My research focused on the coverage of Asian Americans in contemporary mass media. The following types of media were researched:
I gave several examples where Asian Americans were used to play very simple characters. These roles were defined by stereotypes that exist in America. I also researched instances on counter actions taken by Asian Americans to protest against these negative images. My research also has examples of Asians that have succeeded in breaking through the racial barriers in the media.
The results show that even though racial stereotyping still exists in various forms of mass media, there are signs that show noticeable improvement on allowing a more balanced image of Asian Americans.
Statement of the Problem
There are close to 12 million Asian Americans living in the United States (U.S. Asian, 2000). Asian Americans are considered one of the fastest growing minorities (Pimentel, 2001). Between 1990 and 1999, the Asian population rose 43% (Census, 2000). However, Asian Americans are still portrayed in a simplistic manner by the American media, which in turn, promotes stereotyping. I have researched various types of mass media in the United States, such as: music, films, television and magazines. I will focus on several examples where Asian Americans are portrayed in a negative way. Furthermore, I will give examples of musicians, and independent films that prove Asian Americans have potential on what they can contribute to in the American media. Finally, I will recommend different ways to rid the stereotype put on Asian Americans by actions that can be taken, not only pertaining to Asians, but to other ethnicities that face stereotypes on their culture.
Music in every country has a history going back hundreds of years. It is an excellent type of entertainment that any person can enjoy. America being such a diverse country, any person regardless of race or gender needs to be given a fair shot in an opportunity to showcase his or her talent. However, there is a lack of Asians Americans represented in America. Asian Americans must go above and beyond on what is expected in the industry, compared to white and black Americans who seem to have it much easier. “Always, it is the Asian who assimilates, who must explain his or her presence and professionalism, who must earn the right to exist and speak, who must prove his or her authority and credibility” (Agtarap, 1994, p.267). Also, it seems like the blueprint for Asian Americans to succeed in the music business is if Asians play to the role of the stereotypes that exist in this country. The media needs to stop portraying these simple-minded images of Asian Americans, and display equality on what they project to the American public.
Recently, William Hung has reached star status in American pop culture. Born of Hong Kong decent, and a current student at University of California in Berkley, he made his debut on the auditions of a show called American Idol (Chi, 2004). One would believe that William Hung is a very talented singer to reach stardom. He is a household name for those who follow pop music in America. Unfortunately, he is not very talented. He has reached his status by making a mockery of himself. He sings in a horrible off key voice, cannot dance, and does not look the part of many entertainers in the music industry. In the media, Asians are always portrayed as being very sexually active or completely asexual (Fong, 1998). William Hung would fit the latter. He has become popular by playing the part of the general Asian stereotype. He does not care that he is laughed at by millions of Americans. Even if he ultimately made the decision to embarrass himself, it is unfortunate that Koch Records gave him a record deal, when there are far more superior Asian American musicians who just need a chance to prove themselves in the music industry.
William Hung started off as a gimmick, which is understandable, but gimmicks need to come to an end before it gets the point of being offensive. He has crossed that line of embarrassing his nationality in exchange for fake stardom. He is playing the role of the ineffectual stereotype image of an Asian American (Guillermo, 2004). Who knows how many more clones of William Hung will appear? In my opinion, he has made a blueprint of how Asians can become successful in the music industry in America. Just embarrass yourself. This is not the right message to be sending to other aspiring Asian American artists. There are many talented musicians that live in the United States, and the industry needs to give these people a fair shot, and stop prolonging this bad joke of an artist. It has come to a point where America is not just glorifying the bad, but now it is border lining on a joke driven by racism (Guillermo, 2004). In trying to decipher the possible explanations for the stunning success of William Hung, racism takes precedence. Hung is carrying on the “stigmatic torch of the verbally-accented Chinese forever-foreigner” (Thoughts, 2004).
Asian Americans have been in the United States since the 1800s, and yet their portrayal on film has continued to be presented as more foreign and less American. Certain movies during 1940’s to 1970’s had “scotch tape Asian characters” (Fong, 1998, p.142), meaning white actors played the role of Asian characters. Through time, more Asian talents were recognized, such as the classic icon Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Hong Kong director John Woo (Zia, 2000). This opened the door for Asians to make it big in Hollywood, but Asian Americans were still stuck with limited roles. “Hollywood typically restricts its portrayals of Asians to a limited range of cliched stock characters” (Restrictive Portrayals RP, 2004). Examples of the common roles that Asian Americans play in movies are martial artists, Indian cab drivers, television anchorwomen and prostitutes (RP, 2004). Even if most Americans do not buy into these images because they interact with many Asian Americans who do not fit the stereotype, the areas of concern are those parts in the United States where there isn’t a sufficient Asian population (Wu, 2002). Since many Asian people do not surround these Americans on an everyday environment, it is a safe assumption that they will draw their judgment of Asian Americans from how they are portrayed on film and television.
In many American films, Asian men are portrayed as passive, old, and speak broken English. The Karate Kid was a popular movie that depicted the Asian actor as such a man. In The Karate Kid, Pat Morita plays Mr. Miyagi, an old Japanese American World War II veteran who calmly trains an enthusiastic white teenage male the Japanese martial arts of karate. Despite the fact that Mr. Miyagi was an American World War II veteran, he was still portrayed speaking English with a foreign accent. The myth that all Asian men know some form of martial arts was also stressed in this movie when Mr. Miyagi surprises Daniel (the white male leading actor) with his karate moves after appearing passive and bashful during the first portions of the film. It reminds people to be aware of Asian men in general because passivity may not appear to be what it seems. This type of stereotype gives Asians a “dehumanizing identity” (Mississippi, 1992).
Another film that portrays Asians in a negative manner is The Joy Luck Club, which was based on a book written by Amy Tan. Amy Tan, a gifted writer, had the chance to change stereotypical Asian images, to “dispel the public’s misconceptions and to forge a new Asian American identity” (Wu, 2002, p.211). Instead, she copped out on her obligations, reinforcing every conceivable stereotype (Wu, 2002). It depicts four Chinese women in which, three of them marry a white partner, and one marries an Asian man. The woman who married an Asian male is the one that is most unhappy. Asian males are shown as stingy, irresponsible and have a lack of respect for their female partners while the white males are shown completely opposite of that. Even though Amy Tan is a much-respected Asian American author, her story should not be regarded as being true for other Asian households.
Television has also fallen victim on its portrayal of Asian Americans. In a popular late night show called, “The Tonight Show”, the host Jay Leno made a very offensive comment about Korean Olympic skater Kim Dong-Sung. He made a joke that when popular American skater Apollo Ohno eliminated Kim Dong-Sung, he went home, kicked the dog and ate it (NBC, 2002). Although this may not seem offensive to Americans, it gives off the wrong message that all Koreans like to eat dogs. This is one of the most inaccurate stereotypes, because majority of Korean people find it just as repulsive as Americans to be eating dogs. Just because a couple restaurants in Korea serve dog meat, does that mean all Koreans like to feast on dog meat? As a respected entertainer in the television industry, Jay Leno should have had more decency to know that there is a line that is crossed when you tie in a joke with foreign cultures. Just because Jay Leno didn’t seem to think it was offensive, that does not mean he did not offend majority of Asians living in America, as well as, those who reside in South Korea.
Another problem on American television is the lack of Asian representation. On a CBS drama, “Joan of Arcadia”, there are no Asian characters on the show. However, the actual city Arcadia, California has a heavy Asian population (Diversity, 2003). The FOX network’s show, “The OC”, which is set on an ethnically diverse Orange County in California, had no Asian Americans on its cast (Diversity, 2003). Although the networks make the ultimate decision on what kind of show they wish to broadcast, Esteban Torres, who is a chairman of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition, believes it is “good business to incorporate people of color into their corporation” (Diversity, 2003).
Magazines also had instances where Asians were displayed in a negative fashion. In a recent article by Details magazine, they printed a meticulously dressed Asian man, and in the article, they scrutinize both him and his outfit. They talk about the Asian man’s “delicate features” and “lady boy fingers” and are basically comparing a gay man with that of an Asian man and sending out the message that these two groups are synonymous. This article “pulls out every offensive, stereotypical Asian pop culture reference imaginable, objectifying Asian men into a sexual stereotype” (Pierson, 2004). In my opinion, the lack of respect for the Asian nationality led to this article being published. “In a nation where we are composed of so many different types of people, we should work on being inclusive rather than exclusive” (Xu, 2004). The article incited hundreds of Asian Americans to protest in New York City for a public apology from Details magazine (LaVallee, 2004). A group called Asian American Journalist Association wrote a letter to Details magazine stating, “there’s no disguising the fact that it combines leering sexual innuendo and a litany of the most tired cliches about both Asian and gay culture with no goal other than to ridicule both groups” (AAJA, 2004). Through protests and hundreds of letters, Details finally issued an apology to AAJA and the rest of the Asian and gay community. The apology was published in the following month’s edition of the magazine.
Although stereotyped images of Asian Americans are still prevalent, there are signs that show more talented Asians are breaking through the boundaries that have haunted them in American media. In 2002, a Chinese American hip-hop artist named Jin had signed with a very popular record label, Ruff Ryder Records. Through his hard work, Jin broke through the racial boundaries of the hip-hop scene, mostly dominated by African Americans. Jin was quoted as saying “I would be lying if I said I didn’t want all the press coverage, but at the same time it does get frustrating ’cause I haven’t done one interview in the last three years where my race wasn’t brought up” (Wartofsky, 2004). Jin’s title song “Learn Chinese”, attempts to “skewer Asian stereotypes with lyrics” (Wartofsky, 2004). In 2003, an independent film titled “Better Luck Tomorrow” had drawn much praise at the Sundance film festival and had its release rights picked up by MTV Films. “Better Luck Tomorrow”, directed by Justin Lin, is a film about four overachieving Asian Americans living in California, and the troubles they go through in high school. Although the film included an all-Asian cast, there were not any references to the Asian nationality. John Cho, an actor starring in “Better Luck Tomorrow” was quoted on saying, “What is interesting about this movie is, it doesn’t say, ‘This is an Asian-American movie,’ it just presents Asian-American characters.” (Downey, 2003). After a private screening to film critics, one person asked Justin Lin on why he would make such a film that would degrade his nationality. A well-known film critic, Robert Ebert, then stood up and said “You wouldn’t say that to a white filmmaker”, which is very true (Downey, 2003). Although Asian Americans have a long way to go until they receive equal representation in the American media, it is pleasing to see and hear about these great accomplishments.
Methods for Conducting Research
The methods of research I used were books, magazine articles and various Internet sources. The books were obtained at Montgomery College library on the Rockville campus.
The books were found by searching the Montgomery College library catalog, Web Voyage. The magazine articles and Internet sources were obtained from searching on the Internet using google (www.google.com).
Asian Americans have had a long history of being stereotyped. The most coverage Asians have received in the music industry is William Hung, which is not saying very much, because he represents a bad joke, rather then a display of talent. Many Asian actors endured years of limited roles in Hollywood films, having to act out simplistic Asian character drawn from years of stereotypes. A well-known celebrity even made an offensive remark on a popular television program, which shows racial ignorance still existing among few Americans. Finally, a magazine article had the nerve to publish an article, which pokes fun of the entire Asian community by its ignorant comments using stereotyped catch phrases, and the direct comparison that being Asian somehow makes you gay. These are few of many examples that exist on how Asian Americans are shown in the media. Although I have pointed out some negative instances, there are signs that show things are slowly improving.
The American public is accepting more Asian musicians, actors and independent films. “The door of opportunity is beginning to break open for Asian Americans in the media” (Fong, 1998). There are respected critics defending the Asian filmmakers and actors, and America is slowly beginning to treat Asian Americans with equality. I believe those Asian Americans who have aspirations of succeeding in America, must not feel neglected by stereotypes and be proud of their talents. They must be proud of their heritage and feel confident in the talents that they are gifted with, instead of selling out to what America wants them to be.
I will make the following recommendations on what Asian Americans can do to help create a more accurate and balanced portrayal in the media.
Boycott the product. Do not endorse a product, whether it is music, a TV show, or a film. If tickets are purchased, albums are bought, or a show is watched, you are helping generate support for the product the media is putting forth.
Write a letter to the appropriate people to express thoughts and request change. For Example:
oMusicians, actors, and other celebrities.
Support Asian American talent in the media. This will advocate increased Asian American employment in these fields.
Become active in organizations that advocate equal representation of Asian Americans. This will help generate a “national presence as a media watchdog/advocacy organization capable of representing the concerns of the Asian Pacific American community” (Restrictive portrayals, 2004).
For years, American media has defined the Asian image to this country, and even to the rest of the world. People in the media with little understanding of Asian people and their culture; have shaped an image that disregards how it would impact the Asian community to be looked at by rest of America. Although producers, directors, celebrities and whomever that makes up the core of the American media did not intentionally try to degrade a nationality, unbalanced portrayals of Asians have traditionally been the norm in the entertainment industry (Fong, 1998). Asian Americans are displayed in a common way of being strange foreigners with bad accents. This makes it unfair for Asians Americans who are United States citizens with patriotic loyalty, because they are still treated like foreigners. I believe the media has a lot to do with creating an image for the many ethnicities in this world. The American media needs to think in a new direction, creating broader images of not only Asians, but also other nationalities that face similar stereotypes on their culture. The media should attempt to rid old stale images of how a certain racial group looks and acts, and create an opportunity for all Americans, regardless of color and gender, to be represented equally.
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