How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ redefines Hollywood’s Asian man
There’s a scene in the new movie Crazy Rich Asians when Singaporean actor Pierre Png walks out of the shower toward his gorgeous wife, played by British model Gemma Chan. The camera lingers on him and his fitness-app abs for a few seconds longer than normal, his shirtless body objectified just as thoroughly as actresses have been for decades. But there’s a clear objective to this objectification: detonation — to blow up the stereotype of the emasculated Asian man. In the wise words of Leon Black from Curb Your Enthusiasm: “Topsy-turvy that m—–f—–.”
If you’re not familiar with Hollywood’s troubled history of portraying Asian men, think of how it used to be a given that the black actor gets killed in a horror film, unless you’re LL Cool J. Well, it’s a given that if an Asian man pops up in a mainstream movie, he’s going to be asexual.
NUMBERS NEVER LIE
These portrayals aren’t limited to movies; they still persist in television. CBS’s recently canceled 2 Broke Girls featured an emasculated, broken-English, butt-of-all-jokes Asian regular. A recent study of Asians on TV from 2015-16 indicated that of 2,052 broadcast, digital and cable TV series’ regulars, only 6.9 percent of them were Asian-American. Of that number, 87 percent are on screen for less than half of the episode. So, when one of those roles is the equivalent of a modern-day Asian minstrel, the frustration is understandable. I should note, I rarely blame the actor for taking the role. We all gotta eat. I blame the producers and writers for creating and perpetuating these caricatures.
MAKING YELLOW MELLOW
Of course, the history goes much further. Way beyond Long Duk Dong and Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Wouldn’t you know it was the American government that helped establish the emasculated Asian male image back in the mid-1800s when there was a wave of Chinese immigrants coming to build the Transcontinental Railroad? A period known as Yellow Peril.
Many Americans felt threatened by the Chinese and feared the immigrants would steal their jobs, women and Western values. Sound familiar? To counter, Chinese men were portrayed as immoral, villainous, undesirable and threatening, especially to white women. Laws were put in place to deny them masculine ideals such as marrying freely and owning property. It culminated with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, America’s first major law restricting immigration.
“I was always taught to keep my head to the ground, keep working, be better. Not let those things [negative media portrayals] affect me. That’s not easy when you’re growing up trying to define your own masculinity, trying to find out what it means to be a man to yourself, when everyone’s telling you you’re not. It’s almost like you can’t comprehend it until after you’ve been through it and look back. You don’t know why you feel like you want to hide your Asian-ness because you think people will look at you weird; or you don’t know why you’re so scared to meet your girlfriend’s parents because they have no idea that you’re Asian, but when they look at you, you’re going to see it in their eyes immediately. Those things are painful to think about. Even right now I’m feeling emotional talking about it. But you don’t know how that feels until it happens.”
— Jon Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians
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