The nerd. The karate master. The goofy best friend. The calculating, emotionless professional. The one who gets the girl—ironically, of course. The model minority. The Asian dude.
Until recently, we’ve rarely seen Asian men represented Hollywood; and when we do, they’re almost always reduced to stereotypes like the ones above. At best, Hollywood represents the Asian man as a member of the “model minority,” able to successfully assimilate into and rise to the top of American society through diligence and hard work—a perfect product of the American Dream machine. At worst, he’s a punchline.
Anyone who is a part of a minority group knows that representation matters. Children consume media and literature in their formative years, which plays a big role in developing their minds and characters. TV and film for children are instrumental in teaching kids to recognize right from wrong. Because kids pick up on everything, they subconsciously absorb the stereotypes built into the media.
An article in The Conversation reported a study where researchers showed children pictures of diverse animated faces and play voices that use different accents and dialects. The kids were asked to identify the good faces from the bad faces. The study found that “many children have clearly developed ideas and are able to tell us lengthy stories about why they think a particular character might be a hero or villain with minimal information. Sometimes this seems to be based on their belief that a character looks like another media character they’ve seen. They’ll then make the assumption that a face they’re shown looks like “a princess” or “someone who goes to jail.”…[It’s] alarming – given what we know about the prevalence of stereotyping – that children seem so quick to make attributions of who’s good and who’s evil.”
2018’s Crazy Rich Asians is one of the first major Hollywood films to present Asian men in a positive light, and there are plenty of things that the movie got right. However, a lot of the movie plays into the “model minority” myth and the punchline aspect.
Take the title, for example. Three or four years ago, my younger brother and I were in a bookshop when we came across the book Crazy Rich Asians. We laughed, took a picture with the book and sent it in a group chat with our friends, saying, “us in the future.”
Though we used it as a punchline, the title of the book plays into the “model minority” standard and perpetuates the association of “Asians” with “wealth.” This puts a lot of pressure on Asian Americans, specifically men.
Micah Ho, who recently graduated from Vanguard University with a degree in cultural anthropology, studied the negative effects of the “model minority” stereotype on Asian Americans in American media.
“Media is a main channel of socialization, and because of the traditional portrayal of Asians/Asian Americans as ‘model minorities,’ Asian American males are exposed to this extremely one-dimensional view of themselves, which can cause them to internalize the stereotype, or cause them to attempt to break out of it,” Ho said in an email. “Regardless of how they deal with it, the knowledge that this is how other people view them can affect them deep psychological and sociological way.”
The good news, Ho said, is that a wave of successful new artists within the past few years has altered the perception of Asians and Asian Americans within the industry and the American public.
“Even within the American music mainstream, we have seen the rise in popularity of
groups such as BTS from South Korea, artists 88rising, a music label that promotes
Asian artists such as Rich Brian, Keith Ape, Higher Brothers, Joji, and NIKI, and other
Asian rappers such as Kris Wu from China rising in the American music charts.”
Ho said she would like to see Asian men with more complex characters in the media.
“I want to see them as people,” she said. “All I want is firstly, for them to be present, and
secondly, I want to feel their emotions and see what their convictions are as
characters. I think that the best form of representation for any group of people is for
the audience to see past appearances and to connect with them as human beings.
Real, fleshed out characters that resonate with those watching. I think if we can do
that, not just for Asian males, but for people of all ethnicities and genders, our future
will be a bit brighter.”