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Asian American men, lead roles, and the problems of our debate

Harold & KumarBy Sudip Bhattacharya
AsAmNews Staff Writer

Before I explain why I’m turned off by the discussion we’ve been having on the matter of Asian American representation, let me start with a confession:

I think Harold and Kumar Goes to White Castle is one of the greatest movies of all-time. Yes, a part of me is being facetious. I enjoy the imagery of a “real” movie fan getting red in the face and with steam pouring out from their ears.  But I am sincere when I say that watching Kal Penn as Kumar played a significant role in how I viewed myself as a young South Asian American growing up.

Before Kumar on the big-screen, most of what I’d seen in movies and TV shows were of brown men as either villains or “foreign”. Kal Penn as Kumar made jokes, talked sh*t, was scatter-brained, somewhat aimless, deeply flawed although trying to be a better person, and most of all, liked to be the opposite of what others expected. For the first time in my life until then, I saw a version of myself and felt less alone.

Ultimately, representation in the media and entertainment is powerful. That is why I was initially very thrilled at the recent debate within the Asian American community on the lack of Asian Americans in Hollywood, and how Asian-American men are often depicted as one-dimensional. From the Dumbfoundead video to Love Life of An Asian Guy, the topic is receiving the attention it deserves.

Even the “mainstream” recognizes the unfairness. For example, Asian American men are the least likely to receive attention based on statistics for online dating sites, and in the world of entertainment, Asian Americans in lead roles are rare, if not impossible to achieve.

That being said, I am worried about where the conversation is trending.

Issue #1: East Asian American bias

Imagine John Cho as a romantic lead in a Hollywood movie. #StarringJohnCho

The John Cho hashtag has been a creative and fun way to reveal the silly idea that Asian American men aren’t worthy of leading roles. Cho, who was also in Harold and Kumar and Star Trek, clearly could play any role he wanted if given the opportunity. Still, the hashtag and the attempt by supporters to prove that Asian American men are sexually appealing and tough can sometimes feel alienating to those who aren’t East Asian. This is not to say that all discussions must be stopped. I understand that not every meme can please everyone and certainly, not every movement. But speaking from the perspective of a South Asian American, the problems of representation in the media aren’t as simple as the need to be seen as tough or sexually attractive. Instead, the problem for South Asians has been the odd binary we’re often stuck between. On one side has been the familiar trope of being portrayed as goofy and weird. However, opposite that, is also the stereotype of South Asian Americans, especially those who are Sikh- and Muslim-American, as threatening and dangerous, which are traits that maybe East Asian American men desire, but other groups already suffer from. Islamophobia and the hatred of brown bodies has led to violence toward Sikh Americans and Muslims in the U.S.

Issue #2: The reinforcement of socialized masculinity

Again, it is important for Asian American men to be portrayed as more than just sidekicks to their white counterparts. However, this yearning for an image of the “strong” and “sexually appealing” Asian American man reinforces a very confining and reactionary conception of masculinity. For instance, what do we mean when we want someone depicted as a “strong” male? What kind of “strength” are we referring to? In our version of an Asian American lead actor, will there be room for him to still exhibit vulnerability? Or are we aspiring for a masculinity that restricts young men into categories? I don’t want anyone, especially Asian American men, young and old alike, to feel that to be strong, they have to follow a type of masculinity that in all honesty, has been toxic to our society. My hope is that we encourage more nuanced portrayals of Asian American men instead of replacing the white man with someone like ourselves, without any consideration to the overall dynamics of the hierarchy. This ties into my last and most important problem I have with our current conversation on representation.

Issue #3: Whiteness and WoC

Finally, the topic of Asian American representation has become saturated with concern over how Asian American men are seen. Of course, dating, sexuality, and representation are all mixed and must be analyzed. However, how some Asian American men discuss the “problem” of exclusion from the dating pool based on how we are perceived confuses me. Just by looking around, one can tell that Asian American men are appreciated and loved. After all, if there is a group that values Asian American men, it is Asian American women. Even in articles that reveal bias against Asian-American men, there are numbers that show Asian American women being the sole group that finds us attractive. So to put it lightly: Why all the fu*kboy politics? Basically, who are we then seeking validation from? Cause to me, it seems like the same Asian American men who aspire for “love” and to be accepted are the same ones who’re avoiding their own biases against Asian American women and other women of color. This connects to a larger discussion of Asian American men not appreciating the women of color who do support us and who suffer from far worse issues of fetishization and colorism.

Hopefully, in the near future, there will be more Asian American faces of all types on screen, and that the complexity of who we really are can be appreciated and expressed through art that we control and value. But so long as the conversation is mired in marginalizing women of color and trapped in fu*kboy politics, any chance for a revolutionary conception of who we are will fade away.


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