Limits and Boundaries of the Asian American Character

Something I wanted to build on from last week as a part of visual culture concerning Asian Americans is using Asian themes and cultures to keep certain American ideals of eastern culture alive. If you can recall from last week I talked about yellow-face as a mutated form of discrimination that we can see through modern cartoons. In an effort to maintain talking about representation and whether it is okay or not I wanted this week to help answer the question about new age representations of Asians through the media they are in. Many of these representations can be seen through Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology and popular portrayals of several Asian American actors and actresses in mainstream Hollywood media, such as Sandra Oh, Mindy Kaling, and Kal Penn.

Even though many of us are writing about the model minority and its pervasiveness in American culture, it’s a concept well worth acknowledging. As Asian American representation has grown in the past 30-50 years, one must ask if the representation has evolved at all? The stories provided through Shattered give an infinitely styled discourse on how to talk about Asian Americans. From a comic book anthology created by Asian Americans there are so many experiences coming from so many authors and illustrators thus giving us a much broader sense of what their own lives might look like. It’s hard to have just a few examples when looking into this anthology since many of the comics are so full of infinite and subject oriented characters. But to make somewhat of a concrete point we have women who take over their own agency by fighting pirates, Hitler, and bullies or using their own sexuality to get what they need, but still acknowledging their masculinity to fight or use weaponry. We have views of men beyond the math nerd, playing basketball or committing armed robbery and murder. The model minority concept that many have come to know and love is basically shattered, turned upside down, and kicked in the face. These comics have literally given their characters the ability to do anything they feel necessary and their landscapes and boundaries are limitless.

However, when we look at newer representations of Asian American lives, especially in television or movies, we don’t necessarily get the same aesthetic. Though there have been great strides to ensure that Asian Americans are portrayed with diverse backgrounds and problems there still seems to be a persistent model minority issue. When looking at the roles of prominent Asian American actors and actresses like Sandra Oh, Mindy Kaling, and Kal Penn, we can see that their biggest lead roles are that of doctors. Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project is Dr.Mindy Lahiri, Sandra Oh in Grey’s Anatomy is Dr. Cristina Yang, and Kal Penn though most famous from the Harold and Kumar movies, is notable for his five year stint on House as Dr.Lawrence Kutner. Though these characters do have story lines that go far beyond their experiences as doctors and include experiences beyond that of just Asian Americans, they still get looped into this weird model minority stereotype that Asians are mostly going to be doctors. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a doctor, but it’s the fact that these Asian American characters can only prosper at that profession.

The question that we ask here would be; if Asian Americans in comics can perform and live through all perspectives imaginable, why is it not possible for Asian Americans to do the same in real life media? Why can’t Asian Americans be the main love interest, or why can’t they be poor and show harder lives? Why don’t we have multiplicities beyond the doctor role?

In an effort to actually have Asian Americans as not just the doctor, smart friend, or mathlete, there needs to be sustained characters who revolve sometimes around a totalized concept that comes from an infinite viewpoint. So, for instance, we could have an Asian character being the anti-terrorist soldier, or a double-faced pop star, or some unexpected character, but no references to the Asian identity except for ones they can’t necessarily hide.



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