Portrayal of Asian American Women in Popular TV Programs

As an Asian American, I have always noticed when TV shows I watched had an Asian/American character in it because I strived to have a role model that I could relate to. One of my favorite shows as a child was “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” – a show that chronicles the activities of twin boys while they live in the Hotel Tipton. London Tipton (portrayed by Brenda Song) is a teenage Asian American girl who is the daughter of the owner of the Tipton hotel franchise. Later into my teenage years, I moved past “The Suite Life” onto the TV show, “Lost.” This show featured a widely diverse cast that included a Korean woman named Sun-Hwa Kwon (portrayed by Yunjin Kim). Although neither of these characters encapsulated all the traits I had hoped for in an Asian/American role model, both of them worked to deconstruct the stereotypes around Asian/American women.

London Tipton is everything the stereotypical Asian girl was not; she is ditzy, vain, materialistic, and hates school. Growing up, the majority of exposure to Asians in TV shows were through the “nerdy Asian” trope where the character is smart, wears glasses, and is at the lower rungs of the social pyramid. However, London Tipton does not even know how to count past the number three and says things like “Education and me just don’t mix,” and “I save paper by never reading books!”

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Her race is never focused on in the show as it was never mentioned explicitly and her last name does not seem to be of Asian American heritage. Her absentee parents never appear and nothing is said about her upbringing, except for the fact that she is extremely spoiled. This strays away from the “Forever Foreigner” concept because she seems to be fully considered a “True American.” Although she was never quite the role model I had wished to see, I was still proud to know that a girl that looked more like me than someone like Hillary Duff or Lindsay Lohan could play such a major role where her race is not the focus.

London’s role actively went against the types of roles given to other Asian American girls at the time and allowed for people to see that Asian actresses did not need to conform to one type of character in order to find success. However, London’s role lacked the depth that it needed in order to encourage the audience to view her as a real person. She is constantly compared to the white, blonde character of Maddie, who is demonstrably more intelligent and morally upright. Because of this, Song’s character essentially became a trope, making it harder for viewers to connect with her, while Maddie grows as a character and shows merit through her intelligence and morals. London’s one-dimensionality acted more as comic relief than as a fully developed character, which is why I think her role could have been improved upon more. Regardless of this flaw in her character, I believe that her popularity of this role by the audience helped propel Asian Americans forward because people became more open to the idea that not all Asians had to fit into predetermined roles and with specific characteristics.

In “Lost,” Sun-Hwa Kwon is a Korean woman who starts out the series in the “Lotus Blossom” archetype as a subservient wife to a sexist husband. She and her husband, Jin-Soo, are the only two survivors of the plane crash that cannot speak English. In one of the first episodes of the first season, Jin reprimands her having one button undone on a cardigan that reveals a minimal amount of skin. She immediately apologizes and buttons her sweater, reinforcing the common notion that Asian women are obedient and submissive.

Flashback by flashback, we learn about all the ways she rebelled against this stereotype. For example, in episode six of the first season, we learn that Jin started working for Sun’s dad’s corrupt company where Jin frequently came home covered in blood from shady business dealings. Sun exercised her agency to start taking English lessons behind Jin’s back so she could run away from both her husband and her father. This detailed backstory shows her daring and brave nature, which contrasts to her submissive behavior. As the seasons progress, we learn more about how she has threatened to kill others to protect her family and how she eventually seized her father’s corrupt company. Her complexities allow her to become a fully developed character who consistently defies the “Lotus Blossom” role.

Even though Sun’s character development led to a multidimensional woman who challenges the stereotype that was originally presented, she seems to be portrayed in a better light as she became more “Americanized.” Her Korean past that includes her immoral father and traditional Korean values seems to shed a negative light of Korean people. She does not find her true self until she learns English and eventually leaves for the United States. The focus on her Korean background may be because when Kim auditioned for the lead female role, she was told she was not right for the part and the producers, instead, wrote an entirely new role for her. The producers had wanted non-English speakers on the show, so it seems as though they wanted to delve into another culture in her storyline.  Other than the fact that her character seems generally unhappy until she leaves Korea, I believe Sun has encouraged writers to create well-rounded, multifaceted characters for Asian Americans that defy the common clichés.

Both London Tipton and Sun-Hwa Kwon played major roles in popular TV shows that personally helped me feel less like a “foreigner” living in the United States. Even though they did not break out of the hegemonic cycle completely, they were able to dismantle the pre-existing stereotypes of Asian women and widen the range of roles an Asian/American woman could portray.

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