Steven Bannon and the Model Minority

Following a screening of Better Luck Tomorrow at Sundance, an audience member criticized the way that the film portrayed Asian Americans [1]. Although the characters have different personalities and traits, they also neatly fall into the model minority and yellow peril stereotypes. At the time, film critic Roger Ebert dismissed this criticism, but in analyzing the rhetoric of Steven Bannon and the alt right, we can see how narratives and representations that are largely based in stereotypes can be harmful for the Asian American community. The portrayals of Asian Americans in Better Luck Tomorrow construct false narratives that contribute to the ongoing acceptance and existence of these damaging stereotypes, and this forms the basis of the anti-Asian racist and xenophobic ideology that can be found in the White House today.

Every Asian American character in Better Luck Tomorrow is a high achieving student. This sweeping characterization normalizes the model minority stereotype. In addition, the foreignness of their ethnicity is emphasized various times throughout the film. While each character has some nuance and depth, by ascribing these general characteristics to all of the Asian American characters, the film is demonstrating to the audience that this is normal and expected for Asian American people. These are the defining characteristics that Steven Bannon uses to frame Asian Americans as a threat to the country.

Donald Trump

In 2015, Donald Trump did an interview on Breitbart radio with Steven Bannon, who is now the chief strategist and senior counselor of the White House. At one point, Trump asks Bannon, “We have to keep our talented people in this country. I think you agree with that. Do you agree with that?” Bannon responded saying, “Well I got a tougher — you know, when two thirds or three quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think — on, my point is, a country’s more like, [inaudible], a country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” Unsurprisingly, this statement is factually incorrect; Asian Americans are underrepresented in tech management roles. This reveals a sentiment that Bannon most likely continues to hold, along with many others who agree with alt-right ideology.

parity-in-tech2web_0

His reply to Trump reveals a few aspects of his prejudice regarding Asian Americans.  First, this comment acknowledges the academic and financial success of Asian Americans. Bannon seems to agree with the idea that Asian Americans have achieved success in this country, but he sees it as a threat to the “real” Americans who can no longer highly achieve due to the competition of this foreign threat. The acknowledgement of the model minority stereotype while maintaining paranoia about the yellow peril is one of the main ideas explored in Better Luck Tomorrow. The main characters of the film achieve highly in school, but they have a very questionable set of morals. This is the same identity that Bannon is ascribing to Asian American CEOs. It is evident that they have been able to succeed within the meritocracy of American society, but due to their ethnicity, there is reason to believe that they may have malicious intent. As a result, they pose a threat to the civic society of the United States.

It is also clear that he continues to consider Asian Americans as foreigners, regardless of their citizenship. If he considers this imaginary statistic to be a threat to “civic society,” his vision for the future of America does not include Asian Americans as first class citizens and equal members of society. The rhetoric and actions of Trump and Bannon seem to communicate that the only people who are not considered foreign are white, heterosexual, and Christian. While he does not explicitly say why Asian American CEOs pose a threat to “civic society,” it seems reasonable to assume that a significant reason is their foreignness.

The actions of President Trump and the administration in the past week demonstrate the  ideology that they hold regarding immigrants. Specifically for Asian Americans, Steve Bannon’s statement in the 2015 Breitbart interview reveals how the stereotypes of the model minority, yellow peril, and perpetual foreignness form the basis of racist ideology. The continued portrayal of Asians and Asian Americans in film contribute to the growth and sustained support of this ideology. Better Luck Tomorrow is an example of how this supposedly sinister side of Asian Americans fit within the framework of the model minority stereotype. To be clear, this is not to blame film or any other media for the formation of racist ideology, but rather, to emphasize how much representation in media can matter. Measuring the impact of this film in relation to public opinion regarding race would be difficult. However, it’s undeniable that stereotypes are harmful and their continued appearance in film can contribute to false narratives and problematic views of the community.

[1] Ju Yon Kim, “Homework Becomes You: The Model Minority and Its Doubles,” from The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday (NYU, 2015)

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