. At best, we see Asian male sexuality viewed through the usual dirty lens of Hollywood’s trite misogynism, as in Fast Five. Such a simplistic take on the issue degrades the humanity of both women and Asian men.
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) published a practical list of ways to confront the stereotypical portrayal of Asian Americans in media. These suggestions recognize that we need to reach a point when the Asian character can be comfortably and accurately represented in all forms of fiction – not just in the low-brow B-movie, but in the high-brow, the drama, the sitcom. Sorkin is right: there is an unfortunate dearth of Asian movie stars. But movie stars are made, not born, and it is within the fortunate purview of Sorkin, Lin, and their peers to create them.
Em Liu is a fiction enthusiast particularly interested in depictions of women and minorities onscreen. She blogs over at FictionDiversity.com, and you can follow her on Twitter at @OLiu1230.