(14 min read)
When I was in my teens, one of my favorite films to watch was The Forbidden Kingdom, a Chinese-American film produced in 2008. Starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, and Li Bingbing, it was a film seemingly gift-wrapped for me. It featured two of my favorite actors—Jackie Chan and Jet Li, both of whom I idolized as a child for their proficiency in martial arts—and an almost entire cast of Asians, which was something I had never seen before. The key word, however, is “almost”. Though the faces of two renowned Chinese actors were plastered on the theatrical release posters, DVDs, and Blu-rays of the film, the protagonist was a white man. As one might have guessed, the director and writer were also white men.
The plot revolves around a white man named Jason Tripitikas, a fan of martial arts films. By pure happenstance and coincidence (by that, I mean the white writer was unabashedly trying to make him special) he finds a golden staff is mysteriously whisked away to a village in ancient China. It is there that he meets Lu Yan, played by Jackie Chan, and Sun Wukong, played by Jet Li. Both end up protecting and training him. As with almost every action or adventure film with a male protagonist, there has to be a love interest. Meet Golden Sparrow, played by Liu Yifei. These four face off against the Monkey King, the primary antagonist, and the witch Ni-Chang. Long story short, Tripitikas completes the hero’s journey by fulfilling some arbitrary prophecy, defeating the enemy, kissing the girl, and returning home.
(Complete tangent, but in hindsight, I realize how infatuated I was with Jet Li, Liu Yifei, and Li Bingbing at the time I watched the film. I mean, look at how attractive they are! Oh, and the way they fought was so mesmerizing!)
Albeit I was still coming to terms with acknowledging race as something significant in my life, I wondered why the main character was white and why it could not have been a Chinese person instead, given that the overall story was set in China. Seeing a white man be the protagonist in an otherwise Asian film was jarring. He stood out awkwardly, like a drop of oil spilled into a cup of water. It was impossible to ignore him. He was the savior the audience was supposed to root for, but I was confused and disappointed.
Why was he at the forefront, despite Jet Li and Jackie Chan’s characters being plastered on covers? Why did he get a love interest, while Sun Wukong and Lu Yan didn’t?
Actually, why weren’t they the protagonists instead? Why was he even there?
Contrast that experience to the moment I saw the Japanese drama 花より男子, otherwise known as “Hana Yori Dango,” a story that follows a young woman named Makino Tsukushi who winds up getting into an altercation with Domyougi Tsukasa, a member of the F4 and son of one of Japan’s wealthiest families. In short, the two of them bicker a lot, drama ensues with mean girls, a love triangle forms between Makino, Domyouji, and another man, and the two gradually fall in love. Despite how utterly silly and overdramatic the show was, I recall feeling gleeful, a little bit too gleeful, when the two main characters began to come into terms with their feelings for one another. I could not explain why at the time, but I remember behaving like one of those fangirls I used to frequently roll my eyes about while I watched the series. I was ecstatic.
I failed to realize it then, as I barely saw Asians in film to begin with, but I soon came to the conclusion that whiteness was the norm, and that so many narratives centered it.
How Western Media Centers Whiteness
The phenomenon of white men-Asian women couplings was also pervasive in media. Too pervasive. Despite being happy to see Asian women anywhere I could, I remember always being perplexed by one particular detail: they were only ever paired with white men. Take, for example, films such as The Wolverine, The Outsider starring Jared Leto, The Last Samurai, The Toll of the Sea, The Hangover: Part II, Transporter, Dragonball: Evolution, and Pacific Rim. What is rather jarring about so many of these films is how often the white savior narrative is employed.
Getting on social media and seeing so many people hail To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – originally written by Jenny Han into a three-book series – as the pinnacle of Asian American representation left me flabbergasted. What was it that made this particular film special compared to any other film that had an Asian protagonist? The series itself follows Lara Jean Song Covey, a young half-white, half-Asian girl living her life and facing the typical stressors that every typical teenager does. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary happens until the love letters she keeps in her hatbox get delivered to the boys she was attracted to. All of a sudden, she finds herself at the receiving end of affection and attraction from multiple boys. It seems like a rather typical romantic comedy or teen love drama, so why was there so much fuss about it?
More importantly, why were almost all of the love interests in the film white? And what was so revolutionary about a film that framed whiteness as ideal?
In an interview, Jenny Han admitted that a producer spoke about replacing the Asian woman lead with a white woman lead. She seemed perturbed at the suggestion and said that the “alarming part of it was that people didn’t understand why that was an issue.” Yet in her own novels, the protagonist’s father is a divorced white man who eventually gets together with a white woman, and all of Lara Jean’s love interests are white boys. It’s rather odd that Jenny was concerned about the film being “white-washed,” despite how her own source material seems to center whiteness.
Peter Kavinsky, one of the two primary love interests, is played by Noah Centineo in the film. The second is Josh Sanderson, played by Israel Broussard. Both of them appear to be ethnically ambiguous, while the other love interests, Kenny and John Ambrose McClaren, are undeniably white. The only exception is Lucas Krapf, who is played by a Black actor named Trezzo Mahoro.
According to the Wikia page for the film, however, both Kavinsky and Sanderson are considered Caucasian. Even if the actors playing these two characters were not Caucasian, they would be ambiguous enough to be white-passing. Lara Jean herself is played by Lana Condor, an adoptee of Vietnamese heritage; admittedly a surprising choice, considering that the original character was half-white and half-Korean.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that none of the romantic interests were Asian boys.
“So what’s wrong with portraying Asian women in relationships with white men? Who cares if Lara Jean’s romantic interests are mostly white? Are you opposed to interracial couplings on screen? How does any of this portray whiteness as ideal, since the protagonist is Asian herself? Why does it matter that Asian men are seen with Asian women? This is merely a film, an idealized fantasy marketed towards young girls, so who cares?”
For one, Asian women who are attracted to Asian men exist. Contrary to what the movies, pornography, shows, and music that the entertainment industry and Hollywood might promote, they do. The problem that people have with not seeing Asian couples on screen is that it makes them feel marginalized and erased, and that their stories are irrelevant and not worth telling. It may also make them feel abnormal for their being attracted to their own; if all one ever sees onscreen are white men with Asian women, then chances are, Asian girls and women will internalize the message that white men are attractive and that they should be with them. As discussed in episode 6 of the Journey to the West Podcast, “Praisin’ the Asian“:
The cultural and social pressure to conform and be seen as normal is one that almost all young people share, regardless of background; for people of color, this pressure is often amplified, as they live in a society where whiteness is the norm. We are conditioned to see white people’s validation and acceptance as a necessity.
How Media Makes A Social Impact
Television can shape the audience’s perceptions. For example, during the civil rights movement, “footage of a 1963 attack on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, showed police blasting African American demonstrators—many of them children—with fire hoses… [Since it was] coupled with images of angry white segregationist mobs squaring off against Black students, the news footage did much to sway public opinion in favor of liberal legislation such as the 1964 Voting Rights Act.” On the other hand, “when volatile pictures of the race riots in Detroit and other cities in the late 1960s hit the airwaves… [it] helped create an anti-civil-rights backlash that encouraged many viewers to vote for conservative Republican Richard Nixon during the 1968 presidential election.” While this is not equivalent to Hollywood films, it does illustrate that the media we consume can sway our thoughts and opinions.
What’s particularly problematic about white men-Asian women couplings in movies, music, shows, and pornography is how hyper-sexualized and passive the woman tends to act. In the West, the Asian woman is often relegated to mere eye candy, stripped of her own humanity and qualities, existing only for white men. She is nothing more than a personification of derogatory stereotypes, instead of a fully-fledged human with unique characteristics and depth—a clear example of the intersection of racism and sexism.
In movies like The Outsider, The Wolverine, Transporter, and The Last Samurai, she requires rescue by a white savior and falls in love with him, despite him attacking her people. Think of the line “me love you long time,” made famous by the film Full Metal Jacket, and how Asian women and girls are often told that.
In the musical Miss Saigon, the heroine falls in love with and has sex with an American marine, only for him to leave her and marry a white woman instead. It’s especially disturbing when narratives like these that exploit the suffering of Asian women are romanticized and seen as acceptable.
Regardless of whether people acknowledge it, Asian women are systematically seen as inferior to white women. According to an academic paper discussing the history and ramifications of white sexual imperialism, “Asian women [are cast] into the most inferior of all positions, below the white women… [and nowhere is this more apparent than in Miss Saigon]. When Kim realizes her American lover has no intention of marrying her, leaving [their child] Tam under the care of the marine and his new wife, quietly suggesting, perhaps that… the marine’s wife, a white woman, is better suited to raise Tam.” Another example of this dynamic is seen in The Wolverine (2013). While still lying in bed with the Asian woman lead after having sex, the white male protagonist reminisces about the white woman he actually wishes she was.
It is very easy to proclaim that media like this is harmless. People frequently shrug their shoulders and argue that “fantasy is entirely distinct” from reality. Behaviors, beliefs, and even attraction itself—none of them exist in a vacuum.
Pornography, for example, is one of the worst perpetrators in the hyper-sexualization of Asian women. A study conducted by Lynn Gossett and Sarah Byrne in 2002 revealed that over fifty percent of pornography depicting rape or torture involved Asian women as the victims. Thirty-three percent of the time, white men were the ones carrying out these violent acts. According to Helen Zia, a social activist, there is “a direct connection between racial-sexual stereotyped pornography and actual violence against Asian women.” There have been cases that support this: Michael Lohman, a graduate student at Princeton University, was charged after investigators discovered that he had poured his urine and semen into Asian women’s drinks and stolen their undergarments. Another case involved two men named David Dailey and Edmund Ball, who abducted and raped two Japanese women under the impression that they “were submissive and thus, less likely to report the rapes.” (Source)
These depictions do not merely perpetuate personal crimes. In addition, it can also normalize and encourage other problematic practices. For example, “depictions of Filipinas as sexual commodities on the internet have been linked to the mail-order bride industry in Australia as well.”
While many of the films and shows depicting white men-Asian women couples may not be pornographic in nature, a very similar message is still being projected to the audience: Asian women fundamentally belong to white men. They desire them, pedestalize them, and are willing to bend over backwards to attain their attention and validation. When it comes to violence against women, “Blacks most often fall victim to Black offenders, and whites most often fall victim to white offenders, [while] Asians most often fall victim to white offenders, not Asian.” (Source)
How Racial Stereotypes Dehumanize Asian Men
On the other hand, how does this affect Asian men and boys?
They are stereotyped, similarly to Asian women, but their depictions onscreen are different. Instead, they are often needlessly stereotyped as awkward, nerdy—a neutral term often used instead to denigrate them— or proficient in martial arts and are frequently emasculated, feminized, or desexualized. They often remain in the background, and on the few occasions that they are at the forefront, they are often portrayed as mere stereotypes rather than desirable, attractive men worth fantasizing over. In certain cases, they exist as caricatures to be ridiculed and mocked, stripped away of their humanity and charm.
Think of how often Asian men are casted in films and shows, then think about how often they are chosen to play the romantic interests or, if one really wants to be very imaginative here, the romantic lead. Outside of a few sparse examples sprinkled here or there, they are arguably nonexistent in Hollywood. The chances of them being depicted in such a manner is almost null.
The book Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and Transactional Film Stardom, written by Sabrina Q Yu, delves into the image of Asian men in Hollywood by citing popular celebrities for reference. Jackie Chan’s image reflects that of a “sexless loner,” given how devoid of any romantic narratives he has starred in, “an image which exists partly because major studios do not yet view Asian couples as commercially viable and Western cultural taboos still forbid a white woman’s attraction to an Asian man.” Even Chow Yun-fat, often hailed as the “sexiest Asian man” due to the roles he has played in Hong Kong films, is “desexualized in his Hollywood roles.”
Perhaps one of the most notable examples can be seen in the film Romeo Must Die, as many fans have noticed the chemistry between Jet Li and his co-star Aaliyah and wondered why the two did not share a kiss scene. As it turns out, “a kiss [scene] was tested with a focus group, but they were uncomfortable with it, so… [they] hug instead.” This perfectly exemplifies the bias that exists against Asian men; if Li was a white man, he would have, at the very least, shared a kiss scene with the female love interest, if not a sexual scene.
Citing an example from an academic paper delving into the feminization of Asian men, the 1993 film The Ballad of Little Jo serves as an example of white women having more status. It “reminds us that Asian men are excluded from Eurocentric notions of masculinity, and thus do not benefit in the same ways in a patriarchal system as white men do.” The film follows a white woman named Josephine Monoghan who disguises herself as a man to avoid sexism. After stumbling across and preventing a lynching, she is forced to take the man, named Tinman Wong, as her personal housekeeper.
What is particularly interesting and, quite frankly, emasculating, about it is the dynamic between the two. Jo (Josephine’s alias) takes a more masculine role in the relationship. She is the one who saves him, exerts dominance over him, and sexualizes his body. Tinman is depicted as utterly incompetent. Takinami, the author, concludes that “in this film’s case, even a white woman may…obtain more male privileges than an Asian man… [and it represents] the only acceptable type of miscegenation on screen: the union of a white man and an Asian woman.” The portrayal of this relationship, despite being between an Asian man and a white woman, reinforces the same racial dynamics between white men and Asian women often shown on screen.
This problem, however, does not only apply to media. It also personally affects the average Asian man in Western society.
In a study done on the relationship involvement between young adults, with the focus lying on Asian American men and women, research finds that, in online dating, “less than ten percent of Asian men would not consider dating Asian women, yet approximately forty percent of Asian women would rule out dating Asian men. Also, over ninety percent of women of all different racial groups who expressed a racial preference excluded Asian American men.” What is also worth noting is that “roughly one out of every five Hispanic and white men failed to report a current sexual and/or romantic partner; only about a quarter of black men and a third of Asian men were similarly classified.” They also “found no evidence that socioeconomic resources or physical characteristics were driving the lower levels of involvement among Asian men… [and that the] findings are consistent with the notion that Asian American men are at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.”
Earlier this year, Sinakhone Keodara made headlines when he publicly announced his intent to sue gay hookup app Grindr for allowing users to promote racial discrimination, e.g. listing “no Asians” in their profiles. Asian men, regardless of sexual orientation, tend to be dismissed from the get-go on dating apps.
How We Can Create Positive Change
People might argue “why don’t you consume media that is produced in Asia instead, if you care so much about the representation of Asian couples?” While, yes, that is an option, most of the media Asian Americans consume is produced by Hollywood.
Young children are already conditioned to internalize the notion that whiteness is the norm. According to a professor quoted on an article from the Huffington Post, “regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good… [as] you tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there.” But others are subjected to harmful stereotypes which can lower their self-esteem.
This is why we at ProAsian Voice created the hashtag #AsianLove. Given the lack of Asian couplings in Western media, it is important for us to share more positive images of Asian-Asian bonds—to humanize and celebrate them. By doing so, we de-center whiteness and destigmatize the sight of Asian couples, friends, and families. Together, we can take joy in relationships that often go unappreciated and unnoticed, and see ourselves and others like us as normal.
Guest contributor Ji Xian is a Chinese-Vietnamese queer woman. She is currently a college student studying nursing.
[Edited By Benny and J]