The “Extreme” Detriment: Stereotype and Hegemonic Assimilation

Asian Americans often struggle with the establishment of identity that many say is an amalgamation of cultures or one that serves as a new, distinct category that stands alone. Depictions of Asian Americans as primary characters within stories in Shattered, demonstrate an interesting theme. Portrayal of Asian Americans exists either as a manifestation of a stereotype (five of which have been used to establish the foundation of Shattered), or as assimilated members of American society, with no true Asian American distinctions besides some characteristic facial features or vague cultural rituals. Exhibiting these extremes in graphic novels demonstrates the underlying hegemony Westernization contains on those considered “the other,” and speaks to the way in which the Asian American agenda is subconsciously influenced by Westernization within American society.

Stereotypes of Asian Americans are abundant in visual culture, buttressing the idea that their use through satire still demonstrates hegemonic, Western control. In Gene Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese, Chin-Kee’s character is an evident satirical manifestation of the stereotypical Asian, with his slanted, extremely squinty eyes, to his traditional Chinese attire, and his method of pronouncing the letter L as though pronouncing the letter R. This stereotypical representation is, in essence, what the hegemony of Westernization believes to be accurately “Asian.” Shattered demonstrates these stereotypes as well, depicting Tokyo Rose as the temptress, the Asian girl that everyone desires. Her seductive qualities are seen through the method in which she is drawn based on Western ideals of beauty; without context and without her Asian dress, Tokyo Rose in Western clothing would not exude Asian American, but simply a beautiful Caucasian woman. Again, here we see Tokyo Rose as a vessel for imperialism and ultimately a depiction of the “perfect Asian girl” in reference to hegemonic Westernization.

Chin-Kee from "American Born Chinese"
Chin-Kee from “American Born Chinese”
Tokyo Rose from "Heroes without a Country: Tokyo Rose"
Tokyo Rose from “Heroes without a Country: Tokyo Rose” in Shattered

Opposite to the stereotypical depictions encountered, there are Asian Americans in graphic novels portrayed as almost unrecognizable Asian Americans. In an attempt to present an ability to reach a wider, more inclusive audience, the Asian American image is watered down to one that does not do much for the Asian American agenda. In Shattered, this is exemplified through the Asian American college student in “The Regrets We Talk About.” His identity as an Asian American is not seen until we see him lighting incense in front of his grandmother’s picture, his narration telling us that he missed his grandmother’s funeral. His glasses and hair may provide some hint, but he is generally depicted in a racially ambiguous manner. We are not even given an insight into what type of Asian American he may be. His replacement as an African American, Caucasian, or Latino American would not change the storyline in a significant manner, stating that his assimilated identity truly bears no real significance. By diluting the Asian American image to this degree, the Asian American agenda is also watered down, giving in to the hegemony of belonging in a Western society and assimilating into Western culture. In addition, by not distinguishing him as a specific type of Asian American, the Western idea that there is no distinction between Asian Americans takes control.

"The Regrets We Talk About"
“The Regrets We Talk About”

We therefore see that depictions of Asian Americans are predominantly either heavily reliant on stereotypical portrayal (whether that is intentionally or not), or as the Asian American that can essentially stand as any other race, the assimilated hyphenated American. These extremes hurt the Asian American agenda in a way that parallels the method in which many Asian Americans attempt to identify themselves; Asian Americans are not all extremely “Asian,” as depicted through Chin-Kee’s character, nor are they extremely “American” like the Asian American character seen in “The Regrets We Talk About.” The predominant image of an Asian American in graphic novels should be one that establishes a middle ground between these extremes, one that actively and effectively represents the Asian American in a relatable fashion, one that is able to establish parallels to the struggles of Asian American identity. This depiction would fight the stronghold of hegemonic Westernization, providing the balance that is necessary for Asian American identity to be heard. By using these extreme portrayals as a method of depiction, artists unintentionally isolate the audience they are intending to target, and thus fall prey to the hegemonic Western viewpoints of what Asian Americans are and what they should be. Figuratively speaking, Asian Americans lose layers of themselves as they become more assimilated, shedding their “Asian-ness” and heritage, while they gain a thicker and tougher skin than what is true when reverting to racial stereotypes. Either way, the Asian American image is compromised to fit a Western, hegemonic agenda through these extreme methods of portrayal within visual culture, and should be amended in future productions.

1. Yang, Jeff. Shen, Parry. Chow, Keith. Ma, Jerry. Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print.
2. Yang, Gene Luen., and Lark Pien. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. Print.

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