I’m going to talk about an uncomfortable topic that has been bugging me about our society, Western society to be exact. Having been born and raised Seoul, South Korea until I was seven, I grew up watching and idolizing protagonists in films produced mostly by Korean production companies. Perhaps this is what made me more perceptive to this blatant marginalization. I’m talking about the marginalization of male actors of Asian racial background in western pop-culture.
In western media, Asian actors are marginalized to playing roles where they are portrayed as some type of martial arts fighter incapable of having emotional/sexual desires, an antagonist/side-kick, or as an emasculated, geeky, dismissive male. Through the marginalization of Asian actors in western media, white filmmakers and producers and ‘yellow-faced‘ performers are permitted to determine what it means to be Asian.
Korean Movie Industry
It is rare to see Asian male actors in a protagonist role unless you’re outside western media. It’s a destructive, biased representation that perpetuates Asian stereotypes in western society.
Mako Iwamatsu, who is mostly-known for his Academy and Golden Globe award nominated role in the movie The Sand Pebbles, recalls a studio executive’s reaction when asked about featuring a non-Asian in the lead of “Kung Fu,” the classic 1970s TV show: “I remember one of the vice presidents — in charge of production, I suppose — who said, ‘If we put a yellow man up on the tube, the audience will turn the switch off in less than five minutes.’ ”
While producers can no longer make such statements, this replacement of Asian protagonist in the script by white males still occurs in western pop-culture. It was such a perpetual occurrence that the term Yellowface has been adopted to explain this oppression. For example, in the recent movie, Cloud Atlas, we have Jim Sturgess
There are also cases where the script is changed around to accommodate a white protagonist. Take for example, the movie The Last Samurai, which was based on the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigo Takamori, a Japanese samurai. The screenplay alters from the Satsuma Rebellion to the point where it loses touch with reality, just to portray an American Officer as the protagonist. In case you haven’t watched it; the American Officer who doesn’t speak a word of Japanese, is captured as a prisoner of war and manages to assimilate into the samurai village and its way of life. Later he leads the Samurai in a final battle to death against the Western Influenced, Japanese Imperial Army where he becomes the last surviving ‘samurai’. Along the way he falls in love with a Japanese woman that he widowed. This movie portrays both white privilege and male privilege, as discussed by Ms. McIntosh in our class readings, in a way which reinforces hegemonic ideals and hypersexualizes the Japanese woman. The fact that the general public in western society did not question how an American prisoner of war manages to assimilate into a Samurai Culture in such a short period of time, or that the female falls in love with a man who kills her own husband shows us how “the representation of minorities are so embedded in the intersection of race and media that they operate at a subconscious level” (http://violetmae.tumblr.com/post/37412767/asians-in-the-city). Perhaps it’s the result of the intersection between americentrism and androcentrism, resulting in these male centered, white rescue situations which reinforces a white-male tendency to maintain central roles in the media. In TV news, the pairing of an older white man with a younger, Asian American, female co-anchor has become so familiar that some in the news business refer to it as “the Connie Chung effect.” Chung was the first Asian American female to co-anchor a network newscast (with Dan Rather) in 1993.
However, an advertising exec, Imada sees change coming, albeit slowly. In the “Harold & Kumar” movies, he points out; the title characters (who are of Korean and East Indian descent) have non-Asian girlfriends. And on “The Walking Dead,” the post-apocalyptic drama series on AMC, a running plotline is a romance between a young Korean American man and a white woman over the objections of her father.
What do you guys think caused this emasculation of Asian males in western society? Or the hypersexualization of Asian females?
Do you think Hollywood can change from the deeply invested idea of American exceptionalism?
Remember The Bechdel test:
– Are there two women, with names?
– Who speak to one another?
– About something other than a man?
Try to adapt the Bechdel test and conduct it to open up questions about the representation of persons of colour.