Revenge of the Nerds: (Not So) New Representations Of Asian Male Sexuality [TV Correspondent Tryout]

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.

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  • Bagelsan

    I haven’t seen the other two shows, but I agree about Tom; the way they handle his character really reminds me of Kelly in The Office (the US version.) They’re both kind of shallow and materialistic, but they aren’t stereotypically desexualized or oversexualized — race isn’t ignored but it doesn’t really dictate their characterization.

  • Myana

    Ok, so this show may not particularly appeal to this demographic because it’s geared towards youth, but the remake 90210 has two! brown guys in the cast and both of them have stunningly beautiful partners and are actually supposed to play pretty cool characters. They’re also really attractive gentlemen. One’s named Navid (casted as Iranian) and the other is Raj (Indian). It’s interesting that more brown men are appearing on tv in general, but I think it’s really great that some of them are in sexual and romantic relationships on a show for a younger audience b/c there’s hope that this will increasingly be considered the norm for brown peeps too.

  • Kj

    The desexing of the Asian male onscreen is disgraceful.Lucy Luu has never had an Asain love interest what a coincidence(NOT)

    • Anonymous

      Incorrect. In Cashmere Mafia, Lucy Liu’s love interest was played by Jack Yang.

      http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1555268/

      He was the best part of the show (for many reasons) but sadly, it was canceled fairly quickly.

  • Aheaven

    I wonder how many parallels can be made with the representation of black females in the media (being that it ties with asian men as the least married group). How significant is it that these two groups are notoriously ill-represented in the media?

  • Lele

    Why is their sexuality always validated by whites? I find that many Asian men one television at the moment are in hot pursuit of white women, and that’s how their sexuality is legitimized – only with a white person reciprocating.

  • BitterSweet

    These media-fed stereotypes are so hard to break because they cater to the dominant society – White society. And since the White society is the dominant culture, we have more power to separate ourselves from other races, and emphasize racial stereotypes. The stereotypes in shows like these perpetuate aversive racism through the character traits, like one of an Asian man who is socially awkward, yet it becomes acceptable because it can make the dominant society laugh.

    To overcome this type of racism, the White society needs to turn its back on the humor of stereotypes and other cultures. However, given that this type of humor and media surrounds us from the time we are born, this comedic mindset has been so ingrained in us it would be very hard to separate or even become aware of on a day-to-day basis. Nevertheless, this change that is needed to overcome aversive racism falls in the laps of White Americans. We need to be aware of the cultures and races around us, and be aware of the humor we use that is keeping stereotypes alive.

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  • meandnotyou

    Actually, Raj getting hit on but not being able to respond has been a running gag. (also, he’s a total hottie) I think the issue stems more from his position as a relatively minor role – I’d like to see his character examined to the depth at least Howard has been…

  • K*

    Tom actually had a really awesome girlfriend a few episodes ago, Lucy the bartender. I can’t remember how many episodes she was in, but I loved their relationship and she was pretty forward with him about attractive she found him.

    I think that the general status of Asian men as sex symbols on TV is getting slightly better, but not where it should be. I’m thinking, John Cho as a romantic lead, NOW.

  • Edie

    Perhaps it’s not a particularly “relevant” example, but one very sexy Asian male lead that immediately comes to my mind is Sav Bhandari from Degrassi: The Next Generation, portrayed by Raymond Ablack. He’s a popular musician with shaggy hair and a tiny bit of a wild streak; definitely fits the traditional billing of a hottie, and certainly gets his fair share of female action.

  • Wanderinglady123

    As usual, it seems that on TV, only white guys (and the occasional woman) can go through character development…

  • Bloke

    I think Lester is written the worst, but played by the best actor. And the most handsome.

  • jay

    While I understand the sentiment, I’m not sure the examples prove the point. They’re also limited to comedy without an explanation to why only comedy is relevant.

    Tom Haverford isn’t a nerd, he’s a douche. He’s not socially awkward (the character who has that distinction in P&R would be Ben, who got into politics at a young age and is awkward in interviews), he’s socially annoying. He laugh at him as a sort of “revenge” of sorts, not because he’s a loser necessarily.

    Also, Tom was in a short relationship with Lucy at the end of P&R season 2 and the only reason she broke up with him was that she sensed that he hasn’t gotten over Wendy quite yet. Abed, Danny Pudi’s character in Community is a better example even if he’s explicitly stated to be Muslim (while that shouldn’t negate his Asianness mainstream American political commentary does sort of make the two mutually exclusive).

    I also take an issue with the central argument of the thesis:
    “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.”

    I think comedies in particular have very few good men portrayals (whether it’s due to the attitude of the writers or just a natural process of the writing, I don’t know). The few that exist also tend to be Flanderized (pun intended) – think Chris in P&R and the pottery class doctor guy in Community.

    This is problematic, though I’m not sure that this is the actual problem. Part of the problem is the lack of star roles. I think part of the problem is the lack of Asians in “normal”, stable relationships that aren’t invisible (think Alyson Hannigan’s relationship in How I Met Your Mother), thus leading to a conclusion that dysfunction is normal.

    @Citrusse, yes, the article is heterocentric. There’s a combination of things that reinforce this – a dearth of gay male nerds in mainstream media period (even though there are a few number in real life; I know a few), and a dearth of gay Asian males in a prominent media role (George Takei playing himself would probably be the most prominent in recent years.). Also the limitations the mainstream imposes on how a gay male should act and behave. While gay Asian males have masculinity perception problems, they’re not the same as the ones het Asian males have and I think it’d take another post to address the issue. Racialicious has covered the issue before though.

    • QM

      acknowledging that the subject was really “Heterosexual Asian male sexuality” it would have done a little (not enough) to work against a (justified) charge of heterocentricism. that Racialicious has ever covered the issue elsewhere is not an excuse. I would be fascinated to see this point explicated though – perhaps you could submit a post on it?

      “While gay Asian males have masculinity perception problems, they’re not the same as the ones het Asian males have and I think it’d take another post to address the issue. ”

      (fun fact though: bisexuals exist :) )

  • Nicole M

    I would love to see Asian men portrayed in more sexual and romantic relationships, however I do think it’s worth noting that each of the characters in the article exist within a group of equally nerdy white people. Within the context of their story lines, there is parity. As @Alexis and @Ilana have noted, Raj does have more going on than the author implies. Tom does have a relationship, but his failures with women are due to his total buy-in of the materialism and objection of women of popular MTV hiphop culture (which could be an essay unto itself). And Lester is comedically paired with a white dude whose creepiness is so off the chart that next to him, Lester is a hot smooth talker.

    But its true that right now I can think of only two non-geeky, sexually powerful male Asian characters on TV: Harry Chum, Jr. on Glee, Daniel Dae Kim on Hawaii 5-0. Any others?

    • Anonymous

      Raj is the only one of the guys on TBBT who doesn’t have a girlfriend.

  • Fattyliver

    The crazy thing is that Vik Sahay in real life is soooooo good-looking, and IS a ladies man, rumor has it!

    • Ike

      I see your Vik Sahay, and I raise you one Sendhil Ramamurthy.

  • http://molecularshyness.wordpress.com jen*

    Lester’s character creeps me out (as does Jeff), because somehow we’re supposed to find their borderline sex-offender behavior/language funny or endearing because they’re…”loveable schlubs”? They’re just creepy to me.

    I’d love to see Asian guys get more well-rounded roles, though. When will we see an Asian guy anchor a show? Is John Cho busy?

    • Anonymous

      It really isn’t “borderline”; it’s just that, perhaps not so unusually, nobody cares enough to make an actual effort to stop them. “Chuck” is pretty brimful of problematic elements, but I have the hardest time watching whenever they get on screen.

  • Kwaku

    Raj’s inability to talk to women(other than his sister and mother) sober has gotten old. At the very least, from a story-telling perspective it severely limits the types of interactions he can have with about a third of the cast.

    I think that individually, the argument can be made that these guys are not any more socially awkward than the other characters in the show. Tom’s game isn’t really any better than Leslie’s, Raj’s game isn’t any better than Sheldon’s.

    The fact that they are are supporting roles or the lesser parts of an ensemble is the biggest problem. The big players get more stories and deeper stories while the smaller players are mostly seen as the odd one.

  • karine

    You forgot to invite the South Asian guy from Rules of Engagement (I don’t watch that show so I don’t know his name). I do watch Big Bang and was hoping that by now Raj would have seen a therapist, I think that even the writers of the show find the concept limiting since there have been many eps this season with Raj and a glass of alcohol in his hand.

  • karine

    You forgot to invite the South Asian guy from Rules of Engagement (I don’t watch that show so I don’t know his name). I do watch Big Bang and was hoping that by now Raj would have seen a therapist, I think that even the writers of the show find the concept limiting since there have been many eps this season with Raj and a glass of alcohol in his hand.

  • http://retrorecipe.wordpress.com Erica

    Two thoughts…

    One advantage of Outsourced is that it has a wide range of Indian characters (male and female) with very different personalities and approaches to life. (It has a whole host of other problems, though…)

    I’d argue that Raj is just as (un)successful as his three best friends; he isn’t nerdy and bad at romance because he’s Indian, he’s nerdy because he’s a nerd. But the alcohol barrier is getting old, and I want to see him have some character growth. Maybe his crush on Bernadette could be the turning point, where he finds enough emotional growth to be able to talk with women as people instead of seeing them as sex objects that require booze-fueled bravery to aproach.

  • http://retrorecipe.wordpress.com Erica

    Two thoughts…

    One advantage of Outsourced is that it has a wide range of Indian characters (male and female) with very different personalities and approaches to life. (It has a whole host of other problems, though…)

    I’d argue that Raj is just as (un)successful as his three best friends; he isn’t nerdy and bad at romance because he’s Indian, he’s nerdy because he’s a nerd. But the alcohol barrier is getting old, and I want to see him have some character growth. Maybe his crush on Bernadette could be the turning point, where he finds enough emotional growth to be able to talk with women as people instead of seeing them as sex objects that require booze-fueled bravery to aproach.

  • http://twitter.com/DropDeadPoet Alexis A.

    Raj actually does get laid after a party at Penny’s ..the girl thinks he’s “a great listener”.

  • http://twitter.com/DropDeadPoet Alexis A.

    Raj actually does get laid after a party at Penny’s ..the girl thinks he’s “a great listener”.

  • Ilana

    While it’s certainly true that there could always be better representation of Asian men in media, I’m not really sure that “Raj just hangs out in the background” is true. In fact, he’s the only one in the show who’s pretty much universally acknowledged as being really attractive. It’s his shyness that trips him up.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Characters/TheBigBangTheory

  • Ilana

    While it’s certainly true that there could always be better representation of Asian men in media, I’m not really sure that “Raj just hangs out in the background” is true. In fact, he’s the only one in the show who’s pretty much universally acknowledged as being really attractive. It’s his shyness that trips him up.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Characters/TheBigBangTheory