By Guest Contributor Karen Chau
“What’s happening, hot stuff?”
The answer is … not much.
Since the appearance of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, representation of Asian men in popular culture – and specifically comedy – hasn’t really changed much. They’re mostly still nerdy, socially incapable background characters. Still, primetime TV has shown us that Asian men can be more than just quiet contributions to set dressing. They can be funny in their own right. But being the funny bro doesn’t really mean you’ll have any more success with the ladies. Just ask Lester Patel from Chuck, Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory, or Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation.
Lester (Vik Sahay) works at the Buy More as part of Chuck’s Nerd Herd team and occasionally performs as part of the music group Jeffster! with his best friend, Jeff. Raj (Kunal Nayyar) is an astrophysicist at Caltech who suffers from a case of selective mutism in which he can’t speak to women outside of his family (except after the consumption of alcohol). Tom (Aziz Ansari) is a member of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation department team, often serving as Leslie Knope’s right-hand man.
The Asians have gotten cooler, but they still aren’t quite cool, yet.
We got a chance to talk to them about what they think:
Raj: Listen, I know everyone is quick to talk about stereotypes and all that, but the fact is … I can’t talk to women.
Tom: Whoa, whoa, wait.
Lester: Dude, that’s a rough blow.
Raj: I mean, I can when I’m drunk. And when I’m drunk, I’m smooth.
Lester: Yeah, buddy. Sure.
Tom: There’s a quick fix to all this, Raj. If you can’t talk to women, just hit up the club like your boy, T-Dog here.
Raj: Who is -
Tom: Me, it’s me. You roll up in the club, looking slick and the ladies will come to you.
Lester: Or you can just do what I do.
Raj: What, work at the Buy More doing menial labor?
Lester: You can look at it like that. Or you can see it as a prime opportunity to access dozens of high-tech audio-visual equipment at any given moment, where the women flock to you to solve their computer problems. And, you know, maybe a camera slips down someone’s shirt. Accidentally.
Raj: Ohhhh. But isn’t that illegal?
Lester: [snort] Legal schmegal. We’re talking about a prime opportunity for babe scopage.
Have any of you ever had long-term relationships?
Lester: Listen, I’m in a band. We have groupies. We don’t settle.
Tom: I hook up like every night. Pawnee chicks, man. What can I say? They dig the Tom-meister.
Raj: You guys are lying out your asse. Lester, man, have you ever even hooked up with a girl?
Lester: At least I can talk to them.
Raj: Uncool, man. Uncool.
Representation of Asian men has moved away from the glasses-wearing, lisping, slightly effeminate portrayal, though the new representation it has gravitated towards isn’t much better. They might still be nerds, but they’re the cool nerds. Cool in the sense that they’re slightly more suave, even if they still have trouble getting dates, still have trouble talking to women, and overcompensate for that sense of inferiority by going in the complete opposite direction. Rather than the innocent foreigner portrayals of the past, the comedic Asian male representations of today lean towards the sleazy: guys that want a girl so badly that they ruin it for themselves.
Lester, along with his buddy Jeff, spend their time creeping on female customers at the Buy More, compared to their equally nerdy but less socially awkward coworker, Chuck. They’ve run the gamut of verbal harassment to video taping women’s cleavages as they shop. Raj’s attempts to be suave are often hindered by his selective mutism – he can’t speak in the presence of women – but when he’s had a few drinks, he can get a little carried away. One time when Penny tries to take him back to his apartment because he’s too drunk to get himself home, he tries (unsuccessfully) to seduce her.
Tom, perhaps, is the only exception, but he’s recovering from a green card marriage where he talked about the attractive factor of his wife at every possible moment. Lester is known for being a bit skeevy, and Raj is generally well-meaning but also infatuated with the idea of sex, with the occasional drunken rude remark. Still, the general trend seems to be that these cooler-but-not-cool Asian guys still can’t find satisfying romantic relationships at all. Even Sheldon gets hit on. Raj just hangs out in the background.
Why do you think you’re not in a relationship right now?
Raj: My parents want me to get married to an Indian girl. It’s a lot of pressure.
Lester: This wild animal cannot be tamed by any single person.
Tom: I just got out of one with Wendy. She’s hot, but she’s not that hot. Yeah.
In Western portrayals, Asian masculinity has been posited as a lesser kind of masculinity, something that was weaker and closer to the feminine or the homoerotic. These characters address the problems of Asian masculinity as represented so far, but we’re still not being shown functional Asian male characters in relationships. These comedy characters aren’t really a step forward until something progressive is done with them, until their behavior grows beyond simply a penchant for sexual harassment.
This change in representation may perhaps stem from the success of the Harold and Kumar franchise, which did a lot to reverse stereotypes about the studious, effeminate Asian male. But now we’ve gone so far in the opposite direction that it’s hard to find any real sense of change. They’re not studying, they’re not doctors, but they’re still socially incapable. Lester, Raj, and Tom are characters whose dating faux pas are there for us to laugh at as they play off their awkwardness as an awkward, overtly sexual attempt at James Bond charisma.
We hope one day comedic Asian male characters can move past being solely defined by their social awkwardness and social anxiety and become leading man material. Or, you know, just have sex once in a while.