Asian-American men face an uphill battle in the landscape of popular media representation. Historically, depictions of Asian-American men have aimed to neutralize the supposed threat posed to white European immigrants by Asian immigrant workers. By distancing Asian men from traditionally masculine roles, white Americans could benefit from Asian men’s labor without having to contend with a non-Caucasian framework of masculinity.
The roles that Asian-American men have been relegated to in the media for so long can be thought of as analogous to historical immigrant emasculations. The math nerd, the sex-less science dork and the spelling bee winner all permit Asian-American men to find success in fields that benefit corporate America without encroaching on the ideal male prototype that is closely protected by white Americans. Think Ned Leeds, but never Spider-Man.
The emasculated Asian laborer has also given rise to another form of Asian masculine expression: the toxic Asian dad. Two books by Asian-American authors that I read recently – Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee and Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee – depict unfeeling, jaded and prideful Asian fathers who demand control over what little American society has allotted to them. Forced to work menial jobs in grocery stores and dry cleaners, these men feel diminished by both the racism that they experience first-hand and the shame that they feel living humble lives as poor immigrants. They search for other places to express their chauvinistic authority, usually by asserting control over their wives and children. Originating from male-dominated cultures in Asia which highly value sonhood and patriarchy, these immigrant fathers are met with a country that doesn’t give them the respect that they feel entitled to.
As representations evolve and the agenda shifts toward dismantling these stereotypes, Asian-American men still face many obstacles to healthy expressions of masculinity. Films like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, both of which I’ve discussed further in a previous column, opt for idealized male fantasies like the rich yet warmhearted heir to an extravagant fortune or the bo-staff-wielding, dragon-riding martial arts master. I have no problem with such representations existing on the screen, but the fact that these polished leading men are the only Asian-Americans finding great success indicates that more needs to be done to humanize Asian-American characters. There is no room for treading new ground or subverting expectations because audiences have to be convinced that these male characters deserve to be considered masculine, even in the most stereotypical terms.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj spoke on double standards in Hollywood for Asian men, saying, “You know how there’s a whole class of white dudes of just, like, schlubby dudes who went to high school with me, but now made it in show biz? There’s no, like, that. You gotta have the V-taper in your abs, if you’re gonna be Asian.”
Minhaj directly calls out the unequal standards that exist for Asian-American men in Hollywood. Seeing Simu Liu praised as the first Asian Marvel superhero is great, but it should ultimately be a temporary measure to assure audiences that Asians can be cool, too. The popularity of K-pop idols and anime in the U.S. introduce even more overtly glamorous depictions that adhere to a completely different beauty standard. They are often touted as challenges to traditional Western masculinity, when in reality they are simply prototypical examples of Asia’s ideal men.
As Minhaj points out, Asian-American men are burdened with an expectation to be Asian in an appealing way. By packaging representation in good looks and six packs, non-Asians can easily digest unique Asian features in only the most beautiful examples. No amount of charm, intelligence or charisma will make up for a schlubby Asian guy’s schlubiness. You won’t see many Asian Pete Davidson’s or John Mulaney’s becoming huge Hollywood stars.
Asian-American filmmakers, authors and creatives at large are clearly still working out the different forms that their masculinity can take. Given our history, Asian-American men have to bolster our own unique experiences with masculinity and make the stories of our brothers, fathers and grandfathers known. In a list from Harper’s Bazaar highlighting “must-read” books by Asian-American authors, eight of the 25 books listed were written by men. In a similar list from TIME, seven of the 23 books shared were by men. More voices need to be heard for us to get representation with the level of nuance that we deserve.
Noah Do is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected] Noah’s Arc runs every other Monday this semester.