When it comes to popular culture and movies, Hollywood would like to claim that racial diversity has increased. While this may be true in that viewers may see more people of color on the big screen, it does not excuse the fact that often times these people of color are portrayed in ways that stereotype them either racially or sexually; one such occurrence is in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables. While the movie attempts to shatter the cycle of covert racism rife in Hollywood films through its portrayal of Jet Li’s character, it sends mixed messages by both empowering and emasculating him. While it may not be intentional, Hollywood’s portrayal of Asian men ultimately does nothing to end racial profiling and further perpetuates Asian stereotypes.
When we are introduced to the Expendables, we see them calmly pointing their guns with military precision upon the pirate who is about the murder an innocent civilian. There is no doubt in the viewers’ mind about the masculinity of these men. The opening scene is charged with adrenaline as, after quickly cycling through each member of the team, the hostage situation erupts into a full blown gun fight. The abundance of explosions, violence, and guns, which are phallic symbols, present in the opening scene further cements the fact that the Expendables are manly men. The fact that Li, an Asian actor, is present amongst these characters empowers him and heightens his masculinity, thus breaking long standing stereotypes about Asian masculinity.
While I applaud The Expendables for including Li in its cast of characters, I am disappointed that the movie does nothing to fight against Asian stereotyping but rather sustains it through the portrayal of Li’s character. Right away viewers can tell, just by looking at the theatrical poster and seeing the group of burly men glaring menacingly at them, that the movie will be filled with gratuitous acts of masculinity. And then, they see Jet Li who stands out as being considerably shorter and smaller than the rest of the cast. Hollywood has already begun to stereotype the Asian character even before viewers sit down to watch the movie. When viewers see this poster and see Li overshadowed by the rest of the cast, they begin to create preconceptions about his role in the film. A smaller figure on the poster may imply a smaller role in the movie which in turn diminishes his importance relative to the rest of the cast. If this wasn’t enough, the way that Li’s character in the film is portrayed screams of racism and stereotyping. I find it both amusing and insulting that Li’s character’s name is Yin Yang, which serves to forcibly draw attention to his character’s heritage as well as allude to the dichotomy of his character’s portrayal. Just like how yin and yang represent the interconnected contradictions of the world, Yin Yang represents the contradictions of Asian masculinity in this film.
While the opening sequence of The Expendables does a good job of portraying Li’s character in a non stereotypical light, the rest of the movie fails to do justice to the opening scene and ends up stereotyping his character. Right after the opening scene, we see another member of the Expendables about to hang an unconscious pirate. Li’s character is the first one to jump into action to stop his teammate, perpetuating the stereotype of the model minority. Even his words “We don’t kill like that,” shows that even though earlier he was shooting down other pirates, his morality will not condone the murder of a helpless foe. Even though Li’s character is clearly smaller than his teammate and outmatched, his duty as a member of the model minority means that he must be the one to physically stop his teammate from hanging the pirate. Even though Li’s character is the one who leaps into action, he ultimately fails to subdue his teammate and has to be saved by another teammate. Li’s character having to be saved by other members of his team happens a lot during the film, thus calling into question his masculinity and making him seem weaker than the rest of the team.
The theme of Li’s character being smaller and weaker than the rest of the team is a trope that is called upon many times throughout the film. After the Expendables are hired for another mission, they are discussing their plans when Terry Crews’s character says “Great, [the enemy] got a small army. What do we got? Four and a half men,” and looks pointedly at Li’s character. While this quip is supposed to be a harmless jab at Li’s character’s diminutive size compared to the rest of the team, it emasculates Li’s character and is charged with the subtle undertones of racism that has been far too prevalent in Hollywood films. Asian men are often times seen as being less masculine as men of other races and Crews’s comment about Li’s character further supports this stereotype.
While The Expendables tries to be progressive in its portrayal of Asian characters, the subtle inclusion of the Asian stereotypes of being the model minority and being less masculine than men of other races undermines its efforts. While I admire that The Expendables tries to portray Li in a non stereotypical manner by having him star in a movie packed with masculine bravado, ultimately it undermines his character’s masculinity with weakness just like how Hollywood and popular culture does to Asian men in general.