Restrictive Portrayals of Asians in the Media
and How to Balance Them
For decades, American entertainment media have defined the Asian image
to all the world. And usually, that image has been shaped by people with
little understanding of Asian people themselves--and with little foresight
into how such images would impact the Asian American community. Despite
the good intentions of individual producers and filmmakers, limited and
unbalanced portrayals of Asians have traditionally been the norm in the
Too often, an Asian face or accent is presented as a shorthand symbol
for anything antithetical to American or Western culture. Too often, no
distinctions are made between Asian Americans--acculturated U.S. citizens
with deep roots in this nation--and Asian nationals who may or may not
have any loyalty to the United States. Too often, the media insinuate
that Asian Americans don't belong in their own country.
Not all Hollywood projects with Asians are objectionable, however. In
fact, some Hollywood movies--such as "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story"
and "The Joy Luck Club"--have been widely welcomed by Asian
American audiences. But Hollywood typically restricts its portrayals of
Asians to a limited range of clichéd stock characters. And this
has affected how Asian Americans are perceived and treated in the broader
Below is a list of restrictive Asian portrayals that are constantly repeated
in the mainstream media and an explanation of why each is objectionable.
The seemingly incessant recurrence of these depictions--coupled with the
paucity of compensating images--marks them as stereotypes . So, a portrayal
can act as a stereotype even if its creator doesn't intend it to. Each
description is followed by a "Stereotype-Buster" that can combat
the inaccuracies of such portrayals.
This list is not intended as a bunch of "thou shalt nots" designed
to inhibit the creative imagination. To the contrary, it is designed to
encourage Hollywood's creative minds to think in new directions--to help
our storytellers create more interesting roles for actors by avoiding
old, stale images. It proposes to open up powerful and profitable story
ideas previously overlooked.
In short, this list hopes to help Hollywood prosper by embracing a more
inclusive vision of the human community.
Asian Americans as foreigners who cannot be assimilated. Because they
are racially and culturally distinctive from the American mainstream,
Asian people have been widely seen as unable to be absorbed into American
society. According to this view, anything Asian is thus inherently "alien"
to America. This is reflected in the media by the disproportionate number
of unacculturated Asian characters speaking with foreign accents. Acculturated
Asian American personalities have sometimes even been portrayed as unassimilated
(such as radio comedians satirizing Judge Lance Ito with an inappropriate
foreign accent). This portrayal ultimately suggests that anything Asian
must remain apart from American society. However, the descendants of Asian
immigrants have acculturated themselves not only to the United States
but also to non-Asian societies throughout the world: Europe, Australia,
Latin America, Africa.
Stereotype-Buster: Portraying Asians as an integral
part of the United States. More portrayals of acculturated Asian Americans
speaking without foreign accents.
Asian cultures as inherently predatory. For decades, Americans have viewed
Asian immigrants as "taking" from this country without giving
anything back. This perception was reinforced by early laws making it
difficult for Asians to immigrate and impossible for them to become naturalized
citizens. Although these laws have since been repealed, the image of the
Asian as alien predator still infuses popular media. In the movie "Falling
Down," for example, the white main character accuses a Korean grocer
of draining American resources without bothering to fit into American
society. This accusation "justifies" the lead character's destruction
of the Korean's grocery store. Similarly, the movie "Rising Sun"
portrays Japanese businessmen taking over American industry by murder
and deceit. And countless movies and TV episodes have portrayed Chinatowns
as breeding grounds of crime.
Stereotype-Buster: Asians as positive contributors to
Asian Americans restricted to clichéd occupations. Asians and Asian
Americans make their living in a wide array of professions, but too often,
Asian American professionals are depicted in a limited and predictable
range of jobs: restaurant workers, Korean grocers, Japanese businessmen,
Indian cab drivers, TV anchorwomen, martial artists, gangsters, faith
healers, laundry workers, and prostitutes. This misrepresents the diversity
of the Asian American work force.
Stereotype-Buster: Asian Americans in diverse, mainstream
occupations: doctors, lawyers, therapists, educators, U.S. soldiers, etc.
Asian racial features, names, accents, or mannerisms as inherently comic
or sinister. Because distinctive Asian characteristics are less common
in the United States, movies and TV shows often fall back on them for
quick and easy gags or gasps. For example, the thick accent of the goofy
Chinese exchange student in "Sixteen Candles"--who is given
the sophomoric name "Long Duk Dong"--is used for cheap laughs,
while the numerous Fu Manchu movies have presented the Asian character's
culturally distinctive speech and appearance as emblems of unfathomable
Stereotype-Buster: Asian names or racial features as
no more "unusual" than those of whites.
Asians relegated to supporting roles in projects with Asian or Asian American
content. Usually, when a project features Asian subject matter, the main
character will still be white. "The Killing Fields" and "Seven
Years in Tibet" are only two efforts that follow this "rule."
But the most infamous example is the internment-camp movie "Come
See the Paradise" (a box-office flop), which misleadingly focused
on a white protagonist and pushed its more interesting Japanese American
characters into the background of their own history. However, the success
of "Gandhi," "The Last Emperor," and "The Joy
Luck Club" proves that mainstream audiences will pay to see Asian
and Asian American lead characters. Using Asian American protagonists
can even create more interesting and uncommon story ideas.
Stereotype-Buster: More Asian and Asian American lead
Asian male sexuality as negative or non-existent. Although Asian women
are frequently portrayed as positive romantic partners for white men ("Sayonara,"
"The World of Suzie Wong," ad infinitum), Asian men are almost
never positively paired with women of any race. Western society still
seems to view Asian male sexuality as a problem. Consequently, Asian men
are usually presented either as threatening corrupters of white women
or as eunuchs lacking any romantic feelings. For example, in the action
movie "Showdown in Little Tokyo," the Asian villain forces himself
upon a white woman and murders her before threatening the Asian female
love interest. Predictably, the white hero kills the Asian villain and
"wins" the Asian woman--while the hero's Amerasian sidekick
is given no love life at all.
Stereotype-Buster: More Asian men as positive romantic
Unmotivated white-Asian romance. In "Daughter of the Dragon,"
the daughter of Fu Manchu lays her eyes on a British detective and instantly
falls in love with him. "The Bounty" and "Come See the
Paradise" also contain scenes where an Asian woman falls in love
with a white man at first sight. The repetition of this conceit sends
the signal that Asian women are romantically attracted to white men because
they are white . It insinuates that whiteness is inherently more important
than any other romantic quality and inherently more appealing than any
other skin color.
Stereotype-Buster: Interracial romances should be as
well-motivated and well-developed as same-race romances.
Asian women as "China dolls." Asian women are often portrayed
as exotic, subservient, compliant, industrious, eager to please. While
nicknamed the "China doll," "geisha girl," or "lotus
blossom," this sexually loaded stereotype isn't restricted to Chinese
or Japanese women. This portrayal is epitomized by the self-effacing title
character of the opera "Madame Butterfly," but it can also be
seen in works like "Teahouse of the August Moon" and "Tai-Pan."
Stereotype-Buster: Asian women as self-confident and
self-respecting, pleasing themselves as well as their loved ones.
Asian women as "dragon ladies." Another major female stereotype
views Asian women as inherently scheming, untrustworthy, and back-stabbing.
This portrayal is nicknamed the "dragon lady," after the Asian
villainess in the vintage comic strip "Terry and the Pirates."
Other examples of the stereotype are the daughter of Fu Manchu (in numerous
books and movies) and the gangsters' molls in "The Year of the Dragon."
Stereotype-Buster: Whenever villains are Asian, it's
important that their villainy not be attributed to their ethnicity.
Asians who prove how good they are by sacrificing their lives. In the
"classic" movie "Gunga Din" (1939), the Indian water-carrier
of the title confirms his loyalty to the Imperial British army by warning
it of an attack by nationalist forces. Gunga Din is killed in the onslaught.
For decades afterwards, movies have portrayed "positive" Asian
characters affirming their loyalty to the lead white characters--and thereby
affirming their "goodness"--by sacrificing themselves so that
the white characters may live. This depiction has come to be known as
the "Gunga Din stereotype." It can still be seen in projects
as recent as "Shogun," "The Year of the Dragon," and
"Rising Sun." Despite the intentions of the various filmmakers,
the constant repetition of this portrayal suggests that Asian life isn't
as valuable as white life. More cynically, this portrayal may be seen
as a more insidious way of saying: "The only good Asian is a dead
Stereotype-Buster: Positive Asian characters who are
still alive at the end of the story.
Asian Americans as the "model minority." Upon hearing the Asian
American community's concerns over media images, some producers have made
a good-faith effort to create more positive portrayals. Unfortunately,
some of these portrayals go too far in the other direction, depicting
Asians as so flawless that they are robbed of any humanity. In particular,
the image of Asian Americans as over-achievers with little emotional life
(such as the Asian American classmate in the canceled TV sitcom "Pearl")
can be just as confining and dehumanizing as any overtly negative portrayal.
No one is calling for Asian characters to be sanitized of all shortcomings,
just for them to be portrayed as well-rounded, relatable human beings.
Stereotype-Buster: The audience empathizing with an Asian
character's flaws and foibles.
Asianness as an "explanation" for the magical or supernatural.
Asia is often used as a quick and convenient reason for something having
magical or supernatural properties. For years, the radio hero "The
Shadow" was said to have acquired his powers of invisibility from
"the mysterious East." No further explanation was necessary.
More recently, the Woody Allen movie "Alice" accounted for the
magical powers of an elixir by having the white title character buy it
from an Asian herbalist. Assumption: Asian cultures are so strange and
unknowable that they can defy the physical realities of the Western world.
Granted, Asian magic can sometimes be portrayed positively in fiction.
But without more realistic images to provide balance, this other-worldly
conception of Asia risks painting a mystifying and misleading picture
of Asian cultures and Asian people.
Stereotype-Buster: Asian cultures as no more or less
magical than other cultures.
Anti-Asian racial slurs going unchallenged. Words such as "chink,"
"Chinaman," "Jap," "Nip," "gook,"
"slope," "slant-eye," and "wog" are offensive
to most Asian Americans. Unfortunately, not all non-Asians recognize the
offensiveness of these terms. For example, the movie "Absolute Power"
has one of its heroes use the word "Chinaman" in an off-handed
Stereotype-Buster: If absolutely necessary for a film
or TV project, anti-Asian racial slurs should be contextualized as negative
Asian arts as negative when practiced by Asians but positive when practiced
by whites. In the silent movie "The Thief of Bagdad," an Asian
villain employs magic to conquer the Arabian city, but good-guy Douglas
Fairbanks learns the secret of this magic and uses it against the villain.
In the film "Rising Sun," Japanese businessmen use their unique
Asian philosophy to plot the take-over of a U.S. company, but Sean Connery
draws upon his knowledge of this same philosophy to thwart their evil
scheme. On TV, an Asian who knows martial arts is likely to be a villain,
while a white person who knows martial arts is probably the star of the
show. Such portrayals convey the condescending message that Asian arts
can be put to positive use only when practiced by white people (or by
white actors in lead Asian roles, as in the TV series "Kung Fu").
Stereotype-Buster: Culturally distinct Asian skills positively
and realistically employed by Asian people.
Lead Asian roles labeled "Amerasian" or "Eurasian"
solely to accommodate white actors. Fact: Most projects in the U.S. entertainment
industry call for white lead characters. Fact: Hardly any call for Asian
lead characters. Fact: White actors have traditionally been considered
for Asian lead roles, while Asian actors are almost never considered for
white lead roles. Result: White actors have disproportionately more opportunities
in the industry than Asian actors do. So, whenever a white actor is cast
in a lead Asian role, this perpetuates a racial double standard and diminishes
already scarce opportunities for Asian American actors. This situation
sparked the heated--and widely misunderstood--casting controversy over
the Broadway musical "Miss Saigon." Granted, some actors who
are part-Asian but who can pass for white (Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Tilly,
"Lois & Clark's" Dean Cain) have greater opportunities,
but they cannot be used as a barometer for most Asian American actors.
Stereotype-Buster: Until the proverbial playing field
is truly level, Asian roles--especially lead roles--should be reserved
for Asian actors.
What, no Asians? The movie "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" commendably
found a place for a prominent black character in the unlikely setting
of Medieval England. By contrast, contemporary TV shows set in large cities--"L.A.
Law," "Chicago Hope," "Murphy Brown," etc.--don't
include a single regular Asian American character. What's wrong with this
picture? Asian people live all over the world and in every region of the
Stereotype-Buster: Virtually any project--especially
one with a contemporary setting--can make room for Asian characters. And
just because a part isn't explicitly written as Asian doesn't necessarily
mean that it can't be cast with an Asian actor.
We would be more than happy to answer any questions you
may have about any of these points.
Please feel free to contact us at:
Media Action Network for Asian Americans
P.O. Box 11105
Burbank, CA 91510
Hotline: (213) 486-4433 or (888) 90-MANAA
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