#ExpressiveAsians and Stereotypes
September 28, 2017
As described recently in this Paste article, a (presumably white) Hollywood casting director was quoted as saying Asian performers were “not very expressive” compared to their white peers to explain the disparity in representation between the two groups. In response, a number of Asian Americans in entertainment and social commentary spread the hashtag #ExpressiveAsians. The trending topic showcased a wide range of emotional scenes acted by Asians and Asian Americans, as well as lighthearted posts of Asian people in everyday life being expressive, all of which underscored a broad critique of tokenization and stereotyping on the part of industry gatekeepers. They spoke to the importance of not simply including Asian performers in media, but of casting them in roles more meaningful than portrayals that are, at worst, perpetuations of racist assumptions or, at best, ineffectual lip service to substantive calls for diversity.
Indeed, a number of posts cited a recent study of television shows airing in the 2015-16 season that demonstrated how, in spite of an increase in Asian American leads, media representation remained strikingly disproportionate when measured against nationwide demographic assessments. In a statement made to The Independent, sociologist and filmmaker Nancy Wang Yeun remarked, “Hollywood’s casting culture is predicated on stereotypes–and marginalised groups get the brunt of it. Hence, if just a handful of casting directors can start to recognise their own biases, that would be progress.”
Increased visibility for Asian Americans in American media is undoubtedly an improvement on the status quo, particularly for programs that cater to children and teenagers in their formative years. But in general, it still isn’t enough for Hollywood decision-makers to merely acknowledge their biases, set them aside, and cast Asian people in parts that were invariably written with a white person in mind. Following that standard, we get characters like Josh Chan from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Danny Chung in Veep, and, although she is not cast so much as drawn, Diane Nguyen (voiced by Alison Brie) in Bojack Horseman. These depictions are not objectionable by any means, especially compared to blatantly racist caricatures such as Han Lee of Two Broke Girls or the oft-cited Long Duk Dong, but it’s questionable what “progress” they reflect.
Even in shows like Dr. Ken, Master of None, or The Mindy Project, which are all written by and star Asian Americans, the main characters are well-off urban residents who glide through a string of relatable personal and professional challenges that have mostly been played out before — just not with an Asian American person going through the motions. Ken, Dev, and Mindy of the aforementioned shows would certainly qualify as #ExpressiveAsians that challenge stereotypes about Asian Americans: Ken is a lax and oblivious parent, Dev works in entertainment rather than at a gas station or in a STEM field, Mindy refuses to be submissive when other characters challenge her professional authority, and all are outspoken about contemporary social issues. But speaking as someone whose Asian American femininity impacts so many facets of my everyday life in ways that fundamentally set me apart as a minority in America, these roles largely strike me as more assimilation than “progress.”
New Model, Same Minority Status
The term “model minority” rose to prominence in the 1980s as a catch-all to describe an increase in economic status and education level among Asian American groups compared to other minority groups. American policymakers and the general public have often cited Asian Americans as a “model minority” in order to justify race- and class-based discrimination against other people of color that have not bootstrapped their way up the socioeconomic food chain. Those that subscribe to the validity of the “model minority” theory rely on cultural reductionism (Asian cultures emphasize education and work ethic) and xenophobic assumptions (only the best and brightest Asians immigrate to the United States) which do not stand up to closer scrutiny. Despite studies that have demonstrated how the “model minority” concept erases the institutional racism that many Asian Americans actually do face and suppresses opposition to racial inequality, this convenient understanding remains pervasive today.
Even though the #ExpressiveAsians on American televisions today defy certain stereotypes, they remain within the parameters of being educated, middle class, and culturally assimilated; in other words, they capitulate to the standards set by respectability politics. First introduced by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a scholar of Afro-American history, respectability politics refers to the policing of certain behaviors or values within marginalized groups in accordance with mainstream (read: white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative) codes of conduct. In the context of Asian Americans in media, the prominent characters mentioned above toe the line of acknowledging their identity-based difference in a manner that is fully comprehensible and palatable to white audiences. For example: they have Asian names but they don’t speak English with an accent, they joke that white people can’t eat spicy food but don’t eat anything too unfamiliar on screen, they take off their shoes in the house but would never spit in public. Nothing happens on screen that would alienate their white viewers.
Modes of Expression
A number of Asian Americans in contemporary media embody this new version of the “model minority,” distinct from the second-generation whiz kids of the 80s and today’s spelling bee champions. However, they still push the narrative of upward mobility by underscoring the desirability of middle-class, urban lives free of non-respectable racial markers. Given that this country was founded on and continues to perpetuate race-based institutional inequality, a lot of the Asian American representation on today’s screens comes across as, at best, willfully ignoring or, at worst, actively erasing that sociopolitical context. Yes, they are expressive. But what they are expressing is that Asian Americans, based on a certain series of individual decisions, can have the same interests, beliefs, and lives as white Americans. This is not to say that Asian Americans cannot hold a diverse range of opinions or that they cannot lead fulfilling lives. But they fundamentally cannot possess whiteness. Instances of exoticization, ostracization, and microaggressions in my everyday life stand as a testament to that, no matter who I see on TV.
I can think of quite a few people in my life that reflect the purportedly harmful stereotypes that #ExpressiveAsians seek to challenge, from excessively strict parents to taciturn elders to gaggles of international students that only speak Chinese to each other while hanging out in a bubble tea shop. But it is not as if these people are not as expressive as their more assimilated counterparts, since all are multifaceted people with particular aspirations and convictions. The modes of expression used by Asians and Asian Americans deemed to be less expressive are simply less comprehensible to white people. Even though more Asian American representation in media is certainly an improvement upon the film and television landscape of previous decades, it’s not exactly a cause for celebration to see Asian American performers fill roles that, after a few cosmetic tweaks in their storyline, could very well be played by a white person.