The Growing Agency of Lead Asian American Male Characters in Popular Media

Once reputed to inhabit characteristics pertaining to low culture, comics throughout history have boomed into a multidimensional platform, in which artists and storytellers can create simple to elaborate tales, that has gained recognition as a respected work of art. The entertainment industry has had a long history in producing film adaptations of popular comic book characters, generating more credit towards the work of comic art and storytelling, however, much of the characters becoming popularized in entertainment media are represented by heterosexual white males. As comics become a more widely recognized form of entertainment, the medium also holds accountability for taking part in shaping the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the general public. Much like other forms of mass media, comic books, while often known to depict scenes and figures of science fiction, are still responsible for their representation of our society and the people within it. In the publication titled “Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology” by Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma, viewers of the comic collection are given the ability to see Asian American subjects exercise their agency in a number of ways that the popular culture of comics is not able to depict. Not only do many of the individual comics work to break the stereotypes attributed to Asian Americans and highlight the political and cultural struggles of the ethnic community, the anthology also emphasizes the multitude of cultures within the Asian American population in the United States. Breaking from the hegemonic ethnocentrism of the Western culture, “Shattered” cultivates Asian American figures into ones with active agency, however, highlights one stereotype with the comics’ lack of romance. Despite the collection’s efforts to depict Asian Americans in a way to contrast the portrayal by Westernized media, Asian Americans still stripped of their identities as dominant, sexual figures.

Asian American men hold specific identities within the American culture, which expand from docile nerd to manipulative mastermind. This demographic, however, is rarely illustrated in a romantic light and when they are, the storyline often takes a disappointing turn, as depicted in the comic “The Regrets We Talk About.” The storyline follows the male narrator who meets a girl with common interests and the story alludes to the romantic connection between the two characters, however, the final scenes illustrate the main character being turned down because the girl has a boyfriend. Just like the main protagonist in “Better Luck Tomorrow,” Asian American male characters are often seen chasing after girls rather than immediately winning their affection, as depicted for many heterosexual white male leads. Despite the fact that Ben was able to “get” Stephanie with a kiss, his character endured hardships, awkward moments, and criminal activities to reach that level. In “The Date,” readers are also alluded to the idea that there is a romantic connection between the female and male lead, however, later find out that their stories are not intertwined and realize that the comic ironically gives the readers clues only to shatter their expectations in the end.

Another common depiction of romance amongst Asian American characters in the anthology was one that was initiated or narrated from an Asian American female’s perspective. Asian American women have also held specific identities within the American culture, one being a sexual deviant. While the female characters in “Shattered” were given more dimensionality than that of a sexual deviant, the romance established in certain comics were female-driven and were seen to illustrate Asian American women’s sexuality rather than that of Asian American men. In “Ching Shih: Queen of Pirates,” the romance that was established between the prostitute and the captain of the ship was only maintained through the lethal skills of Ching Shih. While the male character was struggling to fight off his enemies, Ching fought off the enemies with her strength and female presence, shocking an enemy into dropping his sword. She rescues the captain and tends to his injuries, rekindling the romance between them. In another comic, “Heroes without a Country: Tokyo Rose,” readers are again exposed to an element of romance between Asian American characters, however, like the previous comic, the story is told through the female character’s perspective. The larger theme behind the romance was one of idealized beauty amongst women and the story does not revolve around a man’s quest to win Rose’s affection. The readers also see in “A Dream of Flying” a slight romantic connection between two characters, however, it is also seen through the main female character’s point of view. These three comics were the only ones throughout the anthology that depicted romance, however, all three stories were told through a female’s perspective, which still leaves Asian American men as passive and almost invisible individuals within the realm of romance and sexuality.

Asian American male characters in any form of media are often saturated with specifically bounded identities and while “Shattered” offers a unique perspective of Asian Americans that much of the mass media ignores, Asian American men are still heavily depicted as a model minority, a stranger, a threatening menace, or just a guy chasing after affection, but never receiving it. As mentioned earlier, comics even written by fellow Asian Americans are accountable for their depictions of an ethnic community. Asian American men have a history of struggling with their “passive” sexual identity, however, once they can be seen more visibly by the general public, they will be given more agency and the sexual identity that they have been lacking throughout the American cultural history.

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