Edge of Asian American Stereotypes

To celebrate the end of fall quarter, my friends and I decided to watch The Edge of Seventeen, simply because it seemed like an adorable coming-of-age movie film and we wanted to end our quarter on a happy note. The Edge of Seventeen encompasses several concepts that we have discussed throughout this quarter; this movie is a coming-of-age comedy that was released at the end of 2016. One aspect that immediately caught my eye was that the protagonists’ love interest is an Asian male. As we have learned throughout this quarter, Asian Americans are underrepresented in Hollywood community; to have an Asian main character is a significant achievement in the Hollywood industry. Even though hegemonic structures can be modified in terms of gender and sexuality, it is difficult to completely dispel Asian American stereotypes because ignorance of Asian ethnicities is still prevalent in the movie industry.

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The Edge of Seventeen displays unique intersectionality of race by supporting inter-racial relationships. Erwin Kim, the male protagonist played by Chinese-Canadian actor Hayden Szeto, pursues the white female lead Nadine, played by Hailee Steinfield. In their relationship, it is unclear who is dominant or subordinate. Dominance is often determined by race and gender, specifically the combination of male and white. Typically, a couple’s hegemonic structure has the white male as the dominant character and the Asian female as the subordinate character who consents through discipline and ideologies. However, those factors do not coincide in The Edge of Seventeen: our protagonists are an Asian male and a white female. In the movie, it is evident that Nadine initially has power over Erwin from their interaction; she hangs up on him when he’s talking mid-sentence, invites herself over to his house and uses him to her advantage. Towards the end, it seems as though the power shifted from Nadine to Erwin as he is able to joke around while Nadine is uptight and slightly nervous. As such, it is hard to determine how power is allocated between these two. In his interview, Szeto states that “these [inter-racial] relationships should definitely be normalized [in movies] because that’s what’s happening in the real world,” and champions this advancement in Hollywood (Losgar). Movies from previous decades displayed Asian females pursuing white males to for their partner’s status, wealth or citizenship, but The Edge of Seventeen counters that argument and demonstrates that power is more equally distributed.

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Although The Edge of Seventeen does not blatantly display all aspects of Asian American stereotypes like the graphic novel American Born Chinese, Erwin Kim still perpetuates Asian stereotypes throughout the movie. From their first date, Nadine already has preconceived notions of Erwin simply because he’s Asian. She conjectures that his “mom gets on [him] about [his] grades and practicing [his] instruments” and that his father “never really says ‘I love you’, but with his stoic presence…you know he cares”. These statements are just plain stereotypes of Asian parents; what makes it worse is that in retrospect, Nadine admits that her comments were racist, but never apologizes to Erwin. Erwin replies “No, no not racist at all. You know. You’re good”, but his facial expression says otherwise; he is uncomfortable that Nadine already has this preconceived opinion of him simply because of his race, even before he could properly introduce himself. Even though Asians American actors surpassed playing stereotypical Asian roles in movies, it is evident that stereotypes of Asian Americans are still prevalent.

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Besides Nadine’s shameless speculation about Erwin’s parents, the Asian stereotypes are also apparent from Erwin’s parent’s mentality and his family background. His parents are also opposed to their son pursing his non-academic career cinematography, but Erwin rebels and enters the competition with his original work. His artwork accurately depicts himself being eaten by another Asian character, presumably his father. Typical of many “fresh-off-the-boat” Asians, Erwin is a son of a wealthy Asian family; his affluent household is illustrated by his mansion with the security gate and a vast swimming pool in the backyard.

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However, on the other hand, there is a lack of cultural representation for Erwin; besides his countenance and familial background, everything else about him seems very “white”; the movie does not delve into Erwin’s cultural citizenship or identity to further explain his environment. As previously mentioned in my blog post, Asian traditions can often transform into Asian American traditions when one immigrates to a new country. Although Erwin is presented as an Asian American character, he lacks conventional values that tie him back to his origin; as the audience, we see a limited perspective of Erwin, not a holistic view.

Despite the slow and steady improvement of representing Asian Americans in the film industry, Asians are still grouped as one category and are not recognized by their uniqueness. Why was a Chinese actor casted to play the role of a Korean student? During his interview, Szeto mentions that when he questioned director Kelly Craig regarding the reason for Erwin’s predetermined ethnicity, she replied with ‘real life is diverse and films should reflect that” and explained that her closest friends were of Korean and Filipino descent (Jung). In other words, she wanted to make the film more “realistic” by incorporating a Korean character. Her faulty logic does not contain any substance because having a Korean character does not make the movie any more realistic than having a Chinese character. In contrast, The Maze Runner was much more sensible for having Ki Hong Lee play the part of Minho, who we can easily identify as Korean based on the name. Hence, Asians of different ethnicities are expected to shape themselves to fit into different ethnicities for their characters.

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The Edge of Seventeen is an accurate liberalistic representation of the contemporary society. Unlike most Hollywood movies that feature Asians, it emphasizes the importance of breaking away from the stereotypes and elaborates on the protagonists’ inter-racial relationship.  Nonetheless, the movie fails to address character’s cultural elements, and as a result, creates a seemingly generic Asian character void of cultural values.

 

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