Boobs or butt? Mass media has always been a butt kind of guy, consistently making Asian-Americans as the ass of the joke. From Watters’ World (help us all) to the blatant yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, history and racism has amalgamated to a point at which Asian-Americans are the crotch shot of comedy: it hurts us for the humor of others. The mockery and bastardization of Asian-Americans has roots in the early 20th century with cartoons depicting Chinese immigrants eating rats and images of the ‘Yellow Peril’ encroaching on American territory. These images had trickled down to become racist caricatures in 16 Candles and the yellowfacing of white characters in How I Met Your Mother. However, the relationship between Asian-Americans and Hollywood has reached a tipping point. Asian-Americans are taking ownership of their portrayal through the freedom provided by social media. The only Asian faces I had growing up were Mulan and the random Asian extras who played students in the background. However, Asian-Americans in this next generation, although may not see proportionate and intersectional representation, will be surrounded by more accurate portrayals of Asian-Americans.
Asian-Americans are both consciously and unconsciously perceived as the “silent minority” by American media and its audience; Robert G. Lee argues that this perception in media stems from “political silence” of Asian-Americans. Lee touches on the historical trauma experienced in the 20th century which crippled some Asian-American communities. The Korean War and annexation of the Philippines led to the perception that Koreans and Filipinos were weak and burdens for white America to handle while the rise of Communism in China reminded America of the Yellow Peril. These historical divisions and schisms contributed to the paradox that is Hollywood’s perception of Asian America. Ju-Yon Kim’s Homework Becomes You epitomizes the contradiction of America’s portrayal of Asian-Americans, “In this centennial year of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the assimilated anchorwoman and the unskilled member of an obscure Indochinese minority embody the extremes of the fastest-growing segment of the nation’s population” (Kim 174). Kim argues that from the get go of the article that is attributed to the rise of the model minority myth, there is a clear “dichotomy” created to identify Asian-Americans. We are both sexually deviant and impotent, dangerous and docile, and incompetent and astute. This dichotomy has allowed for Hollywood to depict Asian-Americans only as extremes on the spectrum that is Asian-America. Because the first Asian-American diaspora to become featured in mass media were Chinese-Americans, Asian-America is commonly associated with East Asian faces even though the second largest Asian-American community is the Filipino-American community. Unaware of the erasures and precursors in Asian-American history, media has continued to push a sense of forced pan-Asian cultural citizenship on the Asian-American community. Conscious of these perceptions and histories, Asian-American entertainers who grew up with the repercussions of Hollywood are rewriting the narrative.
Hollywood is difficult to break through and is arguably more difficult for Asian-Americans over white or white passing entertainers and 2016 was an important year in the continuation of the conversation regarding diversity in media. The freedom of social media has allowed for Asian-Americans in particular to finally become a part of the conversation on the portrayal of Asian-Americans in television and film. 2016 was the year of #StarringJohnCho, whitewashing, #StarringConstanceWu, more whitewashing, Fresh Off the Boat’s third season, and more whitewashing of Asian characters. Tilda Swinton played a Tibetan monk, Scarlett Johansson an adaption of an anime character, and the projected casting of Mulan all caused waves in the news due to their whitewashed casting of Asian characters, however people took a stand. Activist William Yu started a social media campaign called #StarringJohnCho in which he photoshopped actor John Cho’s face onto the movie posters of white male led feature films to “breakdown the archetype of a Hollywood leading man.”. #StarringConstanceWu shortly followed to prove that Asian-American women can also be in leading roles. The University of Southern California found that white women were more likely to be “referenced as physically attractive” compared to Asian-American women, yet the fetishization and exoticization of Asian women is still rampant in consumed media.
The phenomena of Youtube has allowed Asian-Americans to not only be featured in media, but to also take ownership of their material. The rise of Youtube has also led to the rise of the Asian-American Youtube star ranging from comedy sketches by Wong Fu Productions to makeup gurus like Michelle Phan to comedians like Lilly Singh. Youtube has allowed for the globalization and distribution of content that otherwise would not have been released due to the restrictive nature of television and film in America. I learned how to do eye makeup through watching tutorials on Youtube because it was the only outlet at the time that taught how to do a smokey eye on a monolid. Youtube was where my friends and I felt affirmation that Asian-Americans could be funny because NigaHiga was releasing parody videos like “How to be Ninja”. Although both NigaHiga and Wong Fu reached high points of popularity, Wong Fu was one of few Youtubers that were able to transcend outside of Youtube. In 2015, Wong Fu Productions released Everything Before Us which not only featured an all-Asian cast, but was also featured on Netflix. Wong Fu however, has been an exception. Youtubers often find it difficult to transcend their status as a Youtuber because although the Youtube world has welcomed them, Hollywood still remains difficult to access by Asian-Americans. Asian-Americans have proved through social media outlets that we are not to be confined to a dichotomy, but that rather we are a spectrum. Although much of representation of Asian-Americans, whether it is by non-Asian Americans or Asian-Americans, remains problematic the reclamation of ownership of our representation is a step in the right direction.