According to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority in the United States, yet Asian Americans are also one of the most underrepresented groups in media. The few Asian American seen in the media portray flat, stereotypical side-roles with little to no personality. Thus, the presence of Korean-American character Cristina Yang on the popular medical drama Grey’s Anatomy draws many audiences’ attention. Played by Korean-Canadian actress Sandra Oh, Cristina is an ambitious surgical intern with a prickly personality who becomes the main character Meredith’s best friend. This piece will examine how Cristina’s character radically splits from the previous portrayals of Asians. Through the analysis of the first thirteen episodes, Cristina proves to be a radical character that breaks the Asian female stereotype, showing Asian American characters do not need to fit a “type” to be successful in media.
By simultaneously confirming and rejecting Asian stereotypes, Cristina presents herself as a complex character with depth, making her fundamentally different from previous Asian character.
From a cursory glance, Cristina undoubtedly appears to perpetuate the Asian stereotype of being an academically superior, workaholic robot. Immediately, the show reveals that Cristina “has a BA from Smith, a PhD from Berkeley and an MD from Stanford” where she “finished first in her class.” By introducing Cristina’s academic prowess as one of her first defining traits, the audience associates the Korean-American with her academic success. Cristina quickly takes the place as the hardest working intern. Despite being the most qualified, Cristina does not get picked to perform a procedure which disappoints her but also fuels her to work harder as shown when she practices suturing a banana and arrives to the hospital early to get the best patient case. Through these actions, Cristina embraces the concept of the hardworking, competitive model minority. Additionally, Cristina often seems mechanical in her work. She tactlessly pushes a patient’s family for organ donations; patients frequently comment on her “terrible bedside manners”; her friend states in episode 13 that Cristina does not “have a soul.” These scenes depict Cristina’s struggle with emotion, and the comment referring to Cristina’s lack of a soul implicates Cristina’s connection to the Yellow Peril. Cristina’s very presence in a medical drama underscores the notion that Asian Americans belong and thrive in STEM professions.
Conversely, Cristina just as frequently rejects Asian stereotypes. Cristina neither fits the sensual “Dragon Lady” nor the submissive “Lotus Blossom.” Cristina initiates sex with her attending Preston Burke by entering his room, locking the door, and saying “thanks for the coffee.” Though Cristina makes the first move, she hardly comes across as a seductress with her simple statement, dressed in hospital scrubs. The ordinariness in Cristina’s approach to sex speaks volumes to how Asian American women can have a sex drive without being a sexual object. At one point in their relationship, Preston becomes annoyed with Cristina and yells at her in a stairwell. Cristina stands up for herself and flatly tells Preston “don’t yell at me.” In standing up for herself, Cristina refuses to settle for a submissive position to not only her male partner, but also her boss, defying both the “Lotus Blossom” and model minority. In episode 13, Cristina’s traditional Asian mother comes to visit while Cristina recovers from an operation that removed a Fallopian tube causing her a miscarriage. After an episode of hostile banter between Cristina and her mom, Cristina has an emotional breakdown and screams that she “will kill her” mom, completely going against the idea that Asian American children dutifully obey their parents. Cristina’s breakdown also demonstrates that contrary to her apathetic appearance, she deeply experiences emotions but hides them until she explodes. This breakdown proves that her lack of emotional expression is a character flaw rather than a racial stereotype.
The juxtaposition between Cristina upholding some stereotypes while contradicting others gives her character complexity beyond the one-dimensional Asian characters so frequently portrayed, and it is this contradiction that makes her a radical character. Cristina proves that she can possess the stereotypical Asian intelligence, work ethic, and efficiency without letting them define her. Through her relationships, she demonstrates her ability to move past previous representations of Asian women, and she grows in depth and complexity as she reveals her flaws.
Due to Grey’s Anatomy’s widespread popularity, Cristina’s character revolutionizes the expectations and portrayals of Asian American women with her uniqueness and multidimensional personality. The success of Grey’s Anatomy and the overall positive remarks on Cristina’s character reveal that capitalist driven productions can garner success without the use of the stereotypical Asian characters. Because media plays such a large role in the cycle of socialization, Cristina contains so much power to educate and influence the way Asian Americans view themselves as well as how other races view Asian Americans. Due to the lack of Asian-American actors/actresses represented in mass media, the ones that do appear often bear the expectation of representing an entire race as seen in the criticism of Better Luck Tomorrow during Sundance in Ju Yon Kim’s article “The Racial Mundane.” However, the originality and distinctly human aspect of Cristina prevents her from becoming a stereotype that represents the entire Asian American female population. Cristina stands by herself, not as another stereotype but simply as herself.