April 30, 2013

NG: Stereotypes Are Modern

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When I was a freshman at the University of Michigan, shortly after the Foxconn suicides, I remember a drunken man telling me that I broke his iPhone and that I should jump off a building. That hasn’t happened again since I transferred to Cornell, but a week ago I remembered his statement. It made me wonder: If iPhones didn’t exist, what would he have said instead?

What immediately came to me was not an answer, but a realization: Stereotypes are not a holdover from a backwards era. Stereotypes are as modern as the iPhone that my drunken Michigan man broke. Once they are disproven, they become history as newer ones take their place.

Other writers have covered stereotypes of all gravities and groups better than I can, but those stereotypes that affect me the most — being Chinese, and broadly, being Asian — have a strange history that is worth exploring. What in the world happened between the mid-19th Century’s “yellow peril” and the founding of the present day concept that Asians are studious and good at math? What better place is there to figure it out than art?

Political cartoons of scrawny Asian men with slanted eyes were a barometer of the anti-Asian sentiment that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act, but that’s history class stuff. That narrative follows a typical progressive track that started off with racist backwardness but ended like a fairy tale. Hollywood shows something else. In the beginning, Asian-Americans actors were cast as seductive and forbidden sex symbols. Sessue Hayakawa was the Byronic alpha male, tantalizingly forbidden to white women. Anna May Wong was the “Dragon Lady,” a femme fatale who schemes and seduces white men in her villainous plots. The “Dragon Lady” portrayal disappeared after the ’30s, while its male counterpart disappeared so rapidly that it doesn’t even have a name. Both Wong and Hayakawa left for Europe out of frustration for being typecasted in negative roles.

Just before both actors left American cinema, two trends began. The first was a gradual disappearance of Asians in the ’30s, and the start of ostensibly Asian characters being played by white actors instead. The movie adaption of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth is an example of “yellowface:” MGM cast white actors against Buck’s wishes for a story about destitute Chinese farmers. Some Asian actors were in the movie, but played supporting roles.

My favorite has to be The Mysterious Mr. Wong, where Bela Lugosi, pioneering actor of the horror genre, plays the harmless Mr. Wong, who turns out to be an evil gang leader seeking the “Twelve Coins of Confucius.” It stars a Chinese man with a Hungarian accent — talk about bad typecast and stereotype combinations. Yellowface still exists — the movie adaption of Avatar: The Last Airbender had a completely white protagonist cast. One actor, quelling the criticism, said, “hopefully the audience will suspend disbelief” when he pulls his hair up, “shaves the sides” and gets a tan.

The second trend is the acceleration and permeation of the “Butterfly” stereotype, shown best by Anna May Wong in one of Hollywood’s first color films, The Toll of the Sea. Calling the stereotype “Butterfly” is not coincidental — both the name and the film were derived from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.  However, what set the film (and thus the stereotype) apart from others was its portrayal of Asian womenn. Wong wasn’t quixotically romantic, but naïve and juvenile. Unlike the opera, where Butterfly gives up her son so she can see her American lover who hides in shame, Wong is “educated” to give up the child very straightforwardly by her American lover and his wife. The naiveté her character exhibits still persists today with portrayals of Asian women as a model minority deprived of sexual knowledge.

After Hayakawa left, Asian men too were quickly desexualized: Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the typical example, but this trend is also visible in the martial arts movie genre. Yes, Bruce Lee challenged the scrawny image of the male Asian body, but, like Hayakawa, he seems to be an exception.  A sense of aloofness and Oriental expertise transformed martial artists into benevolent and asexual fighters. There is no leadership, only subordination. Kato, the trusty Japanese sidekick in the comic series The Green Hornet, conveniently doubles as a valet. Seraph, the Oracle’s guardian in The Matrix Reloaded, is an asexual killing machine that does as told.

Realizing stereotypes as modern is crucial — it reorients the agency of subalternity, which we always attribute to a societal structure, upon ourselves. “Everyone’s a little bit racist,” a song in the Broadway show Avenue Q goes, “but everybody’s just about as racist as you!” When stereotypes pop up that didn’t previously exist, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We forget that we too create and reinforce stereotypes, and that we have the power to dismantle them. Stereotypes aren’t just structural problems out of our control. But, does anyone really care?

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng