Friday, June 3, 2011

Asian American Stereotypes and Films

In Wesley Yang’s May 8th New York Magazine article “Paper Tigers”, he begins by asking “What happens to all the Asian American overachievers when the test taking ends?” Yang’s article discusses how Asian Americans are still saddled with stereotypes, but the difficulty of breaking down these stereotypes is how they are rooted in beliefs about educational success that is supposed to lead to overall success—the nerd, the good student, the model minority. His anger over these stereotypes comes out Yang’s frustration about Asian Americans’ career and/or life choices: when you are stuck with a stereotype of apparent success, what do you do?

To answer Wesley Yang’s first question, “Asian Americans can become the main subjects of Justin Lin’s 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow.” SDAFF kicked off the first Member Film Forum on May 24th at our new office at Liberty Station in Point Loma by showing Better Luck Tomorrow, with the additional treats of Skyped Q & As with both director Justin Lin and actor Sung Kang, who played one of the main characters. The movie asks the audience to consider what it really means to be Asian American outside of stereotypes, since the main characters act like bad boys, but still maintain the appearance of perfect students. During his Q & A session, Sung Kang pointed out how much stereotypes dominate media arts views of Asian Americans. Shortly after Better Luck Tomorrow became a hit, Sung was offered a role specifically looking for an Asian man, but he was supposed to be playing a gay, kimono-wearing Asian guy. When asked about his opinion of how Asian Americans can fight these kind of stereotypes, Sung said that there needs to be more quality roles, shows, and films about Asian Americans.

Absolutely—there does need to be a wide range of high quality representations of Asian Americans as complex people, not just as an easily stereotyped character. Stereotyping one race or one group diminishes everybody by narrowing everyone’s ideas about humanity. So, what can SDAFF do to help? Right now, SDAFF is committed to breaking down stereotypes by showing thought-provoking films at member film forums, quarterly screenings, the Spring Showcase, and especially at the Film Festival. However, we need you too! Tell us—what can SDAFF do to broaden people’s ideas of who Asians and Asian Americans really are?


  1. Great article Wendy! I believe SDAFF is doing a great job with the films they present and I think film forums are an effective way to hear the voice of the people. Maybe SDAFF can have a forum not just for members but open to all? Perhaps find a venue where we can hear from all sides?

  2. SDAFF does so much to break the barriers, maybe if we do local spotlights on our webpage or something of people in the community, member or not, SDAFF staff or not. It can be local Asian Americans who want to have their voice heard about the life that they live and how their experience as an Asian American. Also locals that are making a difference and doing amazing things in the world and locally. I know we do something like that already, but to go out and look for people and to take note of what THEY want to say might be cool :)

    GO WENDY!!!!

  3. create more dialogue and more critical thinkers.

  4. i always hear how important it is for there to be Asian American filmmakers and writers so they can tell our story and show an accurate representation of our culture through film, and I absolutely agree. However, I also think it is just as important to have Asian American businesspeople working with big distributors because those are the people who are going to greenlight these films and allow them to be made and distributed to a larger audience. I feel like there are many great films out there about the Asian American experience that aren't national distributed because some executive thinks they won't make money.

  5. "...there does need to be a wide range of high quality representations of Asian Americans as complex people, not just as an easily stereotyped character. Stereotyping one race or one group diminishes everybody by narrowing everyone’s ideas about humanity."

    Exactly. I think SDAFF does a great job already in showcasing a wide range of Asian/American experiences. It's easy to pick out a mainstream Asian martial arts film (I admit that I loved Ip Man though it sustains an Asian stereotype) but there are so many other Asian/American-themed films out there that aren't, well, martial arts themed.

    Going to go a bit off topic by talking about something not film related. I actually read Wesley Yang's article (long, it was!) and I was quite angry throughout the whole thing. I totally agreed with him in some parts. Though he never uses the words "model minority" I can tell that he felt immense pressure from the stereotype. But I'm just so annoyed that he writes as if he is an authority figure for Asian America. For example:

    "But intrinsic intelligence, of course, is precisely what Asians don’t believe in. They believe—and have ­proved—that the constant practice of test-taking will improve the scores of whoever commits to it."

    As an Asian American reader, I KNOW that he is only talking about some Asians, not all. My parents definitely don't pressure me that much when it comes to academics (though I believe I internalized the model minority stereotype in grade school). Yet many readers of NY Mag are...not Asian. Not everyone will be able to read this article critically and understand that Yang's (very) angry comments don't apply to all Asians.

    And wow was I upset by this:

    “I’m trying to undo eighteen years of a Chinese upbringing. Four years at Williams helps, but only so much.”

    I'm not offended by the statement but I find it interesting that the student who was quoted here felt like he needs undo his upbringing. He is a product of his upbringing so why not try to understand his parents' intentions in the way they raised him rather than undoing those past 18 years? To me, it's not an issue that Wesley and the students he interviewed want to do something that doesn't align with their family values. It seems to me that they don't identify as Asian Americans, that they reject the identity in favor of a different lifestyle. But living an "American" lifestyle, or simply living a lifestyle that one's family doesn't fully embrace, doesn't necessarily mean one has to let go of their heritage. (<--I literally copied and pasted this from a little debate I had with my friend on Facebook)

    I absolutely love the following articles from 8Asians. Please read them AFTER you've read 'Paper Tigers'

  6. I'm curious as to know what movie Sung was offered in which he was to play "a gay, kimono-wearing Asian guy", and if we'll ever see this movie come out in the future. Hollywood loves to play on stereotypes of effeminate gays for comedic value, and if this role was trying to capitalize on the gay+desexualized male Asian combo, then Sung Kang made a smart decision to avoid this movie.

    Asian males have been emasculated in films in the past- Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, or Fu Manchu, the ultimate Asian villain. But this stereotype is still used as the punchline in lots of tv shows and movies today. However, I think there's been a breakthrough in recent roles, like Ken Jeong's role as Mr. Chow in the Hangover. His character was so over the top and such an overt racial stereotype that I don't think there's any way for his performance to be interpreted as anything other than a parody on Hollywood stereotypes.