East Asian Stereotypes – Reinforced or Deconstructed

It isn’t hard at all to find a blockbuster with a one dimensional Asian character, who is almost always stereotyped as a foreigner, geek, Kung Fu fighter, prostitute or servant, and who is also hard to notice as a stereotype (Zak, 2013). According to Zak Keith, an activism artist, “negative Asian stereotypes are essentially the only Asian themes ever used in Hollywood and the media” (2013). 

When Crazy Rich Asians (2018) premiered and became a worldwide box office hit, it seems that it’s the moment for Asian characters to dazzle in the film industry. Afterwards, an increasing number of Asian-led films are shown on the big screens. In this photo essay, we are going to employ the main characters from Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Searching (2018) as examples to demonstrate whether these East-Asian-led films reinforce or deconstruct certain East Asian stereotypes, specifically emasculation and asexuality in East Asian male representation, and sexulaization and tiger-mother representation of East Asian females.

In many media texts, East Asian males have been depicted as emasculated and asexual. They have a weak body figure in many cases. Even if they are in shape to some degree, many of them act like a “working-machine,” who have no life, not to mention sex life. For example, “Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu mysteries and Burke’s fiction use the sexually ambiguous Chinaman as a means of highlighting pervasive problems” (Fiske, 2017).

Screenshots from Crazy Rich Asian (2018) trailer on IMDb.

In Crazy Rich Asian (2018), the hero, Nick Young, is a masculine guy who is very attractive, and enjoys his life. From the first picture, we can tell that Nick is a young adult in good shape. The next picture shows that he is an active partygoer and he loves hanging out with friends. Instead of being an asexual guy, he is actively pursuing his love with his girlfriend, Rachel Chu. There are also some erotic scenes in the film, which implicates that these Asian guys have a sex life. The viewers can tell that the director, who is also Asian, attempted to diminish emasculine and assexual Asian figures through various camera movements and the film plots itself. This character breaks the stereotypes of a traditional Asia character successfully in terms of emasculinity and assexuality. 

Source: Searching

However, in Searching (2018), the hero, David Kim, is portrayed in an opposite way. David is a father searching for his lost daughter. As we can see in the picture, he is pretty messed up and doesn’t care about his appearance at all. The film also implictly indicates that David has no sex life at all. The only female adult David interacts with throughout the film is the Detective. It’s also true throughout the movie that he has no girlfriend and there is no sex life description or implication at all. All he cares is to work hard and to take care of his daughter, but he fails in both. He loses his job and his daughter attempts to get rid of him. 

Source: Searching

Similar to Asian male characters, Asian female characters have been type-casted and stereotyped in many films and television shows. Tiger-mother and submissiveness are two common stereotypes to portray East Asian female characters in mainstream films. Tiger mothers are perceived as extremely controlling, strict, demanding, and severe almost to the point of abuse (Chua, 2011). Also, “the idea that Asian women are weak, submissive, and made to serve their white master” seemingly has been reinforced through many films (Addanki, 2017). However, it may not always be the case.

Screenshots from Crazy Rich Asian (2018) trailer on IMDb.

In Crazy Rich Asian (2018), the leading heroine, Rachael Chu, is a smart and independent Chinese-American Professor, living in NYC. She controls her life pretty well, and to some degree dominates her own love. After she realizes that her boyfriend Nick’s mother doesn’t like her, she decides to break up with him in order to pursue her freedom. Even in a sex scene, as the right picture shows, both characters are half naked. There is no sense of sexualizing female character at all as she is trying to “see” the male character through her glasses, which is female character gaze. Although both director and the other character in the scene are male, they don’t objectify or sexualize woman character through their male gaze. Because she is not a mother yet, we decided to analyze another character, Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother, in the film.

Screenshot from Crazy Rich Asian (2018) trailer on IMDb.

From the picture, we can tell that Eleanor Young is an elegant and powerful woman. Eleanor seems like a typical tiger mother in the movie at the beginning. She is trying to choose her daughter-in-law based on social status of the girl’s family, regardless of her son’s true love. Also, she is controlling every aspect of the family. However, the plot twist happens to her when she accepts Rachel, her son’s true love, as her daughter-in-law. Thus, we agree that this character is a deconstruction of stereotypes. 

Screenshot from Searching (2018) trailer on IMDb.

In Searching (2018), Margaret, the “disappeared” daughter shows a rebellion characteristic. She is asked to learn piano but she quits on her own willingness without telling her father; She smokes weed with her uncle secretly; She does web-cast, complaining about her father and missing her mother. She is an independent girl showing no submissive characteristics at all. However, in the trailer, we find that her almond-shaped eyes are emphasized, as the following picture shows. As a racial justice scholar points out, “Asian women become defined by their … ‘dark almond eyes’, or ‘petite figure’, and that’s part of that objectification” (2015). Thus, we reserve our neutral opinion on this character with respects to submissiveness stereotype.

In summary, we conclude that in Crazy Rich Asian (2018) and Searching (2018), some stereotypes, such as emasculation in East Asian males, and submissiveness and tiger-parenting of East Asian females, have been deconstructed. Both films delivers a sense of anti-stereotype to audience to some degree. However, as Director Joh Chu points out, “this [Crazy Rich Asian (2018)] idea that old, classic, Hollywood movies could have starred Asians with just as much style, just as much pizzazz” (Marotta, 2018). We are looking forward to seeing more unique and innovative stories “designed” for East Asians in order to show an even more diverse community. 

We know that two films cannot represent the status quo of East Asian in Hollywood and/or in any other media industry in a full picture. Thus our next step is to conduct an extensive content and textual analysis in order to make our conclusion more solid.

Works Cited

Addanki, D. (2017, May 23). ‘Guardians Of the Galaxy Vol 2.’ and the Submissive Asian Woman Trope. Retrieved from https://sojo.net/articles/guardians-galaxy-vol-2-and-submissive-asian-woman-trope

Chua, A. (2011). Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin Books.

Fiske, S. (2017, August). Modeling Masculinity: Engendering the Yellow Peril in Fu-Manchu and Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights. BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Retrieved from https://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=shanyn-fiske-modeling-masculinity-engendering-the-yellow-peril-in-fu-manchu-and-thomas-burkes-limehouse-nights

Keith, Z. (2013). Hollywood Asian Stereotypes. Retrieved from http://www.zakkeith.com/articles,blogs,forums/hollywood-asian-stereotypes.htm

Kim, S. Y. (2013). Defining tiger parenting in chinese americans. Human Development, 56(4), 217-222. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1159/000353711

Kuo, R. (2016, October 31). 5 Ways ‘Asian Woman Fetishes’ Put Asian Women in Serious Danger. Retrieved from https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/12/asian-woman-fetishes-hurtful/

Marotta, J. (2018, August 13). ‘Crazy Rich Asians’: How Jon M. Chu Fought Hollywood’s Asian Stereotypes to Make a Blockbuster That Could Help ‘Save Cinema’. Retrieved from https://www.indiewire.com/2018/08/crazy-rich-asians-movie-jon-chu-asian-stereotypes-1201993508/

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