Straightjacket Masculinity: Behind the Scenes of the Model Minority

Better Luck Tomorrow casts itself amongst many successful independent films promoting an all Asian cast. For what has been described as a typical ‘coming of age’ film takes so many twists and turns to make the audience question what exactly it was they were engaged with. Director Justin Lin openly expressed his film had intention to surpass representing Asians collectively, more so, to enable them to be whatever they want. The negative, dark theme of illegal activity and crime throughout gives the Asian characters in this film that agency, yet, the focus of sexuality does not entirely demonstrate the expectations of Asian American male sexuality in respect to studies in Celine Parrenas-Shimizu’s Straightjacket Masculinities.

The film holds the underdog as the central character, the one we, the audience, affiliate our self to support more so than the others. He is the narrator, and openly admits the stereotypical hard working model minority, he shows deeper character context for his sexuality from the start of the film, contrasting to the best friend who is hyper-sexually frustrated to say the least, a walking parody of the concept of lack. This is self-evident from staring at a woman’s chest to the many sexual references in his dialect through the film, with Virgil persisting this trait of ‘lack’ until the end. Shimizu explains this position of lack ‘when understood as inadequacy leads to overcompensation in the form of macho’, by which, suggests a shift in ones demeanour to affiliate this change. Although it can be seen that Ben, Han and Deric experience this change successfully with interactions with a white prostitute, a challenging convention in itself if considering theories of ‘race suicide’ from interracial sexual relations, Virgil retains the expectation of lack by branding a gun at the prostitute; his lingering castration is led by his skewed perception of masculinity.

Contrastingly, I wish to also highlight that this change of lack to macho that is expected within the ‘protagonist’, if he may be called that, Ben, is not actually a flux from one to the other, more so a sustaining of his position in lack with no expected change; he remains castrated through the full length of the film through interaction with Stephanie. He lusts for her with a distant gaze, unable to physically express and reveal his feelings to her because of standalone obstacles such as her boyfriend Steve. The inert anxieties he portrays are resonant through the entire film, and although he experiences some form of deliverance to becoming a man with the previously mentioned night with the prostitute, he does not entirely change. This is to say he does not ever become the macho stereotype, and the scene which clearly expresses this is the murder of Steve. Yes, Ben beats Steve to within an inch of his life, but he does not deliver the final blow. Steve is suffocated at the hands of Deric and Virgil as the panoramic nauseatingly spins, a visual representation of Ben’s life descending into chaos, literally spiralling out of control; the murder does mean no going back, but back to what? This concept of things changing after the murder of Steve is overplayed in my opinion, for Ben has to remain silent to get away with the deed, acting the same way he did before with Stephanie, and although he drives off into the sunset with the girl he desired, she asks of her murdered boyfriends whereabouts while simultaneously dating Ben. There is no certainty of this endeavour as much as there is no clarity to the next step in the ending of the film, part due to a lack of Ben’s escape from the imposed straightjacket.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4g_hIhwqaI

The trailer uses ‘never underestimate an overachiever’ as the slogan which the film captures to a tee, the film breaks the model minority myth with exposure of individuals retaining high standards expected from Asian Americans academically but incorporating themselves in illegal activity for easy money, then squander said money on gambling, alcohol and women simultaneously. Essentially, the trailer has appeal to a mass audience, providing excitement and fast paced action, briefly passing over the notion of Asian identity of sexuality and placing greater emphasis on the coming of age antics in the film infused with drama, for economic purpose.   This clip visualises more ideals of macho sexuality compared to what the audience bears witness to in the film, showing more castration and lack for the central characters. Aesthetically, the film strengthens Lin’s ideals of individuality among Asian Americans with Ben gaining a place on the basketball team, a multicultural sport with no reference to Asian American culture, more so, the assimilation of an American sport with the Asian character. Being described as the ‘token Asian’ highlights difficulties Asian Americans have when participating in non-Asian expected activities, as they still retain an element of being perceived as a significant other that is to be accounted for.

Text citation:

Celine Parrenas-Shimizu, Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012). [page 124]

 

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