I found this old essay online today, titled Why the Joy Luck Club Sucks. I was happy to find it, because for years I’ve had the same opinion, yet whenever I’d tell people that I hated this film, they would say, “Why? It’s such a great movie!”Â They fail to see that it’s a story that perpetrates negative stereotypes about Chinese men. The essay does a great job illustrating that, so I’m not going to rehash it.
I am pleased to say that there has been some progress in creating more realistic Asian male characters in the past few years. The reason I’m concentrating on Asian male characters is because I think they’ve been more heavily maligned in the media than Asian female characters. Asian females, although often portrayed as sex symbols or fetish objects, have usually been portrayed more positively than males.
Anyway, I would like to thank the writers of Lost for creating Jin. Jin is a realistic character. He has depth and personality not usually found in Hollywood depictions of Asians, who are usually placed in stories to provide a specific “flavor” to the narrative, whether that be comic relief, mysticism, or violence. I like that Jin is just a normal guy who happens to be Asian. His character might be shaped by Korean culture, but he is not a caricature. He is capable of transformation and growth, just like any other character.
Two other characters I admire are Hiro and Ando from Heroes. Again, these are two ordinary guys–office workers–who happen to be Asian. Heroes allows them to be Japanese without exaggerating or parodying them.
Both of these shows also depict these characters speaking their native languages instead of broken English. They only speak broken English when it is realistic or meaningful for them to do so. I think it’s the right thing to do to use subtitles. It puts the onus on the audience to receive and understand what a character is saying. A character that panders to the audience by speaking in broken English with a bad accent only sabotages himself by making himself look more simplistic than he should be.
I do not want to say that Lost and Heroes are the only two shows to more fairly portray Asian male characters.Â In fact, a classic TV show was a real ground-breaker. The original Star Trek series had Sulu, an Asian male character in a high ranking position. What was great about Sulu was that he didn’t have to be Asian. He could have been black, white, Hispanic, Aboriginal, and it wouldn’t have changed his character at all. That was progressive thinking for the 1960s. Unfortunately, the ground didn’t stay broken, and we went through several decades of horrible stereotyping before arriving where we are today.
Why is any of this important? It is important to me because I grew up watching the lampooning and caricaturing of Asian male characters in the entertainment media. It was hard not to believe that to be Asian meant that I could only either be a math geek, Triad, or a kung fu master. For me, I had to fight an uphill battle against my own beliefs, especially when everyone around me was happy enoughto follow along with them as well. I hope that this newer generation of Asian characters serves to inspire, rather than constrain.