by guest contributor Jennifer Fang, originally published at Reappropriate
A little less than a month ago, a panel discussion was put together by The Asian Society focusing on Asian American male identity. The panel, consisting of three prominent Asian American men in pop culture today: The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, the single best Asian American writer of contemporary pop culture, Jeff Yang, and the ever so swoon-worthy Yul Kwon of Survivor: Cook Islands (whom this blog dubbed the real Super Asian Man back when his show was on the air). These three men chatted for a night on issues affecting Asian American men, and The Asia Society graciously put an edited “clip show” of the event on YouTube for us to view.
One of the central thrusts of the discussion was the emasculation stereotype. I agree with all three panelists in their emphasis of Hollywood as being the primary source of the asexualization of Asian males, and how this perception has a deleterious effect on developing young Asian American boys. Kwon said,
When I was growing up, I was very much influenced by what I saw, and more importantly what I didn’t see, on television. Whenever I saw an Asian American man on television, he was inevitably a kung-fu master who could kick ass but he couldn’t speak English, or a computer geek who could figure out algorithms but couldn’t figure out how to get a date. And for myself, I really think I internalized a lot of these images.
All three panelists emphasized the need to change Hollywood’s depictions of Asian Americans, viewing mainstream media as the primary source of the stereotype. After all, the true insidiousness of APIA male asexualization is its effect on the self-image of young boys, which is communicated to them beginning at childhood. In this way, the asexualization stereotype is no different than anti-feminist socialization that promotes gender roles for young girls; in both cases, the images are designed to control those who are principally “The Other” in American society.
Exposed to image after image of Asian Americans as nothing more than the Perpetual Foreigner and the Geek diminishes the self-esteem of boys and introduces an internalized racial self-hatred where one associates one’s racial identity with limited personal and social success. Particularly damaging, however, is how this diminished self-esteem actually discourages radical activism to change the root source of the problem; race and masculinity become linked. This internalized relationship is problematic because Asian American men rarely challenge the association between race and masculine self-worth. They advocate changing the stereotypes of Asian American men (a solution destined to failure as it still promotes dehumanization and objectification), rather than to advocate an elimination of race-based sexual stereotypes altogether.
As a community, we should not prioritize advocating for a hypersexualization of the Asian American male body, but for a humanization. To define us based on race is still to limit our evolution as people to pre-defined narratives externally applied to us based on our race. Stereotypes limit us because it stifles our own self-growth and opportunities, regardless of whether those stereotypes are “positive” or “negative”. As Jeff Yang said in the panel discussion,
…[C]oming from my own perspective, every time I hear people say Asian American men shouldn’t be portrayed as geeky-looking and having glasses and being nerdy and all this, and I’m like, “you guys are all protesting in front of my mirror”. It’s kind of unfair to hold us all to these standards, as incredible as it is to see people like yourself and Daniel Dae Kim and Aasif transcend the historical representation of what Asian American men are, there’s also a sense in which it leaves some of us behind. And I think the notion of manhood is changing. Read the Post The Words of Asian American Men