American Dragon: Jake Long (AD) was an animated series that aired on Disney Channel from 2005 to 2007. It follows the life of Jake Long, a half Chinese boy going through ordinary teenager angsts while having the unique power to change into the American Dragon, who is responsible for protecting New York City. Jake crushes on the beautiful and blonde Rose, who is secretly the Huntsgirl, the American Dragon’s archenemy and dragon slayer. When I was a child, AD was one of my favorite television shows because like Jake, I was an Asian American struggling with growing up. However, in this reflection I found that I took false agency because the show is not empowering to Asian Americans. AD incorporates many aspects of popular culture but ultimately fails to provide agency for Asian Americans, which is especially detrimental because this instills a false sense of hegemonic comprise in children, who will grow up believing that Asian Americans have justice in society.
The AD theme song shows dominance of American culture and inferiority of Asian culture. Rap and hip hop, which are reflective of American culture, carry throughout the song while samples of Asian music are scattered. The samples include the pentatonic scale (0:01), strumming similar to a pipa (0:30), and the gong (0:56), all of which are used in most Chinese music. To avoid such a hegemonic relationship, the Asian music could have been combined throughout the entire song. This cultural inequality is visually confirmed because all the scenes are related to Jake’s life in NYC except the ending scene, which displays the series’ name in short strokes like Chinese calligraphy on the gong.
Extending on issues with visual culture, AD also struggles with being an animated series. A major controversy is the artwork between seasons one and two. The second uses thinner and sharper lines than the first, again resembling Chinese calligraphy and artwork in anime or manga—both of which are Japanese not Chinese, but still Asian. Some fans argue that the new style aids in drawing more fighting scenes, losing beauty to gain economic efficiency. Nonetheless, both styles fail to distinguish Jake as a half Asian, reaching a limitation in visual culture previously discussed. With this generalization, half Asians and full Asians find small agency in AD, but it does not highlight the unique features or experiences of each Asian American identity. Another difference in the artwork is that season two’s American Dragon is skinnier and less muscular. The animators castrated Jake; they castrated Asian American males. Compared to Fresh Off the Boat and All-American Girl, nobody can advocate for Jake who is just a drawing. Sure, there are some Asian Americans voicing the characters, but they come so late in the production that there is not much flexibility in the artwork then.
By removing the once strong American Dragon, Jake is an emasculated man and perpetuates the model minority myth (MMM). He now fights his battles with his mind rather than his muscles. This implies that Asian American men can only be smart and not physically strong. These ideas of totality eliminate the infinities and multiple dimensions of the Asian American identity. Intelligence and strength are not mutually exclusive traits, and both could have been portrayed in the American Dragon. Jake’s castration further perpetuates when he and Rose never ended up happily together. After they discovered each other’s secret identity, their relationship struggled and failed. By coincidence or not, Rose eventually moved to China. This shows Asian American men as being unattractive and unchanging since any character growth made in two seasons was lost. Without Rose, Jake’s life reverted to focusing on school and his duties as the American Dragon, referring back to the MMM and the need to gain acceptance into the American culture. There is no agency for Asian Americans, especially Asian American men, in Jake or AD. Any child who identifies with him is left hopeless with the unsatisfying ending of Rose’s relationship and the series.
It is ambiguous whether AD was created from Disney’s desire to incorporate an Asian American television show or if the dragon aspect was created first, then best explained with the Asian culture, a scapegoat for magical ways. By the limited success for AD to provide agency for Asian Americans, I hypothesize the latter. Agency could have been provided through AD as a television show or its music and artwork; it could have helped half or full Asians and Asian American men; it also could have helped combat the MMM. By having an Asian American character on the channel, Disney Channel looked racially diverse and attempted to please high culture.
Disney is typically approved by parents and well received by children. AD was a television show that aired everyday, and children highly anticipated new episodes every week. Unfortunately, each new episode subconsciously provided kids with distorted ideologies of being Asian American. Children will be unaware of the past and current struggles that Asian Americans face with American culture. They will not know there is a dominance of American culture, inadequacy with drawing different identities, or that Asian American men are castrated then perpetrate the MMM. “Kids are our future,” but if Asian American kids grow up not knowing there are still battles to fight for the community—maybe the battles are not as extravagant as the American Dragon’s in the magical world, but certainly just as important—Asian American kids will sadly have no future.
- American Dragon: Jake Long. Created by Jeff Goode. Disney Channel. 2005. Television.
- Chiu, Monica. “Drawing New Color Lines: Transnational Asian American Graphic Narratives.” Hong Kong, 2015. Web.
- Parrenas-Shimizu, Celine. “The Marvelous Plenty of Asian American Men: Independent Film as a Technology of Ethics.” Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies. Stanford, 2012. Web.
- Lee, Robert G. Orientals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. Print.
As a personal note, I wrote this blog post by first choosing the topic of AD. I found it easier to write about the bad than the good, and now I’m not too sure what good is left. Sure, Asian Americans are visible, but in it’s so shallow and inaccurate. Would temporary bliss have been better? Sometimes, logic can’t trump emotions, point given that I still like this show. I suppose that makes AD my guilty pleasure.