The Ditzy Asian: Branching Off from the Model Minority

meme and london tipton image
London Tipton (WeHeartIt)

With a combined 158 episodes and a movie released from 2005-2011, Disney’s Suite Life of Zack & Cody (Suite Life) series holds the media giant’s record for longest running show (Fandom). While the series centered episodes around Zack and Cody, a set of twins who living in a hotel with their single mother, their antics often played off of the relationships they had with the hotel’s staff and residents. Unique to this series, in comparison to Disney’s other long-running shows at the time such as Hannah Montana, Good Luck Charlie, and Wizards of Waverly Place, Suite Life’s main and recurring cast were especially racially diverse. Within the hotel itself, Mr. Moseby (a Black man) manages the establishment owned by the father of heiress London Tipton (an Asian teenager) while

Suitelifezackandcody_show
Promotional photo for the Suite Life of Zack & Cody

Esteban (a Peruvian man) is the “head bellhop”. While race in Suite Life is largely absent as an issue in the lives of its characters, the subversion of expectations and stereotypes based on race is perhaps best evidenced through one of the show’s main characters, London. Rich, ditzy, and carefree, London is a direct foil from her poor and smart counterpart, Maddie Fitzpatrick who works at the hotel.

 

Maddie and London in the Tipton Hotel (Screenrant)

Through London, viewers can see a deviation from typical Asian representation, however it is indicative of the show’s post-racial undertones which turn the camera away from reality.

The Ditzy Asian

For many years, Asian American roles have been defined by actors who were “forced to repeatedly embody tired and offensive stereotypes” (Lopez, 2016) and cast aside as sidekicks or background characters. We’re perpetuated in media and society as being the ‘model minority,’ an idea that attributes economic or intellectual achievements to all Asian Americans and ultimately binds the entire idea of success to a white-made structure while simultaneously labeling us as the ‘other.’ This thought also “ignore[s] the between- and within-group differences of assimilation/acculturation, social, political, economic, and education backgrounds” (Kim & Yeh, 2002) with the assumption that an entire race is so one-dimensional. Consequently, this overarching idea has limited Asian roles to nerds, doctors, programmers, and valedictorians for decades; and exactly why London’s part in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody is an important and notable divergence, especially on a show geared towards children. By spinning the normalized stereotypes into a ditzy Asian and a smart blonde, Disney challenged racialized social norms with the creation of an Asian who is comically unintelligent. Not only that, but Maddie’s character is often under criticism by London because of her economic status and how Maddie has to actually work for her money, which flips the white hierarchy we typically see in the media.

Jason Mendoza (TVInsider)

Though it may seem like a negative portrayal of Asians to depict a teenage girl who is extremely spoiled and selfish, it can be argued that it has had a positive impact by better reflecting Asians in real life and paving the way for less predictable roles. For example, The Good Place’s Jason Mendoza is also an unintelligent Asian character, albeit male, who is often confused and out of the loop, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Josh Chan broke boundaries in portraying an Asian (also ditzy) male as a love interest in a media climate where they are typically seen as unappealing and effeminate.

Eddie Huang (Pinimg)

Eddie Huang, the oldest son in ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, also juxtaposes nerdy stereotypes reinforced by his two younger brothers Emery and Evan in his gangster/rebel persona. While they spend most of their free time studying or playing instruments – Evan is portrayed as being intelligent and mature beyond his years, even heading HOA meetings in one episode – Eddie just wants to play basketball and blast hip-hop in his room, which often puts him at odds with his stereotypical tiger-mom. Branching off from these expected Asian stereotypes – the very stereotypes that cause many young Asian Americans to experience emotional distress and “anxiety to uphold the expectations of the model minority stereotypes” (Kim & Yeh, 2002) – are important to showcase “diversity and depth … and portray Asians who are goofy and sometimes don’t make the best choices— because we

#fresh off the boat from Fresh Off the Boat Daily
Emery and Evan (Tumblr)

deserve range and flaws, just like white people.” (Yang, 2019) Ultimately, seeing portrayals of Asians who don’t have 4.0 GPAs or practice violin for five hours every day can ease the high expectations that many young Asian Americans face by society and especially their own families.

London as a Post-Inequality Gal

While the presence of these images of American Asians deviates from those historically found on screen, London’s character is particularly problematic in comparison to her male counterparts in that, as a rich Asian woman, she is a post-racial, eliminating her race as relevant to her character and the world around her.

London Tipton in Suite Life on Deck (Bustle)

Although the very irony of London’s character is found in her being an unintelligent Asian, race is not central to London’s character’s background and is not addressed as something that separates her from any other character on the show. Race is unimportant to her character and Suite Life’s world is by definition largely post-racial as it is “absen[t] of racial discord, discrimination, or prejudice” (Dictionary.com). London’s wealth, lack of parents on-screen, Asian culture at large, as well as the show’s own exclusion of discrimination (related to London, as well as other characters) highlights not only the character’s lack of Asian identity, but more so the creation of a character in a fictional world which separates itself from the America’s historically racialized landscape. However, this cannot be excused away by the show’s creators’ lack of racial understanding as her character’s humor is rooted in their subversion of stereotypes and assumptions that have typically applied to Asians.

While post-racism is the idea that “the problem of race has been solved and… eliminated” (Ono, 2009) its presence on screen as a fictional reality ironically serves to falsely ingrain an image of non-White Americans into the conscience. Stories of pulling one’s self up by their bootstraps or underdogs thriving in a meritocracy all communicate the American Dream on both the big and silver-screens. However, in a media space so historically misrepresentative of Asians, a character like London, whose race is irrelevant to her experience as an American, falsely indicates that the legacy of racism on-screen is over. Racist such as “Orientalism” or “Yellow Peril”– in which Asians are vilified and made inferior to Westerners– have been maintained long before Asian immigration into the United States. Yet these ideas persisted on screen through popular stereotypes such as “Fu Manchu” (evil effeminate Asian men) and the “Dragon Lady” (hyper-sexualized Asian women) since the early 20th century and into today.

London’s character in particular could be considered as merely a subversion of the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans who are expected to be extremely and inherently intelligent and hardworking. It is worth noting that this notion in itself has roots in Yellow Peril ideals; a truly assimilated and successful Asian American (one who bears no threat to American democracy) is one who achieves the monetary success of the American White man rather than maintains their own cultural identity. However, while London is indeed far from exceeding the achievements of her peers in both academics and work ethic, in Disney’s post-racial context this is made allowable by her family’s wealth. Because London’s family has achieved vast monetary success (the American Dream), she is exempt from larger racial boundaries and expectations.

Josh Chan (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Wiki)

The Average (Asian) American On-Screen

While the character of London Tipton presents a unique image of the Asian American which significantly deviates from its historical representation, her character is problematic. Not only is London post-racial, but she is even (ironically) a continuation of the model minority. As a rich Asian she represents the achievement of Asian American assimilation, the famed American Dream, and has vast inherited wealth. Such access to these traits across boundaries of race and gender yet to be achieved by society especially due to historical constraints. This representation is highly unrealistic and does not acknowledge societies patriarchal and racist dynamics. Meanwhile, male characters such as Jason Mendoza, Josh Chan, and Eddie Huang (though following in London’s footsteps as ditzy Asians) are significantly more grounded in reality. As carefree male Asians, Jason Mendoza and Josh Chan are socioeconomically average and emotionally literate men while Eddie Huang is a fun-loving Asian boy trying to fit in with his non-Asian schoolmates. They are more realistic Asian characters not necessarily because they are not rich like London or not obsessively academic like other modern interpretations of the Asian American, but especially because they are relatively “normal” Asian American people who are portrayed as being able to inherit and pass on culture as Americans. In order to truly step away from culturally produced (read: racist) of the Asian American on-screen, it is necessary for these Asian characters to be realistic rather than merely subversive.

References

Dictionary.com. Post-racial. Dictionary.com. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/post-racial

Kim, A., & Yeh, C. J. (2002). Stereotypes of Asian American students. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education.

Lopez, L. K. (2016). Asian American media activism: Fighting for cultural citizenship. New York: New York University Press.

Ono, K. A., & V. N. Pham. (2009). The Persistence of Yellow Peril Discourse. Asian Americans and the Media. (pp. 25-44). Polity Press.

Yang, R. (2019). Unintelligent Asians Are Smart for Television. Retrieved from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/unintelligent-asians-representation-smart-for-television

 

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