Constructing Our Own Images (Espiritu)

Yen Le Espiritu had some interesting points about the controlled images of Asian Americans created by the media. I still see the demasculinization of Asian males and feminization of females in many movies and TV shows today.

For example in Charlie’s Angels, Lucy Liu plays a cunning spy who fights the bad guys, fitting the role of the over-sexualized Asian woman in Espiritu’s article. She’s dressed in very revealing and sexual outfits throughout most of the movie. In one of the scenes, she and the two other “Angels” are dancing at a strip club in order to steal something important from one of the customers.  She’s dressed as a naughty sailor in a tiny top and spanks, accentuating her boobs and butt. At one point, she smacks the stage with her whip and proceeds to whip other girls’ butts. Her dominatrix character in the film further supports Espiritu’s point on the over exaggeration of Asian female’s role in western culture.  

I feel that Asian males are very demasculinized in the media as well. Espiritu’s observation on the lack of Asian male news anchors is pretty interesting. After reading that, I realized there are a lot more Asian female news anchors paired with white male anchors. I’ve never seen two Asian anchors on the news, except for the Chinese channel. However, I feel like the feminized Asian male stereotype is slowly going away. I have a couple of white female friends who find Asians more attractive than Caucasians. Even though Asian Americans’ roles are still exaggerated in the media, I feel people are definitely more aware and mindful of these stereotypes. 

21 thoughts on “Constructing Our Own Images (Espiritu)

  1. Hegemonic masculinity plays a large role in why Asian Americans are seldom the heroes in American entertainment. I define hegemonic masculinity as the conventionally accepted masculinity that the majority wants to achieve– think James Bond, Fabio, or any Caucasian, strong, handsome, and accomplished male figures. Those who are not hegemonically masculine are marginalized externally and internally because they understand that they lack the qualities. Thus, it creates a sense of inner oppression.

    From the periods of Western imperialism to the 19th century, Westerners have always identified Asian immigrants and workers with notions of Orientalism. They are barbaric, disorganized, exotic, and competition in the job market. The Yellow Peril and emasculated stereotypes still exist to this day, as can be seen in popular movies and TV shows. When have Asian guys ever taken on the role of a heroic protagonist? Hiro Nakamura in Heroes does, but he doesn’t have romantic relations like most Caucasian roles do. Bruce Lee is physically powerful in Enter the Dragon, but he is almost hyper-masculinized and animalistic. The real question is: When will Asians ever be the hero AND have sexual relationships in media? I believe that it is important to note the romantic relationships because that is the most effective way to prove the “emasculated Asian male stereotype” wrong. The fact that none of today’s films accomplish this suggests that there still exists a very faint and unspoken racism. In order for the Caucasian male to retain hegemonic masculinity, he must prevent the marginalized group from becoming the norm in any way. Entertainment is a very powerful channel and thus, an important outlet to guard.

    • I find this analysis to be quite interesting, although my lack of experience in social sciences classes leaves me unfamiliar with the conventional/accepted use of the word “hegemony”. In general, I agree with the point that it is rare for Asian-American males in cinema to be portrayed as “masculine” in the same way that white males are. I would however like to submit a possible counter-example for discussion- Glenn Rhee from AMC’s “The Walking Dead”.

      Glenn’s parents are Korean immigrants from Michigan. During the zombie outbreak, Glenn proves to be a capable and resourceful man who contributes fully to the well-being of the group. He’s great at outsmarting the zombies is relied upon heavily for his ability to safely gather supplies from stricken towns. Additionally, he has a relationship with Herschel’s daughter Maggie that (to my untrained eye) appears to be free of racial themes. She’s white, he’s Asian-American, and their respective racial identities doesn’t appear to be discussed in the series. He is not caricatured in any stereotypically Asian way (read: the “over-feminine”, the “ancient wise master”, the “computer genius”, other stereotypes). He’s just a regular guy with a set of talents that aren’t specific or stereotypically confined to any particular ethnic group. Most importantly, he is a) a badass, b) has a cinematically-appropriate relationship with Maggie and c) happens to be Asian-American. I think that he may qualify as a possible Asian American in popular culture who is a both a hero and who has a sexual relationship. What do you guys think?

      Disclaimer: I am not attuned to these things, so there are likely some subtleties which I have unintentionally glossed over. Please correct me! Additionally, I am unfamiliar with the comic series (shame! I know), so I am only basing this off of the TV series’ portrayal.

  2. I agree that media often portrays controlled images and stereotypes about Asian men and women. In some of the examples mentioned above, I cannot help but remember an article I read by Edward Said on Orientalism. According to Said, Orientalism is a Western (made up) definition created by the West to shape its own identity by comparing itself to the East. The concept of Orientalism creates an idea: everything that is “the West,” is what the East is certainly not. By making the West (Oxident) relative to the East (Orient), the West is able to instill a type of power structure that makes itself the dominant group through the false idea that it has created for Asian countries.

    Some of the characteristics mentioned by Said in his article describes the Oxident as masculine, secular, rational, and historical, while the Orient is defined as mysterious, irrational, feminine, and sexual. Unfortunately, the idea put forth by Edward Said is highly correlated to how movies are created in today’s culture further perpetuating stereotypes. Because we continue to view Asian men as emasculated and women as hyper sexualized in movies, it is apparent that the West continues to struggle through power relations it has with the East, as well as an unfortunate identity crisis that has never been resolved. Consequently, it is through the notion of Orientalism mixed into movies that prevents Asians from being viewed as equal to their Western counterparts.

  3. What I find interesting about Espiritu’s commentary on the depiction of sexuality of Asian Americans in popular culture is the simultaneous existence of two polar opposite depictions of both Asian American women and Asian American men. Asian American men for example are viewed as effeminate in the image of the “model minority” on one hand, but on the other hand they are viewed as hypermasculine in the image of “Yellow Peril.” The author points out a similar point for Asian American women. On the one hand they are portrayed as superfeminine, in the image of the “China Doll” but on the other hand as the “Dragon Lady.”

    I think this duality that the author points out in the portrayal of Asian American sexuality is key. This shows how the people who control the media and popular culture are able to paint minority groups however they wish and and have a huge amount of control over how a population views minority groups. When stepping back, these flip-flopping stereotypes should make anyone realize the ridiculousness of the stereotypes themselves (two total opposites occurring simultaneously in the same people). Although Asian Americans are depicted in two polar opposite lights, both depictions of each sex seem to serve the same function; both of these extreme exaggerations and generalized assumptions about Asian Americans serve to marginalize them and, as Espiritu says to, “confirm the white man’s superiority.” Whoever is in control of popular culture is able to confirm their own superiority because they have control over how other groups are depicted. This is a key aspect to keep in mind when studying Asian Americans in popular culture and this is the reason its study is so important.

  4. While reading Espirtu’s piece about the emasculated man, the one television show character that immediately came to my mind was Dr. Raj Koothrappali, from The Big Bang Theory. Raj is an astro-physicist who researches at CalTech and befriends three other physicists – all of them white. While all four friends struggle to gain the attention and affection of women, Raj’s character has the most trouble. Throughout the show, Raj’s character is always too nervous and unable to speak to any woman. Although, the show depicts him as eager to gain a female companion, the pressure and anxiety of speaking to a female causes him to tense up as he loses any ability to hold a normal conversation. The only way that Raj is able to “get the girl” is through alcohol, in which the girl usually regrets her drunken decisions the morning after. Through series and sitcoms, similar to The Big Bang Theory, the audience follows the lives of beloved characters, while creating a special relationship and bond with each character. In Raj’s case, loyal audience members would recognize that Raj’s trouble with women is “normal” for Raj or “That’s just how Raj is.” However, when we consider race and stereotypes into this situation, another story is told. The fact that Raj, the Indian-American character, is the one chosen to be shy and incompetent around women affirms the hegemonic idea about Asian Americans that is inflicted upon us through social media. As the character Bradley in “Yawkee Dawg You Die” suggests, Asian American actors should refuse roles that ask them to affirm such controlling images in order to stop the construction and usage of stereotypical Asian American identity in the media.

  5. The representation of Asian women in pop culture has been hypersexualized, giving them a higher sense of eroticism and exoticism. Along with their portrayal, they are usually secondary characters to the White male lead and saviour. These are based on the Western colonization and post-colonial space that have established such depictions. Many films, including actress Lucy Liu, illustrate her as a dragon lady, where she uses her body to manipulate others for her benefit. Or the other role of the lotus blossom, where the White man would come and save her from distress.

    The Asian men, in most movies, are depicted as weak or the villain instead. Because media in the United States favor an American hero, they often make the White male as a hero. In many productions, this proves true because it is what the people want to see and what sells. In the instance of Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift, the main actor is a White male moving into a foreign land. He learns their culture and is able to quickly surpass the “drift king” when he was the dominant racer with the resources, and depicted as a villain. The lead role was able to deconstruct the tradition and establishment they’ve had going against the Yakuza’s and getting the girl he desires.

    I agree with Espiritu that the media controls what we see and influences how we perceive characters. Even though their roles have been highly exaggerated, we use these depictions to construct a base before we can move forward and reconstruct the representation into our own images.

  6. After reading Espiritu’s article on how Asian American men and women were portrayed in earlier history, I can see how even in today’s society some forms of these media representations still exist in certain genres such as comedy films. For example, the notable appearance of “Chow” from Hangover movies represent crude and stereotypical depictions of Asian males.

    However, I believe that liberal progress throughout the past few decades have put a halt to some stereotypes. With the advent of events such as gay marriage and abortion rights, I optimistically believe that the majority of people in the US have transcended beyond the influence of stereotypes and the status quo. People are willing to contribute to change and embrace diversity. Although it certainly isn’t a perfect world for minorities such as Asian Americans to play the “hero” in the entertainment industry, I feel as if the 21st century offers a safe place for people to gradually accept and welcome Asian American pop culture through both real and online media.

  7. Going further on Lucy’s point, Bruce Lee is a prominent Asian figure in popular culture because he is a practiced martial artist. That plays heavy into the stereotype of Asian men being skilled at hand-to-hand combat. In cinema, very rarely do we see an Asian man cast for a lead role solely on his ability to act. Asian men usually portray those who are skilled martial artists, or are calculating geniuses. Asian women are often seen as exotic seductresses, as talented musicians, or otherwise characterized with sheepish natures. When gender stereotypes are overlaid with racial stereotypes, we are left with an extremely narrow spectrum of possible characters to be seen in media.

    We have come a long way in discarding stereotypes in popular media, but there is still ground to cover before we become completely colorblind.

  8. I agree with Espiritu’s and these two posts explanations and examples of the portrayal of Asian Americans in media/film. Like what Espiritu has written, these specific stereotypes manifest in order to maintain and “confirm white man’s superiority” (88). The emasculated Asian male stereotype, the dragon lady stereotype, the lotus blossom stereotype, and the sinister Oriental stereotype exist to support and reaffirm the virility of the caucasian male protagonist. For example, Asian American women are either portrayed as hyper sexualized creatures or docile and subservient in order to peak the interest of their white counterparts. Lucy Liu who portrayed Ling Woo in the lawyer show Ally Mcbeal from 1997-2002 was a prime example of the Asian stereotype of a dragon lady: deceitful, domineering, and hyper-sexualized. Her role’s main purpose was to serve as an opposing force to Ally Mcbeal, the female Caucasian lead protagonist. Ally’s good nature behavior and positive attitude is juxtaposed by Ling’s cold and vicious demeanor. Ling is also portrayed as hyper-sexual, making it known to her coworkers that she possesses great sexual knowledge sometimes even using it as a weapon of control. Because Lucy Liu’s role as Ling Woo was the most significant representation of Asian American women during that time on television, the role further cemented the stereotype of the Dragon Lady into the media. Asian American men, however, are either portrayed as emasculated and weak or villainous and animalistic to highlight the white man’s heroism, goodness, and superiority. Asian American men either play criminal gangsters, nerdy asian kids, or fighting machines. Because of the constant stereotypes and marginalization of Asian American women and men in film, television, and media, it perpetuates the notion that Asian Americans are not fit for a lead role in an major film. Making a movie with an Asian American lead role does not garner enough financial security as casting a Caucasian male lead so it is much harder to pitch and sell a film that casts a minority as the main protagonist to a major film distributor. Hopefully, in the future, more and more Asian Americans will break the mold and gain the necessary exposure to obtain a successful lead role absent of any past stereotypes.

  9. The desexualization of the Asian male while hyper-sexualizing the Asian female is probably an artifact that remains from the US wars in Asia, including the Vietnam war against the red power and WWII against the axis powers in Japan. By desexualizing the men and hypersexualizing the women the US media actually dehumanized the men and women by making them seem as objects, the men as soulless soldiers and the women as sexual objects. This dehumanization allows the government to pass anti Asian laws and engage in wars without much opposition from the public. Sadly however these dehumanizing elements still exist in media today, even though they have passed their functional use for the government.

  10. The question that lingers in my mind, after the Espiritu reading and after analysis of a number of Asian characters I could think of, is “Now what?” To discredit and disassemble the opinions and constructions of the prevailing, majority media we must be totally and completely unaffected by the portrayal and stigmata of ancient constructs created in the adolescence of cultural interrelations.

    It is impossible in modern life to live without any influence of, or more accurately, just the presence of negative stereotypes. Germans are portrayed as unemotional and robotic, French are smokers, staunch connoisseurs of cheese and wine, Irish are all loud drunks, Muslims just want to burn the Western world, and people from the Middle East are all hairy and smell weird. However, it is not in our best interest to have such a closed-minded outlook on the different people we share a planet with, for doing so poses unnecessary and shackling restrictions on the limited amount of time we have to live in this world.

  11. I agree as well about how in the media Asian women are overly sexualized and how Asian men have their masculinity robbed of them. I feel that the idea of Orientalism, as explained by Edward Said can be to blame for such portrayals of Asian men and women. Said talks about how Orientalism is a view or portrayal of the East, that was socially constructed by the West, in which the West is dominant, modern, and masculine, and the East exists for the purpose of being its complete opposite- submissive, ancient, and feminine.

    I believe that in order to maintain a sense of Western superiority over the East, society portrays Asian women as hyper-sexualized beings, such as your example of Lucy in Charlies Angles, and portrays Asian men as feminine and strange in comparison to the default, masculine, white movie hero. These stereotypes are a subconscious tactic to keeping Asian-Americans from becoming equals to the westerners that would be described in Said’s Orientalism.

  12. The emasculation of Asian males is indeed still present in today’s media. An example of this is Jeff Chang, played by YouTube star Justin Chon, in the movie “21 And Over” that just recently came out. Jeff from a five generations of doctors and his stereotypical dad wants him to be a doctor. He went out with his 2 white friends to celebrate his 21st birthday. By the end of the evening, he was completely desexualized . He did not get the girl. Although he was a main character, I felt that he did not seem as significant compared to the other two. Even though Jeff is essentially American, he was still portraying the stereotypical Asian male. Whenever I watched something that has an Asian character in these stereotypical roles, I wondered why they keep accepting these roles that give the public a negative image of the Asian male but then realized that these are the only roles that are available to them. Although faint, racism is still present in the media and if we want to break free from these, we need to make a joint effort towards it.

  13. I agree that some of the media has portrayed unrealistic stereotypes of both Asian-American men and women, but there is a decreasing trend of the amount of this material being produced. Although, I would say that most of the current media being produced hyper-sexualizes all women, not just Asian-American women. The emasculation of Asian-American males is still prevalent in media, but there has been a considerable number of roles to negate this stereotype. As mentioned above, martial arts is a common skill for an Asian-American male to possess in a film; this commonplace sight, at least to me, shows how the media is not perpetuating the stereotype and actually empowering the masculinity of Asian-American men. Current pop culture has continued to reduce the amount of racist and sexist stereotypes, but there is still a large amount of material that is perpetuating archaic ideas that needs to be continuously reduced.

  14. I think media tends to hypersexualize women no matter which ethnic group they belong. For example, K-pop has recently been a hot topic in America’s media but people seem to focus on the singers’ body figures instead of their hard work on dancing and singing. It happens to Latino women too, when we think of Jennifer Lopez, we immediately think of her round butt, is it because we tend to hypersexualize women or is it because of the media? But if media today, let’s say, really focuses on different ethnic groups’ hard work and contribution, do you think there will be plenty of audiences? I think it is a question that needs to be discussed further.
    When we think of Asians, we think of an ethnic group that tends to have smaller body figure but dominates in academics. Again, this stereotypes are reinforced by media, such as popular movies, live screening of state math competition or cartoon. Social media does control how we see this world today and I think it is way too difficult to control it since media itself does not serve as a charity basis, it is run by a group of wealthy corporations who decide what they want for audiences. My point is that, we have already been fed or brainwashed too much that we become easily affected by the media thus when we think of certain ethnic group, we immediately comes out with what the media wants us to think.

  15. I agree withthe fact that asian american’s are recieving much needed positive representations in american media especially concerning male roles. However, it is still a long haul away from the masculine acceptance in pop culture of white americans along with other minority groups such as the masculine african american sports player or the hispanic hard drug lord.

    From my experience, the presence of these sterotypes is still obvious in day to day life. But in minor opposition to this, there are many asian solidarity groups present today to help ease the stereotype. With the expansion of the internet, many youtube stars have been debunking many myths and stereotypes. I recommend justkiddingfilms for a humorous approach to this.

  16. There are many stereotypes regarding Asian-Americans. Like Johnokcu points out that the history of these stereotypes finds its basis in old world war II propaganda. Time has passed since these were created and thus we see a lessening of the racist undertones, but not a total eradication of this.

    While there is to a great extent hyper-sexualization of Asian women, I believe that it is part of the hyper-sexualization of all women in American society. In a country where every year a magazine is released dubbed the “Swim Suit Issue,” where women every race and ethnicity are paraded around half naked would suggest am sexulization of the female gender as a whole by that culture. That is not to say that there is not a certain amount of exoticism placed on Asian American women.

    In media there is a desexualization of the Asian America male. This is most easily visible in “Chow” from the Hangover. This stereotype is probably derived from the cultural push by Asian American parents to have their children not be involved in sports and more focused on school. This leads to the fortifying of the stereotype that asian-americans don’t belong in American sports and are smaller/weaker than Caucasian counterparts. In direct opposition to this is the stereotype of Asian -americans and the martial arts. This stereotype was created by Bruce Lee and probably reinforced due to the lack of other “positive” roles for asian-americans in pop culture.

    • This seems to be a common thread, that all women are sexualized in the US. This is no doubt true, but *how* are they sexualized? Is there a form of fetishization (based on the “exotic” place of origin) at play here that reflects a different kind of gender politics?

  17. A quote from this article reminded me of an experience that I had very recently. Many of you might be aware of the large number of Irish visiting Isla Vista for their Summer holiday and I had a great immersion experience of living with a large group of them for a few days. And as much as I love them all, one morning after a night of shenanigans, I overheard one retelling the story (and honestly, a more appropriate word would be bragging) of his “getting” with an Asian girl the night before and how much of a novelty this was amongst his lads (which, should be noted, was composed exclusively of white males).

    While hook-up culture in Isla Vista is it’s own, separate issue, I couldn’t help but be curious as to why this particular occurrence seemed to be such an achievement amongst the boys. It turns out that because this group of Irishmen are from a more rural, country part of Ireland, the population of Asians is very small and practically nonexistent. As a result, their perception of Asian females is based almost exclusively upon what they see in the media – through music videos and movies like Fast and Furious and Hangover 2. As denoted by Espiritu and by previous comments, such depictions of Asian females exist on a binary scale – as innocent and naive or hypersexual and manipulative. To them, this anonymous hookup – with her unusual features and perceived character as a sex fiend – could not simply be compared to any other white, American girl. Espiritu’s words are fitting, “In the United States, Asia, and America — East and West — are viewed as mutually exclusive binaries. Within this exclusive binary system, Asian Americans, even as citizens, are designated Asians, not Americans.” To them, this girl was not simply just an Asian-American, but instead idealized as something wholly Asian, wholly exotic, a conquest even! – regardless of the fact that she probably was born and raised in California and in reality, besides her race, was probably no different than any other IV resident.

    While this is a recollection of my own experience, this stereotype cannot be said to be exclusively used by the Irish. Even in America, the same influential media and existing hegemony enforces stereotypes and affects the way in which our own Asian-American females are perceived. I just find it ironic that it some of our own images – originating from a place so widely diverse – that further reinforces stereotypes in other cultures. We have moved forward, but this is an indicator that further reconstruction is needed.

  18. On the topic of controlling images, Bruce Lee in his attempt to break through images of the Asian American man, specifically Chinese men (to break that image of sick men from China), found himself stuck in roles that re-emphasized controlling images of Asian men as subserviant and docile. One prime example is in his role as Kato. Cultural nationalism attempted to make the Asian American hypermasculine male image. One of the driving forces of this movement was through martial arts. While dominance in the martial arts can be seen as masculine (not to mention the stereotype Asian American men would have to suffer from for the following decades), when portrayed from the gaze of a white audience, the intricacies of Chinese martial arts is reduced to a monkey dance followed with oriental music, as shown bellow.
    Skip to 4:15 to avoid the cheesy dialogue.

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